Welcome to Insider’s work-advice column, “What’s Working?” It solves your real-life workplace dilemmas with expert advice and research-backed tips, tricks, and life hacks. Got a narcissistic boss? A passive-aggressive coworker? Or a tricky sticky situation at work? “What’s Working?” can help! Send questions about your workplace challenges to email@example.com. Include your contact details, even if you want to stay anonymous. Letters may be edited.
I lead a team of 10 people, each of whom supervises around four employees. I have heard from someone on my team that one of my employees is in a close relationship with a woman he supervises. In fact, the woman is very open about where and when they meet. Our company, like most, has strict rules about not having personal relationships with people whose work we evaluate. I have solid relationships with all my team members, and I have to say I’m pretty annoyed at this one person for violating a policy. I’m concerned about the best way to approach this team member. What if he denies the relationship? Should I consult my boss before I do anything? Truthfully, I’d rather pretend I don’t know and hope the affair dies on its own.
— Manager in the Middle, Maine
This is a tough one. And while your impulse to hide your head in the sand is understandable and human, you cannot ignore it. You’re the boss. You have a responsibility to act.
Before you do, however, I’ll give you the same advice I give my teenage daughter: Check your tone. You’re coming across as self-righteous and judgy. You say, for instance, you’re “pretty annoyed,” at this male employee — let’s call him Roger. You also chastise the woman — let’s call her Joan — for flaunting “when and where they meet.”
It’s important to rein in your resentment because you need to be in the right headspace to deal with the situation. If you are indignant or irritated when you speak with Roger, it will leak out in your voice and body language. Don’t make this about you and your mood.
Bear in mind, too, this situation is hardly unique. A survey at the start of 2020 found more than a quarter of Americans said they’d had a workplace romance. It happens.
Now, your first order of business is to clarify your company’s policies regarding employee romance. Rules vary. Some organizations discourage relationships; others prohibit them — though not always to great success. Most, however, have clear guidelines and consequences around supervisor-subordinate relationships. Find out exactly what your company says about them. And if the policy is not clear, consult HR about your options.
Second, inform your boss about what’s going on. No need to get into details; a simple heads-up will suffice. “I may have a situation where someone is violating the rules. I may need to rearrange where people sit on the org chart. I am dealing with it.”
Next, have a conversation with Roger. Be calm, be composed, and stick to the facts.
Holly Weeks, the author of “Failure to Communicate,” recommends opening the discussion by emphasizing that you care about — and are invested in — Roger’s success. Your goal is to be disarming and also to remind him that you have his best interests at heart.
“Come with your hand outstretched,” she said. “Say something like: ‘I want you to succeed. And I’ve heard something that would concern me if it were so. Are you in a relationship with Joan?'”
And here, remember that the office gossip might be inaccurate, Weeks said. “You could be wrong, and if you accuse Roger of something untrue, that could hurt your relationship with him,” she said.
Let’s assume, however, that it is true. Anticipate that Roger will deny the relationship or push back and say it’s none of your business. Stand your ground. Say that you’re not trying to police people’s lives but that the relationship creates a conflict of interest. Joan could be getting special treatment or privileges, which would be unfair to other employees.
Explain to Roger that there will be consequences for his violation of the rule, per your company’s policy. Tell him that he has an obligation to inform HR about the relationship and that, of course, he can no longer supervise Joan. He needs to switch teams, or Joan must.
You can ask both parties for their preferences, but the default assumption is that Roger should be the one to change, according to Chai Feldblum, an expert on employment law who previously served as commissioner of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“When a supervisor is romantically involved with someone who reports to them, the supervisor has to move,” she said. “If there’s nowhere for the supervisor to go, he or she has to leave the organization. You can’t ask the junior person to leave or move.”
Once you’ve talked to Roger, be sure to have a conversation with Joan, too. Because of the imbalance of power, you need to make sure there isn’t any coercion going on. Ask her whether she feels pressure to engage in the relationship for the sake of her job. And make sure she’s not being bullied or harassed.
Striking the right tone is key. Be compassionate and empathetic. You can do this.