What Do I Do About Rumors of My Former Affair?

Question: I have been accused by HR and my manager of having had an affair with a department director in our company. The reality is that we did have an affair but he is a married man and we decided not to disclose it. Three weeks after we were asked by HR, he was fired due to poor performance.

What I have learned is that the accusations were based on some pictures that were taken outside work in my private time by another staff member. Apparently these were handed over to my manager, who openly said he had them, to other colleagues. He handed over to HR and the CEO. The company has not told me they have the pictures, they have just said they thought I was having an affair, which I denied.

Now that they have fired the director they said that they are happy to put it in the past and move on. However I am realizing that other team members have completely changed their behavior and it is becoming a difficult place to work, as we are very small team and it seems everyone knows it.

Unfortunately turning to HR if things get worse will not be an option as they’ll defend my manager and it won’t be dealt with appropriately.

The area I am most affected in is that my manager can openly talk about the affair and the pictures with other team members, affecting my reputation and team dynamics. 

Also, I am struggling because my credibility is at question and I feel very awkward knowing that my manager knows about it, and I keep denying it. (Nobody has told me about the pictures apart from a loyal colleague, not even when I was questioned by my manager)

My manager has openly said in team meetings that he was given by one of the engineers some pictures of me and the director and he didn’t know what to with them. He then proceeded to take them to HR and the CEO. 

I don’t know if he still talks about it. But just the fact that he has openly talked about such a serious matter makes me think that he could well still be talking about it. He Loves gossip and has said private comments of other coworkers in front of me before.

I don’t believe that HR will be supportive because the way they have handled the situation. They have used those pictures as evidence and we haven’t been told about it. Not even when I was asked by the HR manager about the affair and I denied it. Is a new company, and there are no robust HR policies. Plus HR manager and the CEO are very close.

The proof that manager has said about the pictures are several workers who heard him saying that he had some pictures of me and the director.

The pictures are the only proof. We have never told anyone. I am an honest person and lying about this is really bothering me.

It is a horrible situation to be in. Do you think I would benefit if I had a conversation with my manager and told him that I had met up with the Director outside work on a couple of occasions, including on the day those pics were taken? It almost seems the easiest option and also a way to gain my credibility back.

Response: It’s unfortunate that things have worked out as they have. However, it’s a positive factor that you still have your job, which will also help you if you decide to go to another organization. It also indicates that your managers have confidence in you and want you to move forward.

Probably some of your coworkers think you caused the former Director to be fired, because of your relationship. Coworkers often feel awkward or a bit hostile around a person who was part of a serious personnel action, no matter what the cause.  If coworkers have done something specific to harm you or your ability to do your job, you certainly should go to HR about it. For example, if they are keeping information from you or playing pranks or tricks, or if they say hurtful things within your hearing.

I do not see a legal issue, but you should talk to an attorney if you are considering that, as a way to know what evidence you would need to provide and what the civil or legal action would be.

I think you will be better off focusing on your work and being the best coworker possible, until everyone moves on from this. If people were friendly with you before, they will be again. If you were viewed as a good coworker before, your value will still be appreciated. I often mention the three things it takes to have influence: You must be Credible (good at your work and viewed as truthful and dependable), you must be Valuable (contribute to everyone’s effectiveness and to the organization) and you must Communicate directly and effectively.

In this case, your communication should be about work and issues about which you can be a resource for others. Perhaps an occasional compliment. Or, ask for some slight assistance, so you have a reason to say thank you. Before long, new things will happen to grab the attention of the team. Keep in mind that some of them may have reason to be worried about work as well. Or, they may feel guilty for any role they had in the situation. Give them time and give yourself time, to get back to normal.

Also, keep in mind that many people have stressors right now that are unrelated to work. There is turmoil all over, and continual thoughts about health and safety (which you are probably more aware of than most.) As a result, there are a lot of reasons for people to be talking and acting differently. That might not explain all of your situation, but probably adds to it  

Follow-up from Ask the Workplace Doctors, regarding the photos.

Thank you for the additional information. Unless the photos show you having sex, they don’t show anything of value, so leave them alone. I know it is awkward to think the manager discussed your private situation with coworkers. If you have proof of it, you could go to HR and complain. If anyone should be offended, you should be. But, you don’t think that would help. So, you really have no options except to come to work, do your job and move forward.

It is not an option to confess the truth to your manager. I promise you, unless there is some very unusual circumstance you have not told me, you should not ever tell the truth to the manager or HR. Deny, deny, deny, unless you want even more trouble.

If you say anything about the photos, even if it is to say that the photos only show you two met for coffee after work, you will be in a discussion about it and it will be obvious that you are trying to cover your tracks. Don’t do it. Whatever you said to HR about having or not having a relationship with the director, you should not backtrack now. For one thing if you change your story now, it will show that you did, in fact, lie before, which might make you subject to action about it. For another, it will open up the topic again. For another, it will not make you feel better, it will just keep the subject going.

I can understand that you are upset about all of this, but you will not be able to do anything about it unless you calm your thinking and look at it rationally,  as your company would do. You’re fixated on the photos and what the manager is saying, but you apparently don’t know what the photos show and do not know for sure that the manager is saying anything. If you do good work, they want to keep you as an employee, so let them keep that attitude and live up to it.

It seems you do not have a good working relationship with coworkers, otherwise they would not treat you differently over something like this. If you do have a good working relationship with them, this will not be a reason for them to shun or exile you. You had a romance with someone who no longer works there. That isn’t a  terrible thing and people will stop caring sooner than you realize, if they really even care at all now.

Do not tell this inappropriate-acting manager anything at all about your private life. He doesn’t deserve it and doesn’t need to know. It would be different if he had been an effective manager through all of this, but he hasn’t. He told coworkers something he should not have told them. You know you can’t trust him to keep what you tell him, to himself. So, don’t give him that opportunity.

If you don’t think you can move past this, ever again, you should find another place to work, while you can take the initiative. Otherwise, your work will suffer and the manager will have a reason to move you out. But if you can find the strength to focus on your work and let coworkers move on too, you can keep your job until the timing is better for you, if you want to leave.

I’m sure you regret ever getting involved in this situation, but you did and hopefully it’s over. He’s married and should not be having a relationship with someone outside his marriage, especially if he has children. But, if it is over, just let it be over. You aren’t the first person to give into temptation and you didn’t commit a crime against anyone there at work. Probably half of them have done the same thing or wanted to.

Be an active member of the work team, laugh, talk and show an interest in what you  hear and see. If you don’t treat yourself like an outcast or a leper, others won’t either.

If you have access to someone you trust or to a counselor, I think you should talk this out with that person. You can tell them more about the circumstances and be more open with them. But at some point, you need to just shake your head at your bad decision and promise yourself to be more wise in the future.

I hope you can regain your balance and see this for what it is, just a bad time in your life that will be over at some point, sooner than you think.

Best wishes to you and I hope you will move through this time quickly and be back to enjoying work and feeling good about it.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

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.