Question: I work with a woman who I have discovered is having an affair with my husband and assisted him in moving out of my house. I have filed divorce papers and he is hiding and living with her. She is making my work life horrible as well. We sit on the same team and she undermines and questions all my actions. What can I do?
Response: I can certainly understand how this would be an upsetting and stressful situation. There are three aspects of it—how you can continue to be a strong employee, how your supervisors and managers can deal with the current and potential negative affects on work, and how you can find personal peace, at work and at home, as you move through the divorce process and move beyond it, to a new and better life.
I think you would be wise to find a professional counselor who will help you focus on the three things mentioned above. A trained person would be able to give you more specific guidance and would be available on an ongoing basis.
Here are some initial things to consider as you develop a personal plan for being your best self at work, even in this very challenging situation:
Focus on excellence in your work. You may decide you don’t want to stay working there. Or, if you have the option, you may decide to move to another team. But, if you want or need to stay exactly where you are, be the employee who impresses everyone with your strength in adversity. Reinforce your current skills and ensure top-notch performance all the time. In addition to protecting your job you will be more likely to gain the support of managers and supervisors if your coworker tries to undermine you.
Talk to your supervisor or manager about it and ask for assistance. Your supervisor or manager may already know about the situation. They should certainly be concerned if work conflicts have an affect on your effectiveness in your team. They should also be aware of the potential for a wide range of harmful situations in cases like this. If not, remind them.
One of the main things to be concerned about is the distraction a situation like this can cause for everyone in the office, even the supervisors. Both of you (to show fairness) should be counseled about it and told to not discuss the matter with other employees, not talk on cellphones about it where others can hear and not use company time or equipment for legal or personal communications related to the situation.
Another thing to be concerned about is the reduction of effectiveness if either of you feel your efforts are being blocked by the other person. If you have specific examples of that, put it in writing and let your supervisor know about it.
A final thing that often sounds melodramatic but is a harsh reality, is that situations such as this can lead to workplace violence, from physical attacks to sabotage of work spaces or dirty tricks that can affect the business, just to create problems for a coworker.
Some things to discuss with your supervisor and manager: Let them know the timeline for your divorce, your commitment to not letting the situation harm your work effectiveness, and your need for their assistance, to at least keep an eye open for actions by the coworker that create added stress. Let them know that you will document anything that is clearly an effort to create problems for you.
Make a personal commitment to be effective within the conflict. There has to be cooperation and give and take, even among friends at work. It is also possible for people who dislike each other very much to work acceptably together. It isn’t optimal, but it can be done.
For example, your coworker may express disagreement with you without it being completely motivated by her attitude about you. One way to handle it is to consider if others agree with her. If they do, she is merely voicing what others are thinking about your suggestion or your approach to a work problem. She might be delighted to have the chance to do it, but it’s not all her idea.
If she says something negative or critical, take a breath and keep calm about it. If there are others present, pleasantly ask, “How do the rest of you see it?” Or, “What are your thoughts?” If no one else is present, keep calm and say that you’ll talk to a few others to get their thoughts.
You do not need to try to act friendly with your coworker, but you should be civil in your tone of voice and maintain office pleasantries, so others aren’t made stressful by the situation. Don’t talk to her about your personal issues and don’t gossip about her to others. If that has happened already, just don’t continue it and keep everyone focused on work.
The bottom line: There is no doubt about it, you are going through quite a test of your strength, confidence and resilience. But, at some point you will be divorced legally from your husband. If you have children, their well-being is paramount. Your job and the financial support it provides is also a priority. Your health and emotions are also crucial. Self-care and self-awareness will give you a strong foundation for building a better life that includes happiness and effectiveness in all of those areas.
Best wishes to you through this. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know how you deal with it and what worked the most effectively for you.
Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors