How to Deal
Keeping Family Ties a Secret at Work
Thursday, April 2, 2009; 12:00 AM
Sorry so long, but it's complicated! My partner and I recently relocated. After hating my initial transition job, I've found a position that I love! The only problem is that my partner's father is a high-level officer in the office, and I constantly feel like I'm self-censoring to avoid the perception of impropriety. I am good at this job and haven't told a soul that he's essentially my father-in-law because I want to be judged on my own merits. But, as I get to know my colleagues, they're asking normal questions that I find difficult to dodge or answer w/out being incredibly awkward. I have no problem telling them I'm gay (gay-friendly company), but I don't want to jeopardize my or my partner's father's respect by letting them know I'm engaged to the big boss's daughter. Am I erring too far on the side of caution (he offered to give my resume to HR but cut off his involvement there), or do I need to maintain the charade until he retires (3-6yrs)?
It is unrealistic to think that you could hide the identity of your presumptive father-in-law from your coworkers for three-to-six years. I am all for discretion about personal details at the start of a new job, but I guarantee that it will only be a matter of time before the resident detectives piece together your secret. The question, therefore, is not if your coworkers will find out about your family connection, but how.
Assuming that you could be successful in concealing your link to upper management until your father-in-law's retirement, the relationship would seem all the more suspicious when it is finally discovered. A good publicist would advise you to get ahead of the rumor mill by disclosing your family ties sooner rather than later. That way, you can spin the message so that you and your father-in-law are cast in the best possible light.
Yet, before you say anything, you should first talk to your father-in-law about how he would prefer that you break the news, if at all. His position might be more secure than yours, but he also stands to lose a lot more if his business ethics are called into question. As a more senior and tenured member of the company, he will also be able to share cultural insights to help you prepare for the disclosure of your relationship.
In an organization that values tradition and hierarchy, you might be questioned for having entered the selection process in an unorthodox way and you will need to be very deliberate about how you disclose your family relationships. Your father-in-law can guide you so that you avoid offending the organization's political conventions. If, on the other hand, the culture of the company is progressive and collaborative, then your coworkers might be more tolerant and you can afford to be more casual in sharing your story. When you first reference your partner in conversation with coworkers, come right out and say, "She is actually Mr. Big Boss's daughter, which is how I heard about this job." Just put it out there as if the connection were completely unremarkable.
Even if people are convinced that your father-in-law did nothing more than pass your resume along to HR and that you were genuinely the best candidate for the job, your coworkers still will be on the lookout for preferential treatment. If your father-in-law is ever tempted to intervene on your behalf again, ask him not to. Your coworkers might be able to get over the fact that he essentially got you an interview, but they will never forget it if you are spared constructive criticism or gain access to promotions just because you have a close relative at the top.
Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.