Employee Affair Causing Hostile Environment

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about manager flaunting an affair:

I work in the production department of a large firm in Western Maryland. A high-ranking corporate executive (who is married) is having an affair with one of my married colleagues. They flaunt their relationship within our workplace and act like honeymooners to the disgust of many of us. They have created an extremely uncomfortable and hostile work environment in our area.

The corporate manager having the affair has warned us continually not to talk to others or to his wife about this behavior, and has even asked us to cover up certain things (like removing records) to protect him. He yells at us and we feel that our jobs are in jeopardy if we say anything to others or refuse to help him. Several of us asked the company CEO to step in and help us out, but instead we found out that he is their friend; fully supports the affair; and has actually been facilitating and enabling their relationship from the beginning. His other corporate manager friends are doing the same (some for fear of their jobs as well). They don’t seem to care about the disruptions they are causing others. I don’t know what to do. Help.

Signed, Disgusted

Dear Disgusted:

When some issue at work seems to be unsolvable, I suggest four first steps on the road to individual decision-making about employment at that workplace. Before we look at those though, I’ll mention our usual comment in these cases: If you think you have a legal or civil issue that requires an attorney, call and ask for a free consultation. Most attorneys will provide such a consultation as a way to give you preliminary advice about whether or not you have the potential for a case. Before you talk to an attorney–or instead of talking to an attorney–you may want to consider the four evaluative steps described here:

1. Write down the things that are creating the most work, mental and emotional problems for you. List either very specific or general activities that are frustrating, angering, disgusting or shocking to you. Then, next to those items, list the impact it has on your work and your life, and why. The examples of questions that follow may sound like a cross examination. But they really are at the heart of this issue and need to be answered. If you have immediate answers that you think would stand the test of an employment hearing or a trial, that’s a good sign. If you don’t, that’s an indication that you may not have a strong case for action at any level.Among the questions:
*What is it that is bothering you about this? This is a key point. Is it that you don’t approve of extra-marital affairs, or that the way this one is being conducted is creating personal and professional problems for you? If it was happening, but you didn’t see any evidence of it, then would it no longer be an issue? If it was happening in another section, but not yours, and no one there complained, would you still want something done about it? Is it a legal concern, a moral concern, a work environment concern, a personal concern related to your mental or emotional well-being, or a work product concern?*What can you prove? Be certain about this! You say they act like honeymooners. Clearly they aren’t having sex in front of people. I doubt they are kissing in front of people or even holding hands and staring starry-eyed at each other. So, what are they doing that you can prove?

This also applies to the statements about the executive warning people. Did he put that in writing? What exactly did he say verbally? Did he say, “I’ll fire you if I hear you’ve mentioned my affair with Mary.” Or, did he say, “Hey, what happens at the office, stays at the office, OK?”Who did he tell you not to tell and when and how did he do it? If the CEO knows and doesn’t care, and other managers know and don’t care, who is left that could do anything about it? That might give you a hint as to who you need to tell!What records did he remove, and why was it wrong to do so? What did they protect? Who would be the most upset to know about it? How could they person find out?*What is it about the behavior of the two people that prevents you from doing your work effectively? Does it really prevent you from working, or does it primarily make you dislike this particular workplace or make you preoccupied with something other than work? Is there a lot of gossip about it? Does that gossip get in the way of effectiveness. Could employees do less of it? Have they tried to focus on work and not gossip about the affair?
*Does the yelling that is done by the executive involve personal insults and/or threats of violence, or is it an angry outburst related to work? Would a reasonable employee find it intolerable to work due to the number and frequency of these times of yelling, or is it tolerable, though upsetting and angering on occasion? Is the yelling frequent or infrequent? *Do the two people make overt sexual remarks in the workplace? Do they make gestures or touch in a way that is designed to simulate sex or to create a sexual environment? Is the workplace permeated with conversation about sex or gender issues? If so, who does it–the executive involved or employees?
*What specifically impacts you personally so that you feel threatened, worried, depressed or unable to work?*Have you been asked to conceal law violations, or have the things you have been asked to conceal related solely to work rules? What written rules and policies have been violated–and can you prove it? How have you been asked to conceal it, and what did you do or say when asked?*If this is a publicly traded company, do you have proof of a violation of laws and regulations related to that issue?
*What would happen if you complained or if you questioned the situation? Does the company have a hiring and firing process, or could you be fired on the spot by your boss, without any review? Has anyone been fired or disciplined solely because they have expressed concern about this? The reason this step of writing down what bothers you and what impact it has on work and your personal well-being is so important is that it gets to the real issues involved. These are the kind of questions you would be asked if you made a complaint about a hostile work environment. They are also the kind of questions that separates two issues: Are you truly unable to continue working with things the way they are, or do you want a change at work, but if you have to you can tolerate things the way they are.

