Will My Husband be Fired if I Tell About His Office Affair?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about whether or not an employer would fire two people who are having an affair. 

Question:
My husband was recently promoted to a high level manager’s position in an industrial plant. He was placed on what is called a hiring panel with the HR manager to recruit and hire new employees. The HR manager is also married.

Shortly after working together and her sending many inappropriate text messages to him all hours of the day/night, he began the affair with her. She recently put him in for a company recognition award which he got.

My question is, if I let corporate management and the plant manager and general manager of the plant know, will they be fired? I have evidence to prove the affair.

I feel this is unethical and a conflict of interest on the HR managers role in this, not taking sides with my husband, for I am pursuing a divorce.

Our Response: I’m very sorry about this situation. I can well understand the sorrow and anger that you have felt and will continue to feel for some time. (It may be that there was some other conflict or problem before the affair, so this was just the last straw.)

I realize you didn’t ask us for counseling about your marriage, but I hope before you finalize your divorce, you will consider whether you and your husband could work together to rebuild your relationship and move forward. That would be especially true if you have children, no matter what their ages. Once the parents are divorced, life is never the same for the rest of the family.

However, whether or not you stay married, there is still the question of should you or should you not tell higher levels of management about the affair between your husband and the HR manager. There are things to consider about both options.

If you decide to notify higher level management, they may or may not think of the situation as a firing offense or even a reason for a sanction of any kind. Your husband and the HR manager worked together, so one was not subordinate to the other. A relationship with a subordinate employee would be viewed more negatively in most businesses and might be considered a firing issue, to avoid later accusations of harassment or intimidation by the senior person over the subordinate.

More than likely, many people already suspect or know that your husband and the HR manager are in a relationship. Some of the people higher up may have such relationships themselves and will not be inclined to risk accusations of hypocrisy if they make a big issue about this situation. (Although, in most businesses, the number one rule is to be discreet—which apparently the HR manager and your husband were not.)

They certainly couldn’t fire one of the two without firing both, so it would be a big decision. I think it is more likely that there would be some reassignments, but even that would be difficult to achieve within the framework of most large companies. The HR manager most likely can’t work anywhere except HR and your husband’s area of work would stay the same. And, from the business viewpoint, the company would lose two managers over something that is not illegal or unethical (since no harassment or intimidation issues are involved.)

On the other hand, higher level managers may decide the two were so indiscreet as to be a risk for other concerns about the business. There may be a viewpoint that they have failed in their leadership for their teams, if everyone is talking about the affair. Further, if they’re meeting in secret at work or engaging in emails, phone calls and texting, while they should be working, their responsibilities may be being neglected.

If there have already been concerns about the work of HR under the manager’s leadership–or about your husband’s effectiveness in his managerial role—higher management could put the blame on the affair and use that as a reason to remove them from their roles or remove them from the business.

Those views are all based on the “ifs” I stated. If both are doing great work and things are going well in their areas of leadership, the views of higher level managers would be much different.  Also, there tends to be a feeling of distaste on the part of managers and executives, about being drawn into such situations, even though they may feel sympathetic to the person notifying them.

As another option, you may want to discuss another approach with your attorney or with some other attorney. According to what state you live in, you may have legal options related to alienation of affections. (It’s an old law, but still used in civil suits on occasion.)

You should also consider if the HR manager could sue you, if she loses her job over a relationship which she could allege was started or encouraged by your husband. Or, she could say she was getting out of the relationship, but your actions ended up causing her husband to divorce her and thus harming her emotionally and financially. If she has children, she could include that in the reasons your actions created harm.

If something you intend to do could end up damaging someone financially or emotionally, it’s always wise to get a legal opinion about what the person on the receiving end could do back to you.

The final thing to consider is the more personal aspects of the decision to tell or not tell. If you hoped to have an amicable divorce, with fair division of property and child support (if any), you will reduce the chances of that happening. Or, you could wait until after all of that has been settled before notifying the workplace. You would probably lose any relationship with your ex-husband (and maybe even with his family), but it might be worth it to you, from the viewpoint of at least temporary emotional satisfaction.

The bottom line is that alerting your husband’s managers to the affair he and the HR manager are having may or may not result in their being fired or sanctioned. I can see reasons why you would feel justified in doing it, but I think you should consider the potential reactions and possible harm to your best interests.

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what action you take and what were the results. I wish you the very best through all of this and hope you will take care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically, as you move through this and find a better situation for yourself in the future.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors