Should Firefighter Coworkers Having an Affair Be Charged with “Conduct Unbecoming”?

Your Question:
My wife and another coworker (Firefighter) not working directly together have been having an affair for the last 1-2 years. I recently confirmed it by getting their text messages and my wife finally admitting to it.

I work for the county government and it should fall into unbecoming of Firefighter. The County uses that when they want to go after an employee for actions done outside the workplace. I submitted the text messages (confirming sexual affair) and my wife is admitting it to them as well as evidence. They responded that this complaint is a private matter. If that is true then they have closed the door on anything anyone does on their time off.

These affairs I have recently found are rampant in my department who does nothing to deter this. If she had an affair with someone outside the department then I understand they are powerless to act. I totally agree that the #1 culprit in my relationship is my wife (separate story). The subject is the workplace on and off duty and the County employer’s obligation when evidence not hearsay or rumors is presented. I understand to move on and continue to do good work. Morally we are lost as a society! What do you think and what actions have been done or can be done?

Response:
Hello and thank you for sharing your concerns with us. I’m sorry about the disappointment, frustration and hurt you are surely feeling right now—and I hope I can provide some information that will be useful. I’m confused a bit about whether or not you also work as a firefighter. You say your wife is involved with another coworker, but I’m not sure if you mean a coworker of yours as well as a coworker of hers. I’m sorry for my lack of clarity on that, but hopefully my response can be adapted to either situation.

I think the response of HR, Professional Standards, or whoever you consulted at the fire department, is what you would hear from any private sector or government organization, given the same set of circumstances. In most workplaces, an affair will be viewed as an unfortunate situation and a matter of poor judgment, but a private matter, not a matter for disciplinary action (sanctions, such as loss of time, money, days off, etc.)

That doesn’t mean no one is concerned or that they will ignore your information completely. However, before charging an employee with “Conduct Unbecoming” and imposing sanctions, an organization has to be certain the action will withstand appeal and that it doesn’t create more problems than it solves. For example, the affair may not be well known now, but it will probably be a newspaper story if disciplinary action is taken or if either of the two people appeal or grieve the disciplinary action.

If an organization is charging two employees with Conduct Unbecoming because the two married people are having an affair, the organization will most likely want to show that:

1.) There is a rule or policy prohibiting two equal-level employees from having a personal or intimate relationship, or a reasonable expectation that the employees would know their actions in having an affair are prohibited by ethical standards.

2.) There is a link between the affair and work effectiveness–or at least there is a strong potential for problems involving work. (If you are also working there, this would be the most likely concern.)

3.) The public conduct of the couple involved is such that a reasonable person would consider it to be incompatible with the standards and ethics of the profession.

4.) Almost all other similar situations in the organization have resulted in charges of “Conduct Unbecoming” and there have been similar sanctions imposed.

Given those criteria, the issue of workplace romances or affairs is nearly always treated as a non-disciplinary matter. There are three common exceptions:

1.) If one of the couple is a higher rank and has direct organizational authority over the other.

2.) If the affair has had an effect on work and/or on other employees (not doing work correctly, malingering, behaving with a lack of decorum when they have been–or potentially could be—observed, using organizational equipment, especially issued phones and computers, to send sexual images or blatantly sexual messages, etc.).

3.) If one or both of the people makes the situation known publicly without regard to the effect on others or on the organization (like posting things on Facebook).

I have heard “Conduct Unbecoming” described in various ways, but it always tends to start with actions that would be shocking, disrespectful, insubordinate, unethical, outrageous, notorious or embarrassing to the entire organization. I haven’t seen a case where two colleagues who were having a semi-discreet affair were charged with Conduct Unbecoming. (There could be plenty of examples of it, I just haven’t been told about any.)

As I mentioned, the fact that you were told that the fire department considers the matter to be private and not subject to departmental discipline, does not mean that absolutely nothing will be done. The matter of extramarital affairs—workplace or otherwise—is concerning to most organizations. They know that domestic violence can end up at the workplace. They realize that work often suffers when an employee is preoccupied with the drama of an affair. There is also the worry about what might happen when the affair falls apart or when divorce proceedings become very contentious. Suicides and homicides both have occurred. As a result, many police and fire organizations have a policy that even private matters such as affairs and divorces should be considered for supervisory intervention in the form of brief work counseling, referral to EAP counseling and increased observation.

