Office romance in the makingBy Joan Lloyd
I manage an office of 25 staff. I suspect that there may be an office romance in the beginning stages in our office between two married staff members. They eat lunch out every day together and even share meals. The female staff member has recently started jogging after work and has engaged the male staff member to do the same. Sometimes there are other staff who go with them, but for the most part they workout together. They have even vacationed together along with another staff member and rented a beach house for an extended weekend. The spouses did not go.
The female staff member has been open to staff about calling the male staff member her "office husband". She came to me in tears yesterday and was upset because people are gossiping about her and the male staff member. She assured me that nothing was going on, that they are just friends and that people are being cruel in their accusations. How do you suggest I approach this situation when I have no concrete evidence that anything is going on?
If it smells like a rat and looks like a rat, it’s probably a rat. Even if it isn’t, it still looks like a rat to everyone in the office, and that’s the problem.
Your female staff member is pretty naïve if she is surprised by the rumors. Interestingly, you haven’t mentioned any conversations with the male staff member. Is he just as naïve?
You don’t have any evidence but you have several pieces of information that have opened the door for you to have conversations with both of them. I recommend that you call them in separately, one after the other, so you can observe each of them closely for their reaction.
During your conversation make the same points to each of them:
- “I don’t know the nature of your relationship with X and I am not asking you to justify or explain your relationship to me. What I am concerned with is the impact it is having on the workplace and on your credibility.”
- “I can’t legislate how you spend your time outside of work. However, when you spend so much private time together during lunch and immediately after work, it is sending the wrong signals to your colleagues. And when you do things such as vacation together without your spouses and talk about it at work, you are inviting negative gossip and judgment from your peers.”
- “I have two concerns: First, the negative affect this is having on your credibility and reputation. Who is right or wrong; or whether you are guilty or innocent isn’t the issue. It’s how it looks to others. The second concern is the negative affect it is having on the productivity and team atmosphere in the office.”
- “If you want to spend time together outside of the office that is your business. But during the work day I hope you will make more of an effort to spread your time more equally with your colleagues.“
You can’t legislate how they spend their time but you can have this conversation in the spirit of a heart-to-heart conversation that is in their best interests. Hopefully, if the female staffer isn’t savvy enough to understand what you are trying to do, the male staff member will be. Regardless, they will certainly discuss it and hopefully they will see the wisdom of your advice.
If they ignore your attempts and the relationship does indeed appear to be escalating into an affair, you may want to check their email. This is justified, since email correspondence done on work time falls under the purview of the employer. If that (or other evidence) reveals an inappropriate relationship, most employers take steps to remove the employees from their jobs, since their relationship can put the organization at risk.