The Challenges of Workplace Affairs
Workplace affairs present some unique challenges for everyone involved. Although it is easy to merely proclaim that “It’s none of your business” or that it is a matter between “consenting adults” and then ignore what is going on, you will find that such an approach does not work in every job situation.
Affairs change everyone they touch. Just the discovery of an affair often changes how you view those involved. It changes how you view your boss, and how you view your co-worker. It changes how you view their interactions. What seems to be normal conversation becomes filled with double meanings. Jokes often have more read into them than before. The affair will change how you view the whole workplace and any request from your boss. If you are the same gender as your co-worker, you may find yourself wondering if you will be next or if you are being considered as a target for an affair. The whole existence of an affair in the workplace changes the dynamics between a boss and coworker into one shared by lovers with all the challenges that presents.
The awareness of an affair often creates tension in the workplace. There are tensions associated with keeping secrets. There are also the tensions associated with alliances. With an affair, there are questions about whether your loyalty should be with the boss, the boss’s lover or both. In the workplace, alliances can become the basis of whether or not you keep your job. In such cases, the affair is not a victimless action between consenting adults. When your job could be at risk, it is no longer a victimless situation. You may become the victim due to being too loyal or in some cases for not supporting them with your loyalty.
An affair in the workplace also means that at some level, relationships are not functional. The dysfunction often creates instability. Relationships have their ups and downs. When there is an intense relationship in the workplace, the risk of those ups and downs spilling over to the workplace is high. The risk of spillover may have you wondering what your priority needs to be. Although completing the job is the official priority, the relationship issues may present an emotional crisis that takes you away from the official priority. Relationships between bosses and co-workers often have some unhealthy dynamics associated with them, whether in the form of transferences or counter-transferences. The relationships also show a clear disregard for boundaries. Between the transferences and boundary issues, the relationship is not in the best interest of the company, the boss or the employee.
Affairs in the workplace are also a clear indication that the unofficial rules are more important than the official policy rules. Although the written policies and procedures are frequently referred to, you know that the actual functioning of the workplace is based more on unofficial rules than the policies. In such settings, all the ‘official policies’ are subject to negotiation. When rules are disregarded, even those regarding relationships between bosses and co-workers, it raises questions about whether any rules ‘official’.
Some workplaces do not tolerate affairs between bosses and co-workers. In the military, there are specific rules regarding affairs. If you are in a workplace that operates under military rules, the discovery of the affair may put you in a position where you have to report someone for violating the law.
If the workplace is one that involves professions that do not tolerate affairs, you may be obligated to report what you discovered. Many health care professions are required to operate under a code of ethics. If your boss is in one of those professions, you may need to familiarize yourself with the code of ethics and what you may be required to do in such circumstances.
The question of what you do when you discover a workplace affair between the boss and a co-worker becomes more complicated when you know the spouse of the co-worker or the boss. When you know the spouses or interact with them at workplace social events, there may be awkward moments that you will have to deal with. The parties having the affair are often so selfish, they do not consider the tension and awkward situations they put others in by their actions.
The lovers will want you to keep their secrets. The secrets often operate like emotional and relational superglue that keeps you tied up in knots. Secrets like workplace affairs are often exploited and used to keep other secrets. If your workplace is one that handles large amounts of confidential information, the tension of keeping the secret will often be dismissed as no big deal. In such workplaces, the keeping of secrets is considered routine. Keeping another one, such as the affair is often seen as ‘no big deal’.
You will also have to consider the context of the workplace. If you work in a culture that approves of affairs, your discomfort will often be viewed as ‘your problem’ and the lovers will not see anything wrong with what they are doing. Some workplaces may also reward bosses for picking up trophy ‘work spouses’. With increasing frequency, the practice of having a workplace husband or workplace wife is becoming more common. If the culture of your workplace is one where work spouses is condoned, you may be viewed as the problem. Knowing the culture of the workplace both inside and outside of the building will be key in surviving the workplace affair.