2. The second step is to list what would make it right from your perspective as an employee. What would make it where you could resume your focus on work? This is important as well, because it helps you think through what changes are needed–and you can evaluate whether or not those changes are likely.Do you want both people fired? Do you want their relationship to end? Do you want them to stop certain physical or verbal actions in the office? I ask employees to pose the same questions about other situations that I advise supervisors to consider about work issues: What do you want to see stay the same? What do you want more of? What do you want less of? What do you want to stop and never occur again?After you consider that, ask yourself who can make those things occur? In this case, is there someone who has decision-making or disciplinary authority other than the CEO? Or, is there something that would get the attention of the CEO so much that he would change his mind about not being concerned over the issue?Is there any part of the list that employees can achieve on their own, about their own work or their own actions, or about the work or actions of others? For example, they may not be able to stop the situation, but they might be able to develop a better work environment through closer interactions, employee councils, more active appreciation for each other, etc.

3. The third step is to list what you and others have done so far and what were the results. You say someone asked the CEO to help. But that could mean someone, while talking about something else, hinted around that they thought the office romance was a problem, and the CEO sort of laughed it off.Really going to the CEO means writing a memo with specifics and asking for an HR and managerial investigation and a chance to be interviewed about the negative impact of the affair. This may be done anonymously (not my preferred method) or directly and with multiple signatures.This question of what has been done so far is another one that is routinely asked by attorneys. The general guideline is that while employees do not have to show they have taken a vast number of actions to try to solve a problem, they need to show they have done something specific, other than casually mention it then wait to see if something is done.

4. This step ties in with #3. It is to decide how far you are willing to go to either bring about a change or remove yourself from a bad work environment.Sometimes this step, combined with #3 is the one that encourages employees to write things down and either send it anonymously or take it to Human Resources or similar units, and ask for an investigation and assistance.But HR does not represent the employees, it is a unit of the organization. So, the person you talk to is likely most interested in rules and policy violations, not just that employees are disapproving of an office romance. HR would also want to know if there were overt sexual remarks or other issues that might place the company in a position of civil or legal liability.

If your organization has a legal adviser, that person is another resource, and a place to send a written complaint.If your company has a board of directors, that would be another place to send a letter with evidence of wrong doing that impacts the company. Is there an executive at any level who would champion your cause? One place to look is at another executive who would like to weaken the position of the one you are frustrated with! That’s just reality. But, it might be that someplace, somewhere in the organization, someone would be concerned about specific wrong-doing and want to make it right.

They likely wouldn’t care about an extra-marital affair, but they would care if it impacted the financial or organizational well-being of the company. Are employees in your section concerned enough that they would threaten to quit en masse if things don’t improve? Would you quit? Dr. Gorden often talks about “voting with your feet” to say that sometimes a workplace is so bad an employee needs to leave it.You’ll notice I don’t mention telling the wife or husband of the people involved. That’s because the issue here is not the affair outside of marriage. That happens in many workplaces, and you don’t know the whole situation. No good would come from telling the spouses.The issue here is on the workplace and whether or not people can work effectively and enjoy work, with things the way they are.Check around and see if there are some employees who are tolerating this well and who don’t see it as a problem. Maybe there are more of those than you realize. If everyone feels very strongly, then you will have a lot of support to try to take action.

But the bottom line will be–what action is required from your viewpoint, and what is likely to happen? You may find you will need to wait this out. Or, you may find you will have to take it on. Or, you may need to quit and go to another workplace where things are managed better.I know this has been a long missive, but I wanted you to have some ways of thinking about the situation that will help you make a decision about your plan of action. Answering those questions will help you decide if you have something significant to take to some level, and if it is worth it to you to do something about it.I hope this has been helpful. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. 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.