Vice President sleeping with a subordinate

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a long-time affair: How much hot water would I be in if I bring this to the attention of the President of the company? I too am a VP but not of the same department.

It was brought to my attention that the Vice President of our company has had an off again on again relationship with an employee for 20 years. This employee has been a problem, but never seems to get reprimanded. It is a small business of 50-55 people. How much hot water would I be in if I bring this to the attention of the President of the company? I too am a VP but not of the same department.

Signed, Reporting on a VP?

Dear Reporting on a VP?:

If what you say is a fact; that a VP has been sleeping with an employee off and on for 20 years; you know that this is a general rumor in your workplace. Does it affect what gets done? The “slept with” employee, you say, is a less than a productive employee. So you have two problems in your workplace and maybe three:

1. A superior/subordinate rumored affair results in favoritism and possibly a sexual harassment charge if the affair goes sour.

2. An employee who doesn’t do her/his share or is troublesome in some way.

3. Scuttlebutt of favoritism that generates general dissatisfaction.

You have several options, one that you ask about: informing the President of your small company. Let’s think this option through first. Will you get in hot water if you tell? The answer to that is probably “Yes”. The fact of telling on a fellow VP certainly will result in you wondering if the VP suspects you were the one who reported the affair. That can’t be something you want to have rumbling in your head from time to time, “Does or doesn’t the VP know I told?” And should you need something from the VP, you will wonder if that she/he suspects you and therefore will not cooperate with you. Moreover, you will worry that the President will see you as “out to get a fellow VP in trouble”. So the answer to this first option is implied in your worry about getting into “hot water”.

A second option is to confront the VP about the rumor or fact of an off/on again affair, (I’ll call this VP Kim and the employee Jan) “Kim, do you know that our employees are gossiping that you are sleeping with Jan and that’s why she gets by with goofing off when she should be working?” This straight talk will start a conversation about the problems that a sexual harassment charge against your company could cause, should Jan be reprimanded or fired for not doing her job and/or if the affair sours.

Depending how the conversation progresses, you may want to say, “Kim, you might deny it but if the scuttlebutt is true, the downside of what can happens is not just your own business. If the rumors are true, our small company could be charged with discrimination based on sexual favoritism. If you were me, what would you do? I am coming to you because if I were you I would want you to come to me. Is there a problem here that needs to be faced?”

A third option is to keep your mouth shut. Rather, than confront Kim, focus on company-wide team building. Such an effort entails engaging natural work groups in quality improvement efforts–cutting wasted supplies, wasted time, and wasted money– developing innovative ways to better satisfy customers. This option inevitably enlists coworkers, supervisors, and management in cooperative effort and it makes those who are free-riders pedal or get out of the way.

You have some thinking to do about what to do. The issue is not just protecting you from getting burned with hot water. It is an ethical matter about how you deal with a rumor and it is a practical matter in that, whether, you like it or not, you too are responsible for what a fellow VP does that might hurt your company. There probably is not sure fix, and since this has been going on for 20 years, possibly none of the alternative options I’ve named and others you might propose can correct what is rumored. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that means honestly confronting what hurts that and it also means not seeing problems that are only gossip.

William Gorden