An Unhappy Challenge to Hiring

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about personal relationships and work:

The dilemma I have at work with a colleague is that she developed a companionship (she is married) with an adult male student on placement (in a relationship but recently divorced) during his placement. That became apparent at work, and they showed their closeness as friends at work. Now in the future, we will likely be facing this former student applying for work with us. Do we consider the relationship that has developed and that is still going on now (colleague talks about it at work), or does it not matter?

My concern is that professional boundaries were broken, and I’m not sure how healthy this is. How do we address this with this colleague so she realizes its implications? She did not have a relationship with this student prior to placement – only after he had been at the agency for a few weeks. As her supervisor, I’m not sure how to deal with this, and our Director feels the same way. Help.

Signed, Supervisor

Dear Supervisor:

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us and for the follow-up material that clarified it further. I had some first thoughts, then second thoughts–which I hope will help as you develop a response to this.

1. I sometimes find it helpful in relationship situations to change the details of age and gender as a way to stay objective and to prevent myself from making assumptions. That also helps in developing workplace policies. Not that age and gender don’t make a difference in potential issues! But it is one way to ensure that the overall problem is addressed, not just a specific situation. You do not imply that there is clearly a sexual relationship, only a very close personal relationship. Assuming that you have no proof of anything else, think about this situation if it involved a 31 year old male and a 22 year old female, a 60 year old married female employee and a 22 year old single female student, two single 25 year old males, two married 30 year old females. Would those different scenarios make you feel differently about hiring the intern?What if a man applied for the job and although he is unknown to you, you know he has a very close relationship to a current employee who talks about him a lot? Would that help or hurt his hiring chances? Thinking that way will help you clearly identify what is concerning you about this. At what point did it seem the friendship between Eric (fictitious name) and Deborah (also fictitious) was problematic? Why? What about it now is still bothersome? Is it the tone of conversation the employee has about it or the actual events you know have taken place? If she weren’t talking about it so much would it not seem to be a problem? What would make it seem right again? Is it possible for that to happen? Did he behave in an overly familiar way at work or did she, or both or neither? What if he is hired and the current level of closeness continues? What if one of them stops the current level of friendship? Would that create more problems? What if there is reason to believe they are now involved sexually? Those are all questions that will help you discuss this with your manager and help you be able to justify whatever decision you make, if it is questioned.

2. I also want you to think about the potential liability situation that was present through all of the time Eric was working in your organization. What would have happened if he claimed Deborah pressured him about sex and he felt intimidated because of her status? Could you swear you had no idea such a situation was developing or that there was potential for such a situation? What if Eric said other employees about his relationship made false remarks with Deborah and that created a hostile environment for him? What if she made that claim about office gossip concerning this situation? It would be difficult to defend against such claims, because managers and supervisors knew–and still know–there is some talk about it.

3. I mention those situations to indicate what you probably already know: Something should have been done when the relationship was first starting. Doing something then might have prevented subsequent events and made it possible to hire the former placement student with a clear mind. The nature of interning creates situations in which there is unequal power. Sometimes interns feel obligated to respond to overtures of friendship, sometimes they are grateful for the support, sometimes their egos get a boost from having a friendship with one of the regular employees–and sometimes they manipulate those relationships for their own gain. The other aspect about interns is that they are usually younger–an ego boost for the employee who likes to be seen as youthful enough to attract a college student as a friend–and student interns are sometimes needy emotionally and materially, without the maturity to deal with it. You mentioned details in follow-up that lead me to believe the student may have been very grateful for the friendship of the employee and the employee was and still is flattered by having a younger friend. The fact that the employee continues to talk about it certainly seems to indicate a need on her part. (What she implies with those conversations would be an important point as well.) Eric may have established an equally close relationship with Deborah’s husband. Would that make it better? Every employee is like a supervisor for a student intern. Thus, every policy that would apply to supervisors and employees should apply to employees and interns. And, as you indicate, if no policy exists, one should be developed and discussed not only with employees, but also with each intern candidate.

