There are Affair Rumors About My Husband and a Co-Worker. Can HR Help?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to handle a situation
in which there are affair rumors about two people who travel together.
Can HR do anything to help? 

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I found out (rumors only) from many people that my husband who is a manager is having an affair with a coworker. She doesn’t report to him, but they work on many projects together. One of the things on how this got started was their continually texting each other (company paid phones) and travel trips together. Is there anything HR can do? As an ethics situation, can one or both be removed from working together? We all work for the same company. My work has been declining as I am so stressed over the situation.

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Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. I can imagine how distressed you feel about this situation. The fact that you work there also would make it doubly difficult. Here are some things to consider about it:

1. Do not let your own work decline. I understand the challenges of staying focused, but right now the one solid and positive thing you can rely on is that you have a job for which your knowledge and skills are respected. Even though others might realize the cause of your distress, the work must be done to a high standard, both quantity and quality. They will soon lose their respect for your professionalism and ability to deal with life’s issues, if you are not doing the work for which you’re being paid.

In fact, this is the time to be at your best, as much as you can. If you have a desk area, straighten it up, clean it up and organize it and get yourself in the mind-set of working, rather than investigating, wondering, checking and thinking sad thoughts. Check yourself as to your appearance, demeanor and responsiveness to others. Now is the time to be empathetic about what others might be going through—and almost everyone has something they’re dealing with. If you are a manager or supervisor, focus on the development of those who report to you. If you are not a manager or supervisor, think of what you can do to ensure you’re viewed warmly and supportive.

What do you want them to say about you, if this issue is discussed? How do you want to be perceived? Keep those positive images as your goal and live up to them. You will probably have to pretend, act differently than you feel and put on a good face when you don’t feel that way inside. But that is what keeps us going when we have sadness or discouragement.

2. If you have a source for counseling, take advantage of it and seek advice close to home about how you might handle this situation. Someone who can talk to you face to face and hear the details of your concerns, may be able to guide you much better than we can—although we will certainly try to assist.

3. Keep in mind that, as you indicated, unless someone has seen your husband and the coworker doing something sexual or physical, the affair may only be a rumor. Even if they have exchanged many text messages, emails and phone calls, their relationship may be more of a fantasy than a reality. For that matter, unless someone has seen a text acknowledging a relationship, even exchanging many text messages may not indicate anything.

The travel situation also may have produced unfounded affair rumors. Anytime a man and woman travels together, there is a chance for a sexual relationship, but that doesn’t mean it has happened. There will, however, nearly always be rumors, if the two people seem to enjoy each other at work as well.

I have talked to several women and men who have had verbal and written semi-relationships. They wrote some torrid things, talked about sex, discussed how great it could be, etc. etc., but never did anything about it. I don’t think it’s right to talk about it in that way if you’re married, but at least it didn’t result in a physical connection. Even if it seems obvious, it may not be so.

4. This is a big thing: The fact that you would hear the rumors shows that some people are very, very inconsiderate. I would never, on my darkest day, tell a woman that I suspected her husband of playing around. Why would anyone who cared about you do that? So, this could be malicious gossip designed to harm the woman being talked about or your husband or you, rather than anything truthful.

Do not encourage any further gossip. Don’t pry information from people or let it be known that you want to keep up on what seems to be happening. There is no workplace that is improved by such gossip—and it empowers people to continue and feel prideful about it.

If you are going to HR about anything, I think it should be to complain about the gossiping that is going on and that is harming your work!

5. The bottom line is that you do not know if the affair rumors are true and the only person who you should be talking to about them right now is your husband. Before you involve the company or HR, which would inevitably further spread the gossip and potentially harm your husband’s career and the career of the other employee, why not talk to your husband and tell him what you have heard?

Ask your husband to voluntarily stop traveling with the woman who is part of the rumor. You may want to ask him to show you his phone so you can see the text messages. Or, if you’d rather give him a chance, don’t ask to see it, just tell him of the rumors and that apparently text messages have been seen.

There is nothing to be gained by not discussing this with your husband and the very fact that you talk to him about it may scare him into stopping anything that is or looks inappropriate. It will also open up the door to talking about why you have a trust issue with him in the first place and why he might be involved with someone.

6. Think about what might happen if you go to HR about this, rather than talking to your husband:

*It will make your husband very angry and embarrassed, so reconciliation, whether or not he had done anything wrong, would be almost impossible.
*It could cost him his job—which wouldn’t be good for you or for your family, if you have children.
*It could harm the career of the other person unfairly—and she might have enough to justify a civil case against you for slander.
*It will make you look vengeful, rather than looking like someone who wants to solve a problem and keep her marriage together.

7. What do you want to see as the outcome of this?
*Do you want to find out the truth? If you do and you find out the rumors are true, then what? Do you plan on getting a divorce or requiring your husband to go to counseling or what?
*If you find out the rumors can’t be prove one way or the other, then what? Will you just move forward or insist on some changes anyway?
*If you find out the rumors are completely false, what will you do then? Will you ask for action to be taken against those who spread the false rumors? How will you justify your suspicions to your husband after his name is mentioned in that way?

8. All of those thoughts bring me to my overall suggestion. First, talk to your husband. Tell him what you’ve heard and let him know that you love him and want your marriage to survive this. (If that is the way you feel.) Ask him for an explanation of the things he has been accused of doing with the coworker. Tell him you want him to stop traveling with the employee out of town, at least for the next few months, and you want him to stop texting her about anything but required work information.

I expect he will hear the unspoken, “or else” in all that you say.

It’s at this point that I most think you need some more knowledgeable counsel. I don’t think anyone would suggest you contact HR about this. But, if you could discuss all the details with someone who could understand your situation better, you might be able to determine what to do if your husband denies all of the affair rumors but refuses to stop traveling with and texting his coworker. It may be that he will say it is a requirement of is work and he can’t stop. Or, he may simply say he won’t be ruled by rumors. Or he may stop but may still stay in contact in other ways.

It seems to me that the only time to contact HR would be if you’ve given up on the marriage and you just want to make sure the company knows about their behavior. That would be understandable, but it would be the last action not the first.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. Feedback lets us gain knowledge and insights we can share with others.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors