Boss involved with co-worker

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an affair of the boss and a coworker: She is not his direct report and they are both married. I do not know (nor do I wish to know) if they are having a physical relationship. They spend hours a day together, often behind closed doors.

My boss is becoming involved with a co-worker (let’s call her “Betty” which is not related in any way to her actual name). She is not his direct report and they are both married. I do not know (nor do I wish to know) if they are having a physical relationship. They spend hours a day together, often behind closed doors. It has become a very uncomfortable situation for me (and another co-worker) because:

1) I cannot have a conversation with my boss without him including Betty in the conversation. This behavior often includes random comments that do not pertain to the conversation (i.e.: “this piece of chocolate made me think of Betty”) and in several cases involved him calling her on his phone and inviting her to his office for candy in the middle of our conversation.

2) I cannot have a conversation with either one of them without the other one showing up.

3) My boss is very vocal about demands on his time. He makes sure we know he is very busy and it is very difficult to schedule time with him. He will ignore my requests for meetings to discuss sponsor needs, but will spend hours a day with Betty (the workload does require some contact between them, but nowhere near the level of time they spend together).

In addition, he will summon me to his office to discuss business, but will abruptly dismiss me when she shows up (and she ALWAYS shows up) with a “joking” comment along the lines of: “you leave so I can spend time with Betty” or “Come on in, Betty – I’m done with her anyway” (I am also female).

4) Occasionally he will actually try to treat me as his “wingman” and will ask me questions that are thinly veiled overtures to Betty such as: Doesn’t Betty look pretty in that shirt? (while Betty is present). This behavior is being noticed by (and impacting) other co-workers, but for some reason I seem to be exposed to more of it than other employees. I am friendly with both individuals, but have made it clear I have no interest in being part of their relationship.

I have reached a point where if I am interacting with one of them and the other one shows up, I find something pressing to do elsewhere. I have no interest in “reporting” on either one of them, but would like some advice on how I can deal with the impact this is having on me personally and professionally. I am not in a non-business relationship with either one of them, but it still impacts me on a personal level because it is incredibly insulting to have my boss create situations in which he can verbally express his personal preferences. I know he “likes her the best”, but holy cow, does he have to call me to his office to say it?

Keep in mind, I am not asking him who he prefers…it’s pretty obvious! Having someone with power over your career progression say stuff like that on a regular basis does not help self confidence! On a professional level: not having access to my boss on projects which require his input is making my job very difficult. It is extremely frustrating to sacrifice personally to complete a project on time, and then miss a deadline because he can’t possibly make time for a five minute conversation. It’s making me kind of bitter, and I really don’t need the added stress. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this in a professional manner? Ideally, none of this would bother me on any level (it’s none of my business what other people do in private), but unfortunately this is not the case. I do not expect my Boss and Betty’s behavior to change, but I would like to keep this from affecting my job. Thanks in advance for any advice.

Signed, Odd Woman Out

Dear Odd Woman Out:

This would certainly be very frustrating and irritating. There are so many dynamics involved that there is no easy answer. But, you certainly need to do something definitive to insulate yourself from the potential bad results of it.Here are some of those potential bad results:

1. If there is a policy against an inter-office relationships of this sort and you know about it, your judgment in never saying anything could be questioned when it all comes to light, as it will.

2. When Betty gets tired of your boss or of the situation or he gets angry with her and acts it out at work, and she complains of sexual harassment, you will be a star witness for her and your role will come out then.

3. What Betty’s boss questions the situation or when something else happens, you will be the star witness used by both your manager and Betty to prove that nothing wrong took place.

4. When those who are ultimately responsible for the projects on which you have missed deadlines complain, it is you who the complaint will be about, and your manager will not tell the truth about his lack of help.

5. If your manager decides you could create a problem for him or if he simply becomes embarrassed at the fact that you have witnessed him showing bad judgment, he may decide to use any issues to downsize your job out of existence or replace you.

6. If you don’t say or do anything, this will get worse and you’ll feel even more frustrated and bitter. When it really becomes intolerable and you finally explode over it your boss will ask why you didn’t say something sooner. That is when it may be considered best for you to be moved elsewhere.

7. At the very least, you will waste day after day feeling the way you do, but knowing you have never done anything to make it better.Let me suggest some possible responses, which you can adapt to your situation.First, I think you will benefit by sorting out what your main concern is. You say it is that your work is suffering, but you also imply that you feel like second place to Betty. Put that out of your mind if you can. Your boss is not an effective one or he wouldn’t be acting as he is. So, his opinion, while perhaps important for your career progression, is certainly not a valid one for your strong personal consideration.