4. Supervisory and managerial intervention works best when it comes before employee performance or behavior creates serious problems. One indicator that intervention is needed is when there is an unusual level of talk in the office about something. That means the focus is being taken away from work and put on something else. Another indicator is simply when the supervisor or manager feels concerned. That’s reason enough to talk to each person involved and clearly discuss how things appear, why it is a concern and what should change. It is usually embarrassing, but often stops the problem. Often it wakes employees up to how they are being perceived. In this case, the student might have liked to have a reason to say no to the employee! A few years ago, if someone would have had the wisdom to say, “You’re behaving inappropriately, stop it,” we might have escaped months of news stories about an intern and a boss–and several people, including their families, would have escaped the heartache and embarrassment of that situation.

5. Now, to your current problem: If Eric applies for a job, should his friendship with Deborah be a factor in hiring? The answer to that can be found in part in the size of the organization and the likelihood that the two will be working together a great deal–as well as the supervisory-subordinate nature of their relationship in the future. If you think Eric would be a valuable asset to the organization and your only concern is about his relationship with Deborah, you may want to talk first with Deborah, then with him, about the policies related to such things. Don’t be surprised if they point out that no one said anything to them all this time. Your best approach would be to say that you’ve only recently considered how that might create issues. In any event, Deborah should be confronted about the impression she is giving people about her relationship with Eric. In fairness to him and to her, she needs to realize that such excessiveness creates fuel for gossip. She will likely say such false impressions are not her fault. Stick with the issue that your job is to ensure that the focus is on work and anything that detracts from that needs to change–and that you will be talking to the others as well. Keep in mind that she will repeat your conversation to Eric, no doubt. If her performance evaluation hasn’t indicated any concerns, you might say that you wanted to handle it informally at first. (That’s another reason for talking to people right away…they so often use it as a weapon, if you don’t!)

6. If I were in your situation, and everything is precisely as you describe it–a problematically close relationship when Eric was working there, that continues now and is not likely to stop on its own–and there are other applicants who could bring equally good knowledge and skills to the job, I would pass on Eric. And that’s a shame when you realize that the two may have no idea their behavior has created such a storm–and it may be absolutely nothing but friendship. However, you already know that Deborah will show poor judgment, that Eric will go along with it, and that people will talk. Do you think you could control that? Will they? Do you want to start with an employee situation you already have to worry about? 7. The question might also be, how are you going to handle it if you don’t hire Eric? Does your hiring process allow for summary elimination of some applicants or are you required to interview all? If you do not hire, do you need to give a reason? What if the Deborah comes to you and asks why Eric wasn’t hired or interviewed? How well do you know Eric? Do you think it is likely he would want to know why he was passed over if he did a good job while he was there? Those are important issues as well. If you develop a new policy, Deborah is likely going to put two and two together anyway. When you talk to her about her conversations, she’ll also catch on that your hiring decision may have had something to do with that. I think I would only say that the job fit wasn’t right at this time, and that as part of the deliberation you thought of that potential problems that seemed to be developing and are now addressing it for everyone. Whatever you do, your current employee needs to be talked to. It may be that by the time the applicant is interested in a job, the matter will have resolved itself because of time and judgment, but her behavior now is creating concerns that she should know about so she can change. The student may need to change too, but you don’t have control over that at this point. I don’t know if I have helped or only added to the confusion! This is a very difficult situation, since you want to be fair to the applicant but also have an obligation to the organization and other employees. After employees are hired we have more invested in them personally and professionally and sometimes strain to make things work. But at the hiring stage, we need to vote in favor of the organization. If you wish to do so, please let me know how this develops. Best wishes as you respond to this workplace challenge! Working together generates closeness and closeness requires boundaries. Clarity of boundaries coupled with commitment to one’s mission enables interdependence—what we call WEGO.

Tina Lewis Rowe