My Business Partners Are Having An Affair

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an affair by business partners: What should we do?

My husband and I are business partners with two other people. One, is a recently married man, I’ll call MM, and the other a single woman I’ll call SW. We’ve had trouble with SW’s job performance and have been doing what we can to help her improve, which is a lot. Her performance is so poor that we would have gotten rid of her had we not liked her so much. Several weeks ago it became apparent that SW & MM were having an affair. We didn’t say anything at first, but I did confront MM with it and he refused to speak at all. He just smiled.

Lately their behavior has been affecting their work performance. My husband and I, (who are the senior partners and who really have the final word) recently had a difficult meeting with SW about her performance which was quite serious. She improved significantly in her efforts, (but not her results) for the next two weeks, but is now back to her old habits.

MM has always done an excellent job, but he is now slacking too, as they are not coming in to the office much. They are both telling us little lies about where they’ve been and what they’re doing in order to make us believe that they’re not spending time together. Obviously this makes us feel like fools, and we have lost trust in both of them.

Until a get together this weekend with several other professionals in our field, my husband and I were likely the only ones aware of the affair. Now there is talk. Ultimately, if there had been no affair, we would likely be letting SW go from the partnership right now as she has had too many chances and is taking advantage of us at this point, but we cannot do that now without risking our relationship with MM. At the same time, I’m so disappointed in MM’s behavior, I don’t trust him anymore. I would like to try to talk to them again as I did with MM, and let them know that we would at least appreciate it if they had enough respect for us to be honest, but I’m not sure that’s enough. What should we do?

Signed, Senior Partner

Dear Senior Partner:

Not sure if talk is enough? Partners need to function by the same rules if they are to have an effective business. Apparently, so far you and your husband have talked more about than to MM and SW. You say that you have evidence of an affair and most recently they are telling little lies to dissuade you from thinking they are together. You already spoke once with the woman as to her poor performance and now you think that the affair is adversely affecting MM’s, or at least that their “little lies” have eroded trust of them both.

What is the fact about an affair is not as important as is the perception that performance of MM and SW is less than desire. We don’t provide legal advice, but you may be facing dissolution of your partnership with SW and/or MM, and if so, that probably hinges on what you put in writing contractually when you set up the partnership. You probably will need the counsel of an attorney.

Will a talk with them be enough to re-establish trust? Probably not because you appear convinced that SW’s performance isn’t satisfactory. Will firing SW resolve the mistrust you have now in MM? It might not. Or after a talk with them both, will that lead to MM once again deserving your evaluation of his performance as excellent? That is problematic.

From here, it’s impossible to predict if you can resolve this amicably. But you will learn from this and so will your junior partners. What they do with their personal lives is only a partnership issue in so much as their romantic behavior has resulted in poor performance and less than optimal success of your business. This isn’t the first or last time an affair upsets the function of a business. Might talk about how your partnership functions have prevented MM and SW from developing an attraction? Probably not.

No do and don’t rules could stop that. However, you might ask if you as a four-member partnership worked as a team and could ever do so in the future? Perhaps you all functioned as a team, a team that each week reviewed and celebrated what you’d done well and honestly confronted what wasn’t. More likely, you each functioned solo until this affair escalated to mistrust. Whatever are the facts of the situation, it will take candid talk and firm decisions to resolve mistrust and poor performance.

Creating do and don’t communication rules about performance is an ongoing process; of what, when, and how those in a partnership meet to plan and manage their day to day, special problems, and long range goals.Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Can you work through this while not destroying a once happy partnership? Can you say to each other what you have been worrying about and saying about each other? Interdependence requires much. Ask the Workplace Doctors doesn’t pretend to know the context and complexities that motivate such questions as you describe, but we and the thousands who read our forum learn from you. If you can see you way clear to do so, please update us on what you do next, what decisions you come to and how they work.

William Gorden