Thus, a ranking person may, unbeknownst to you, have a documented talk with our wife and the other firefighter about the potential for problems in a workplace relationship. A supervisor or commander may discuss concerns about potential domestic violence involving them and both of their spouses—including you. It could be that both employees will be warned about not letting the situation have an effect on work. For example, they may be directed to limit phone calls, emails and texts to lunch and break times or when off duty.

Another thing to keep in mind is that no matter who you talked to at the fire department or in the county HR, by now it has been passed along to everyone above your wife and the other firefighter. Supervisors and commanders will be more alert than before to watch for problems with the behavior or performance of either of them. It may be that something that had not seemed like a problem before, will be seen differently now.

From a cynical perspective, maybe none of those things will happen and the only response will be some gossip, since rarely can anyone keep something like that a secret—especially if you showed them evidence. For all you know, the people who would have to approve action about this matter realize they can’t very well sanction something for which they are also known. However, I tend to think there will be some department involvement of some kind. The liability factor alone would probably cause them at least talk to the two about this matter. After all, one spouse has complained, the other spouse may know about it too, the couple and you are both working for the same county, there could be a crisis at some point—and your department will want to say they did all they could to warn about it and encourage good judgment by the two employees for which they are responsible.

On this site we hear about workplace affairs from teachers, medical professionals, church workers, police and fire personnel, restaurant employees, real estate offices, the military and employees (or the spouses of employees) in business and industry. Apparently workplace romances or relationships happen in almost every kind of work. There is certainly always a potential for it—especially when the work is such that coworkers feel emotionally connected. There is nothing more compelling that the feeling that someone you already find appealing is part of the drama and emotions of a challenging job. For many people in those settings, a dramatic work event stirs an emotional and physical response that is easily mistaken for passion, romance, affection or love.

An acquaintance who is a paramedic told me he respects a female paramedic with whom he works and he values her knowledge and skills. However, he said, every time they have a particularly intense situation, he tries to not be alone with her or to hang around after work if she is still there. He said, “She’s no temptation at all on a regular day. I just think of her as a great colleague. But, when we’ve had a nerve-racking call, I swear it’s like she becomes the Goddess of All That is Fascinating.”

He told me he doubts that she would agree to anything he might suggest, but the easiest thing for him to do is to not be in a situation where he can suggest anything! He’s not married and I don’t know if she is, but I admire him for his recognition that the feelings he occasionally has are temporary. I also know that women can, just as easily as men, mistake a psychological need for a physical one and emotional excitement for infatuation and love. I think every training program for occupations that have such situations, should include several blocks of instruction about how to deal with those feeling—and reminders that using poor judgment about them can ruin careers, marriages, and families.

The Bottom Line: You let officials at the fire department know about the affair between your wife and another firefighter. It seems to you that it should be considered Conduct Unbecoming, but apparently the decision-makers at the fire department do not think it fits the criteria for that charge. The fire department may still take action, but you may not find out about those things. They may even change their minds about whether or not it should be considered Conduct Unbecoming. Whatever they do, it will be an internal disciplinary matter and they will want to feel they decided on their own and were not pressured into it.

It seems that the best thing you can do at this point is, as you suggested, keep moving on and continue to do good work. Work stability should always be protected.  If you work there also, the situation adds a very uncomfortable component for everyone who knows about it. It would be a good thing for you to talk to your supervisor and assure him that you are able to separate your private life from work–and that you can be depended upon to work effectively with all employees, all the time.

You and your wife will need to decide about your future together. If the two of you stay together, and I hope you do if that is a good thing for both of you, you may be able to help your wife identify her feelings accurately—and help her develop ways to redirect her thinking and keep it focused on work and the relationships that mean the most to her—her marriage and family. Professional counseling can certainly benefit each of you and both of you together. Of course, if you have children, they should be the main focus for both of you. It’s quite possible to have even very upsetting problems but to shield children from any negative comments or attitudes.

All of these thoughts were based on general situations and not all of it may apply to your specific one. Perhaps you can use it to give you some additional perspectives and help you develop a personal plan of action. You can be an example to others of buoyancy and resiliency in a situation where it could be easy to react badly or to become mired in anger and vengefulness.

Best wishes to you! If you have the time or wish to do so, let us know how you handle things and how it turns out.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors