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Friday, October 30, 2009

coworkers are having an affair - should I say something?

A reader writes:

Our office is rife with gossip regarding a married man in our office and young single co-worker. The man has a brand new baby at home and knowing that he is having an affair behind his wife's back is rather upsetting to some of us on moral and character grounds, but also it is making us uncomfortable (wife drops in sometimes) and is a distraction. They are not in a boss/reporting relationship but are peers.

In addition they seem to take long lunches, are constantly using email and microsoft communicator company software for endless chat sessions even though it's not permitted for private activity. It's bad for morale for all of us to be working full stop and see them goofing of a good part of each day.

Does HR care about such things? If they can't be reprimanded for being causing full blown gossip epidemic, they could at least be disciplined for wasting company time? I am on the same work team with them and have difficulty looking them in the eye sometimes.

You have two different issues here: (1) Your coworkers' affair is making you uncomfortable, and (2) your coworkers are slacking off. You need to treat them as two separate issues.

Regarding the affair, if your company doesn't have a policy against fraternization, then these two probably aren't violating any actual rule. And I'm not sure their affair is really their coworkers' business -- if indeed there even is an affair; it sounds like no one knows for sure, although they're displaying the signs of at least an emotional affair.

You can certainly keep a chilly distance from people whose behavior you object to, but I wouldn't recommend confronting someone you don't seem close to about something that you don't know for sure is happening and which really isn't your business if it is.

I suppose if you're determined to address this in some way, regardless of the above, the best way to do it might be to tell the man (since he's the married one) something like: "Hey Bill, I wanted to give you a heads-up that there's a lot of gossip going around about you and Beth. I'm sure there's nothing to it, but that kind of thing can really affect someone's career, to say nothing of rumors getting back to your wife, so I wanted to make sure you knew."

The slacking off is a different issue. If it's impacting your own work, you should talk to your manager about what you've observed. If it's not -- well, if your management team is at all competent, it's going to be noticed and addressed at some point.

But again, if you're determined to address it in some way, you could just be straightforward with the two perpetrators: "Hey, we're working our asses off over here, and it's starting to feel like you're on a date. Could we get some help?"

But overall, I think you want to be clear in your head about what is and isn't your business. Sometimes things are irritating and offensive, but still not necessarily ours to get involved in.


Anonymous said...

It's also good to keep in mind that -- in addition to not really knowing the details of the man's relationship with his colleague -- you also don't know the details of the man's relationship with his wife. They may have an arrangement that means that whatever he's doing with his colleague is okay. Better to keep it focused on the amount of work getting done and not on your opinion of other people's sex lives.

class-factotum said...

Anon - Please, give me an example of a woman with an infant who has told her husband it's OK for him to sleep around.

HR Godess said...

I would address the issue of the lack of work with either HR or your direct supervisor. Whether or not they are in a relationship is really no one's business. As AAm said, if there is a policy against it and it can be proven, that's one thing. I'm sure you're right that something is going on but it's very easy to get wrapped up in the moral side of it.

It's their lives and if they choose to lie and cheat, it's their credibility and reputation that is tainted.

Focus on the work side of it only. Let the personal side be their problem unless the wife comes in asking questions of the staff. That's the only reason I would bring it up to someone.

Anonymous said...

I have to say at my former job I was the subject of office gossip involving another coworker and there was not an ounce of truth to it -- so whether or not it is true, I would give him a heads up so they can adjust their behavior accordingly. Whatever it is that is going on should be kept outside of the office.

Anonymous said...

(Note: I'm a different Anon from
the first or fourth Anon.)

AAM has the right idea in that "having an affair" and "not getting work done" are two different things. No matter what the co-workers are doing, the former does fall under the "mind your own business" idea. The latter, on the other hand, is your own business because it affects your work and your job.

class-factotum: I know you wanted examples, but I'm not going to give you names or addresses, since it's still legal to discriminate based on sexual preference in the U.S. and I don't want my friends to lose their jobs. There are such things as alternative lifestyles, and the people who participate in them are usually intelligent, consenting adults. Just because it's not what you do or would ever want to do, doesn't meant that it's evil or that someone's being victimized. Is it unlikely that the male coworker's wife knows about his behavior and is OK with it? Yes. Is it impossible? Far from it.

Hank Hill said...

Let's go ahead and assume the worst- that his wife would be heartbroken and the family would breakup if she knew he was having an affair, and that he's definitely having one.

Who cares?

Is he asking you to participate? Do either of them regale you with tales of banging on the boardroom table? If the answer to that is no, then then solution is simple: Mind your own damn business.

TBA said...

It's really difficult for some people to find the line between being concerned about a co-workers work, and interfering in people's personal lives. Granted, there is some cross-over here, but the truth is, it's evident for most to see that the alleged affair is really nobody's business.

If you are finding a team worker is not contributing equally, raise THAT with your manager. Don't try to find excuses or reasons why, like, 'its because he/she's having an affair' - he/she is not sharing the workload, that's the problem. I agree with Hank Hill, there is an element of 'mind your own business', and yours is productivity, not the morality of other co-workers relationships.

Productivity Guy said...

Regardless of whether fraternizing within the company is allowed or not, an affair is not an coworker's business. That seems like tattle-tailing if you go to HR or whatever and get them fired over a policy like that.

That being said, mentioning it to the dude directly would be the best course of action if you do decide to address the affair. More than likely, he and she don't realize how obvious they're being.

KarlaPorter said...

I agree with AAM's advice right down to the last drop... People often want to impose their own values on others whether or not they have the real facts, of which usually are none of their business. I wish chanting performance management were as melodious as "om".

class-factotum said...

Anon, you're right. What someone chooses to do with his life, no matter how stupid, is none of my business.

But if it affects my work, then it is my business. And if the gossip affects his or her reputation and possibly his/her career because yes, people do pay attention to that stuff because it goes to judgment, then if I am a friend, I am going to tell that person that these things are being said so that s/he can adjust the behavior.

Anonymous said...

One more anon agreeing 100% with Ask a Manager, and being able to provide an"example of a woman with an infant who has told her husband it's OK for him to sleep around":

Woman sleeps around and gets pregnant.
Husband learns about the fact, and also that the father of the child doesn't want anything to do with the now pregnant lover.
Womans asks husband to stay around to help her during her pregnancy.

Husband is devastated but says yes with the condition that his support will be as a friend and no longer a significant other. He will stay only if it's OK with the wife that he starts to see other people.

I witnessed this scenario in real life. Things like this may happen more than people think...

Anonymous said...

As an HR person, I can honestly say that no, I don't care if people are having affairs at work. If it's a conflict for some reason (manager-subordinate, financial implications like payroll dating an employee, work is not being completed, etc.) then we have to address, but otherwise, people's personal lives are absolutely none of my (or your) business. I love how people think that HR is the moral police.

If you feel the need to tell someone their reputation is being affected because of their workplace affair it's up to you, but I highly doubt they are unaware of this fact and are still having the affair anyway. Do you think that the affair is going to stop if you tell them their reputation is being affected? Doubtful.

raskal said...

The affair: If it's not against policy MYOB and don't contribute to gossip. That said, if you're close to an affected spouse you may feel obligated to tell them. Although illegal, killing the messenger is not passe .. tread carefully as both your job and friendship may be on the line.

Work issues: Address as you would with any other staff member.

class-factotum said...

Do you think that the affair is going to stop if you tell them their reputation is being affected?

No. I don't think an affair would stop just because someone said something. And if someone is having an affair, his reputation should be affected.

Yes. Married people who sleep around indiscreetly at work, regardless of the arrangements they make with their spouses who are pregnant by other men, are at the least guilty of poor judgment and lack of discretion. At a minimum, be a better actor and pretend you don't know the other person. Keep it quiet, OK? I don't want to know about anyone's sex life at work. If you put your bookcase up against the glass panel in your office (safety violation) and take your secretary along on business trips (which no other manager does) instead of your wife, don't you think we all know what's going on?

But people can misperceive situations. I have been thought to be cold and aloof for not greeting someone when the reality is I was not wearing my glasses and did not see the person. My husband sometimes thinks I am mad at him because I give short answers and am distracted, but I have a really bad headache.

I had a good friend at work who is a friendly, nice guy. I had known him for years before he started working there. (I had gotten him the interview; his wife was my college roommate.) Gossip was that he was having an affair with the receptionist.

He was not.

I told him that's what the gossip was because I did not want his reputation harmed. I wanted him to be able to cut back on his natural enthusiastic niceness if he chose so the nastiness would stop.

That said, I don't see how any of this is HR's or management's business. I said something to my friend as a friend.

Anonymous said...

New Anonymous that came here to mention open relationships and alternative lifestyles but it seems that pretty much everything has already been said, except one - did the OP ever consider that maybe the young single coworker is involved with the married man AND his wife (or at least was before the baby)? It's MUCH more common than many people would EVER suspect...

Also, one thought for class-factotum - it's good that you mentioned the gossip to the nice, friendly guy you knew, but don't assume that the rumors were false just because you don't think he's "that type", and don't assume that the wife wasn't involved just because she was your college roommate. You have no idea what goes on behind closed doors, especially since we hide it from people who disapprove so openly, and what does it matter? Unless you're involved in their intimate lives, aren't they your same friends either way?

Anonymous said...

I agree with AAM's advice. Also, you better be darn sure that there is an affair before you say anything to anyone. I am married, but at my last job, I worked with my best friend (who is a guy - I'm a girl) and the rumors that we were having an affair were ridiculous, unfounded, and damaging to both our careers. In general, it's best not to talk about other people - just do your darn job. If it truly interferes with your job (not just your "morale", because it's none of your darn business), then talk to HR or your manager.

Ethan Bull said...

I really like the direct confrontations that you suggest here... in that they are direct yet you're also suggesting a way to present the confrontation to give these people an "out" and not look bad. The "I've heard rumors going around about you and so-and-so, which I'm sure there is nothing too, but you wouldn't want them getting to your wife..." as well as the "hey, we're workin' our asses off and you two seem like you're on a date... can we get some help?" are both great ways to get your point across, be direct but also let them off the hook easily. Very good advice.

Anonymous said...

Ok - question for all. I run a company; I have an employee who is having an affair (confirmed) - I don't care who with. Not my problem. My problem being: the employee having the affair is now involving other co-workers in their cover up with the employess family and they do not like this. Also- now out a sick day, but really I know had confrontation with husband last night (only know this becaus they called a fellow worker). So what do I do?? Suggestions would be appreciated.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, I'd ignore the sick day issue, since I think people are entitled to take sick days for mental health days, which this sounds like it might qualify as.

However, it sounds like it might be reasonable for you to tell this employee that she needs to keep her personal drama out of the workplace.

Anonymous said...

OMG i think thats my husband!

Just caught my husband in exactly that scenario, bastard.

My advise, tell the wife! and maybe say something to the boss(s) as that will then stop them communicating,having long lunches, and probably leaving early, and may put an end to the affair.

Anonymous said...

If there are rumors circulating, rather approach the coworker to give him/her a heads up. Whether it's true or not - he/she will then be able to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

I find it pathetic how coworkers take the moral high ground and take it onto themselves to be the moral police. I, myself, have been the victim of office gossip, due to coworkers trying to interfere in my private life.

I have been friends with a male, married coworker who has three children. The reason I am almost always only friends with men is the fact that men are more direct, compared to women. They will tell it like it is & not spread vicious gossip & make assumptions as most women I know have. People have made assumptions based on the amount of time we have spent together, & the accusations hurt like hell. It has now affected my friendship with this male married coworker.

I say, don't say something to others, nor to management before you've approached him/her. Because it causes a lot of hurt & affects good friendships

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with the part about minding one's own business, but what bothers me is how do you ignore a woman in a belly-baring shirt sitting on a man's desk and flirting away with him? (Both are married to other people.) This sort of behavior may be fun for the participants, but it is distracting as heck for people around them. To make matters even more awkward, both of these people are people I like. It bothers me that there is so much gossip about them, but unfortunately their behavior invites it.

SeeSide said...

None of your business, none of your business, none of your business. First, consider you may be WRONG about the affair. It may be he's getting strong support dealing with "what is going on with my maternal wife?!?!". Even if there is an affair, coworker approval is not necessary. Interfering with their work? If it's not interfering with your work and neither of the two are buds of yours, then it's their bosses' problem, not yours.
Some jacka** complained to my boss about my affair when actually, I was mentoring a male coworker through a college course he was taking. Mentoring a female coworker, again for a college course, another JA assumed I was work mentoring a more senior coworker, complained to the boss and the senior coworker was fired for incompetence. Do your job and leave the assumptions to their boss and personal life moral policing to their friends and family.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a similar situation and am honestly stuck. My husband snapped 2 of my managers in the office car the other day hooking up while he was on his way to pick me up.

I told someone who told someone else who told the "BIG BOSS" - after reading this, OK I can kinda see I've gone about this totally wrong. Anyway, the BIG BOSS approached the guy manager involved,the guy manager confronted me about it.

He said, what he does in his own time is no ones business, then he went on to say that there was no kiss, it was a hug. OK - big deal, no need to justify what he was doing, his business. I told him straight that it was bothering me and affecting how I work. Now I'm a family person, I have kids and it has impacted me personally which is why it is affecting my work and the fact that I report to the guy manager, I don't want to deal with him anymore because it disgusts me knowing what I know.

What do I do? The HR guy called me and told me he was more than willing to talk to me when I was ready..I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT IT IS NOT MY BUSINESS, but how do you cope with something like this if it is affecting your work? I can try and make myself get over it but as long as I know, it will always bother me! I would appreciate all the help I can get with this issue.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, you say you understand that it's none of your business, but you're acting like it's your business. It's only affecting your work because you let it -- knowing who someone might be involved with really doesn't need to affect your work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks - I am doing just that, and going about my own working acting like I don't know anything - doing everything as normal as I was before I found out. Now I am being discriminated upon by being yelled at in front of other co-workers for things that are honestly un-called this right and if so, how is it right? I feel more uncomfortable now being in the office and am afraid that what I know will get me fired because of something I did or didn't do or the managers have made out I've done? It doesn't make sense...and is this even allowed? To be treated unfairly because I know their dirty little secret? It just doesn't seem right.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, I suspect you're not actually going about your work as normal, because in your earlier post, you said five different times that it was affecting your work and disgusted you!