We’re Not Promoted Because of Our Relationship

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being passed over for promotion: I feel our careers will never advance due to our personal relationship.

Six years ago I had an affair with another employee. We fell in love and he divorced his wife 3 years ago. It happens that our boss’s wife is his ex’s best friend. She talks about us constantly at public functions in order to make us look bad. Also I had another quick affair years ago with a supervisor. When I told him I needed it to stop. He became angry and now holds that against me and my boyfriend. We both do a great job at work and both have been passed over multiple times for promotion and advancement positions. I feel our careers will never advance due to our personal relationship. Do we have any recourse?

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

You and your friend may need to rebuild your credibility and reputation before you will be able to move forward in your current work. Or, it may be easier to find other workplaces (not easy to do if you want to work in the same company.) However, keep in mind that a promotion is usually based on potential for future work not just current work levels. So, even though you do a good job in your current work, it could be that neither of you are viewed as the best candidates for supervising, managing or providing work leadership to a group.

Your employer’s aren’t obligated to promote you, so there are no civil or legal problems for them.

*One of the many negative side-effects of office relationships is that they almost always are disruptive to work. It’s almost impossible to flirt, fall in love, find ways talk privately to each other during the day, have a sexual relationship away from the office, go through a divorce by one or both then becoming a more open couple, without spending some work time planning it or doing it. Work is not the main focus while all of that is happening.

In addition, others nearly always know or suspect, and the activities of one or both start being watched, which is also disruptive.In your situation, it could be that the former relationship with a supervisor was also known, so that stirs up talk as well. Even though it has been three years or more since all of this happened, that isn’t a long time in a close workplace. The old adage is true: It takes thirty seconds to make a reputation and thirty years to live it down. So, it could be that even though you do good work, the view of higher level managers is that you are not as focused on it as you are on your personal lives. In addition, they may feel that if one of you gets promoted and not the other, it could create a conflict, or that supervisory information will be known by the other one. They are apparently not discriminating on one gender or the other, simply making a decision to not promote either of you at this time.

*There is also the issue, if one or both are married, of the unsavory fact that a lot of lying had to go on at some point. If coworkers had met the former spouse and liked him or her, they may feel badly about that. In your situation, your boss’s wife is friends with the former wife of your boyfriend, and has heard another side of the story, so she certainly is likely to feel that your friend was a cheat, unfaithful and hurtful to someone who didn’t deserve such treatment. (Maybe the spouse was an unpleasant person and had already hurt the marriage, but her friend won’t see it that way.) All of those things tend to weaken the way others feel about the spouse who had an affair. As result, that person isn’t as likely to be respected by others. In your workplace some of those people may have made it clear to management that they would prefer to be supervised by someone else.

*The final thing to consider is that even without this situation, neither of you may have been promoted. As I mention in the first point, promotions are usually based on the ability to work with and through other employees to get work done. Candidates for promotion are based on communications ability, interpersonal skills, job knowledge, ability to develop a team, cooperation and collaboration with higher levels, ability to train and guide, willingness to correct, commend and develop others, and general leadership traits. Even if you are good at all those things, it may be that someone else has been viewed as equally good but with some other attribute wanted by management. Probably you’re correct though, that your personal relationships have had something to do with it, for the other reasons already mentioned.That brings us to what you can do now. There may be nothing you can do right at this moment.

But, you may be able to regain your influence and over time you can be seen as individuals with something to offer, rather than a couple. That will be the key. As long as you are considered a couple at work, you will always have trouble being seen as significant individuals.Think about some of these approaches:

*Purposefully separate your private life from your work life. Avoid walking in together, spending break times together, leaving together and generally being a twosome, if you are doing so now. (You may not be, that’s just something to avoid.)

*I often mention the three things it takes to have influence: You must be credible, you must be valuable and you must be an effective communicator. Each of you should work to show your value as part of the team, not just on your own. What you want is to be seen as an integral part of work, while working with others. The more you can be seen as submerged and immersed in the group, the less you will automatically be thought of as part of a couple and the more like it will be that managers will see your value and your capabilities.

*Champion a project or a cause at work. If you have the opportunity to identify a project or program and work to make it succeed, do it. Nothing helps an employee as much as being linked to a successful program or showing that he or she is invested in the welfare of the business.*Build positive and appropriate relationships with your immediate supervisor. Do what you can to ensure that your supervisor is able to report positive things about you. Be seen as having the highest standards for your work, whatever that work is. Do as many self-initiated activities as possible and include others when you can, to show leadership.The bottom line is that both of you will probably have to do more than you might have had to do otherwise, to show that there is more to you than this relationship. However, many people have been able to do that successfully. I have known of situations where I thought neither of the people could ever live down a scandal; but both did. I have also seen situations where employees were labeled as not promotable, but they overcame that in a relatively short amount of time through focused effort. So, it can be done; it just will probably take a special effort. Best wishes to you in your work and life. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how this works out. I hope you will be able to make a positive report soon.

Tina Lewis Rowe