1′.The least confrontational way to deal with this is to continue doing as you have tried to do and ensure that your role in this is not supportive.
*Don’t smile or act as though you understand the situation when he and Betty want to get together.
*Say something in protest when you aren’t finished talking to him yet and she comes in the room. Something basic will work, “Jim, I’m sorry, but we’re not done with this yet and I need more input from you on it. I can’t leave yet and we have to hammer out the details or I’ll miss the deadline.”
*Put it in writing and have documentation of your efforts to get together with him. “Jim, I would like to meet with you at 9 a.m. I need about ten minutes of uninterrupted time to get some guidance on a project that is due next week.” You say that he is very strict about his schedule, so you could perhaps set up appointments and use that as a reason you can’t leave. “As I told you, I need at least a total of ten minutes.” In other words, don’t make it so easy for your manager to shut you out to the point that you can’t do your work.

2′.Don’t support his inappropriate comments to you–and that is what they are. You do realize, I’m sure, that you have the potential for a sexual harassment situation here, since you are having to endure a workplace that is permeated with references to gender issues. It’s awkward and its embarrassing. I’m not suggesting that you make such a complaint, but you sure as heck shouldn’t encourage the actions. And, you can appropriately remind him of the consequences.When he says something inappropriate like, “This reminds me of Betty” or, “I was just noticing Betty’s outfit” or whatever, stop him. In a firm but friendly tone of a helpful close employee say, “Jim! That kind of comment could get you and me both in big trouble! I’ve never said anything before now, but really, you go way too far with those kind of remarks. I don’t like it. Stop it.” If your relationship is not that comfortable you might say, “Mr. Miller, I honestly have to tell you that remarks like that embarrass me and I wish you wouldn’t make them.”When he tries to drag you into the conversation with things like, “Doesn’t Betty look nice today?” don’t go along with it. Show your displeasure in a civil way. THAT is when you can leave. Shake your head and say, “That’s my exit line.” Or do something similar to show that you don’t want to be part of it. Don’t smile and don’t act like you think it’s funny.

3′. Keep your focus on your work and treat this as though it was not gender based. For example, if this was a guy friend of his and they talk about golf and push you out. You still have to get your work done, so how would you handle it? Probably like the suggestion in #1, you would assert your need to get work done.You also would see that there is a need to make sure you can show you are doing your best work in spite of this. Don’t give anyone ammunition for saying you aren’t trying or that you are using this as an excuse. I’m sure you ARE doing a great job, but this is the time to make sure that is obvious.

4′. You don’t mention how close a relationship you have with your manager and how comfortable you feel talking directly to him. It seems that he feels very comfortable talking to you! So, I think the best approach is the most direct one. Talk directly to your manager and let him know what you have observed, how it makes you feel and the negative effect it is having on your work. Then let him respond. No matter what he says to the contrary, stick with your statement that the current situation is not working and you can’t get your work done this way. If you have a good working relationship, you can do that in a courteous and appropriate way, given your respective positions in the company, but still be firm about it. Don’t include anything at all about feeling that he is making it clear he is her favorite or whatever. That would put it into an issue of jealousy rather than keeping it on the negative impact on work.

5′. I don’t think it would be effective to talk to Betty because if it embarrassed her she would talk to your boss and he might retaliate in some way. 6. If dealing with him directly doesn’t work, you have a choice about whether to do nothing or do something more aggressive. The more aggressive thing would be to talk to an HR contact, especially if there is a policy violation. Ask for advice about how to handle it, but make it plain that you can’t continue as it is now. Or, if you know the manager over your manager, you may have to talk to him. You can bet he would say later, if something goes wrong, that you should have.The advantage of the HR or higher manager contact is that if your boss decides he doesn’t like your new assertiveness about it, you can protect your job better if you can show you have tried to do the right thing.

The bottom line on all of this is that if you are in a professional setting and your work product is being harmed, you should do something about it. At the very least you should stop supporting their behavior by your lack of action or your tacit approval.As I said at the beginning, there are many dynamics involved in this and I don’t know all of them: How long has this been going on? What about Betty’s manager? What about the other employees? What if your relationship with your manager is not friendly to begin with? What if there have been other concerns? What about your relationship with Betty? What about the manager who is over your manager, doesn’t he notice? Those are all things that come into play in a situation like this. But, as long as you keep your focus on simply doing what it takes to get your own work done and protect your work reputation, you know you are on the right path.Don’t discuss this with other employees except in a problem-solving way if they bring it up.

You certainly never want it said that you were spreading rumors or implying wrong doing other than misuse of work time.But, at the same time, keep in mind that if trying to deal with this by communicating with your manager doesn’t work, you are going to have to either go to the person above him or go to HR.This is so challenging that I hope you will keep us informed of what happens with it. I’m sure you have all the skills needed to handle it, you just need to feel personally convinced that you’ve tolerated it too long already and have to stop the negative impact on you.Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.