Workplace affairs are like food colouring
One drop of food coloring in a glass of water changes the color of all the other drops inside the container. The same is true for work place affairs. I am addressing affairs involving one or two parties already married or in a publicly committed relationship with someone else. One drop of such an affair clouds the trust previously contained within the group.
On rare occasions, thank goodness it is rarely, I am asked to consult to an organization reeling from the effects of the one drop – the illicit affair – that has denigrated trust. This post is not a moral position about affairs but an explanation of the consequences they create within the group, and beyond.
A Breach of Trust
Early in my training as a clinical psychologist a supervisor explained that clear and consistent boundary conditions in psychotherapy build and maintain trust, therefore the importance of seemingly small commitments, such as starting and ending on time.
Setting and maintaining boundaries is a first rule of trust in the workplace. You trust the company will pay you as promised, that your job will be there when you show up, that the company, your manager and fellow employees will honor commitments, both explicit and implicit. You, in turn, do what you have been entrusted to do.
When two people cross sexual boundaries assumed to be in place at work, they create a significant breach of trust. It is a breach that extends well beyond the two of them. The effects are multiplied if either participant in the affair is a formal leader to the other and within the group.
Frank and Vince are peers, senior leaders, and respected scientists in a pharmaceutical company. They have known each other since undergraduate school, were in the same fraternity, and served as best men in each others wedding ceremonies. They and their respective families are friends outside of work as well.
Marion works for Frank. They cross the sexual boundary. Everyone knows it, including Vince, who is also a devout (any religion will do).
Within months Frank is proceeding with a divorce. He and Marion move in together and are publicly a couple. As is often the case, Vince and his wife are in a position to choose whether to “go with” Frank or his wife. They choose her. Vince openly expresses his disappointment and anger about the breach of morality Frank has committed. He can barely make eye contact with Marion. Vince’s staff lines up behind him. Working relationships between the two departments suffer. Accusations fly. Some people escape the tension by leaving the department. Communications fall to a minimum. Mistakes are made. A department with a previously good reputation and excellent business metrics, begins to be known as “THAT department.”
Marion threatens legal action, stating she is being harassed for personal life decisions. Human resources and legal departments are involved. External consultants are called in.
The consultant recommends that Frank and Marion leave the department, not because of the morality or immorality of what has occurred, but because they have broken a boundary. People do not trust them separately or together. They cannot rebuild this trust. There is a hole in the container that cannot be mended. A new container is required for each of them and for the groups that were affected. Having to move on will also affect their relationship, but that is a story yet to be told, and one that I will not be telling.
Best to think twice, even three or four times, about the real effects of workplace affairs.
The trust inside the container will be forever changed.