office relationships
14th September 2017

I’ve just found out that one of my managers is having a workplace affair with a subordinate. What can I do?

According to recent research, around 15-20% of people meet their significant others while at work therefore it’s reasonable to expect the percentage of people who have workplace affairs at work to be a lot higher. Two employees becoming romantically involved should not be a surprise, however, careful consideration of the situation should be taken to decide whether any action should be taken by an employer and, if so, what action is appropriate. Employers should strike a balance between ensuring the business runs smoothly and avoiding becoming too involved in employees’ private lives.

It’s useful to know what the potential hazards of  workplace affairs are in order to understand what options you have to address them.

The first step is to see if there are any relevant policies and procedures in your Company Handbook.  Some employers stipulate that employees must declare any relationship; if there is such a rule and they have failed to notify you then this can be brought to their attention. The practicalities of designating who relationships should be reported to can make such a policy unfeasible in small to medium sized businesses, it’s far more likely that workplace affairs would already be common knowledge though the grapevine.

There’s a temptation for companies to put an outright ban on relationships between employees however this can result in a culture of secrecy and furtive assignations. Differing power relationships between the parties involved can be exploited, resulting in potentially lethal victimisation, harassment and discrimination allegations. It’s far better to have an open culture in which employees are treated as grown-ups, with consequent responsibilities.

What can you do about workplace affairs?

If either party is not performing their workplace duties to the required standard whether or not this is related to their romantic dalliances, then this can be addressed though your performance review and disciplinary procedures. Whatever their personal relationship might be, employees must always put their work responsibilities first.

Where there is an imbalance in seniority between the two parties, as in this case, there are areas for concern.  Be alert to suspicions from colleagues that the manager’s decisions may be seen as favouring their partner.  Conversely there is a danger of the manager penalising those who may have expressed their disapproval their workplace affairs by denying them promotion or opportunities.

How do you handle your managers that are involved in workplace affairs?

It would be useful to take the manager to one side and informing them that you know of the relationship.  Explain that although you have no objections, they must be aware that any decisions they make will be seen through the filter of their relationship. It’s important to ensure full transparency with all decisions so that the team can see the reasoning behind them. You don’t want to lose valuable employees as a result of a manager bringing their private life into the workplace. You could consider re-allocating some supervisory duties, with their agreement, in order to avoid any suspicion of favourable treatment.

What do you do when workplace affairs end?

If the relationship ends then care should be taken to ensure that any lingering personal feelings don’t colour workplace activities. If the decision to split was not a mutual one, then you need to be alert to allegations of harassment/stalking in the workplace by the aggrieved party. These will need to be addressed under your grievance policy and, if upheld, proportionate disciplinary action taken. In a wider context, fallout from workplace affairs is likely to linger as water cooler chat. You should be aware and ensure that staff do not waste time discussing how and why workplace affairs end. They should carry on their duties and follow reasonable management instructions, whichever side they take.

Finally, there’s always the chance that the relationship could blossom. Workplace affairs could turn into a long term commitment with formal declaration of a relationship. Everybody likes a happy ending.

As an employer you should hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Depending on your temperament or experience this could be applicable to either outcome.


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