Reader: I work in a large company, under a manager who has had a long-standing affair with the company owner. The owner's spouse also works for the company. The owner is divorcing the spouse and has moved in with my manager.
Most everyone sympathizes with the spouse, and I would say most of the employees, encouraged by other managers, are actively trying to get my manager to leave by ignoring requests, failing to complete work correctly and telling customers that errors are my manager's fault. They're urging me to do the same. My manager often complains to me about this mistreatment.
I think underperforming to make somebody look bad is wrong. I don't agree with having a relationship with a married person, either, but what others do in their bedroom is not my business.
How do I politely and tactfully decline to engage in conversations with my manager about personal issues without putting my job at risk? I am lost on what is appropriate in this situation. I cannot turn to HR, because people there are taking sides as well (and there is no company policy about office romances).
Karla: Nothing about this situation is appropriate, except for your instinct to stay out of it.
However outraged you may or may not be on the spouse’s behalf, you are correct that workplace vigilantism isn’t the solution, and not only because two wrongs don’t make a right. By actively sabotaging your manager’s projects and work product, your colleagues may also be sabotaging the business and violating what is called “duty of loyalty” to the employer, employment lawyer Amy Epstein Gluck of FisherBroyles points out.
But opting out of the torch-and-pitchfork brigade doesn’t obligate you to become a sob shoulder, either. Respond to your manager’s complaints with noncommittal sympathy and a pragmatic offer: “I’m sorry to hear that. Shall I reach out and see if I can get a more prompt response?” I’m sure your manager wants comfort, not a fix, but complaints about obstructive employees are properly directed to HR or — since HR is no help — the owner. (Speaking of whom, does your colleagues’ moral outrage extend to cheating spouses, or does the top dog get a pass?)
The noncommittal-sympathy-plus-pragmatism formula can also help deflect pressure from colleagues: “I understand Spouse’s anger, but I can’t in good conscience pass along a product I know is deficient or throw anyone under the bus. It’s just going to make us all look bad to customers.”
No matter how polite and tactful you are, however, whenever emotions run high and ethics seem to run low, you could well end up being collateral damage. Consider exploring opportunities elsewhere — and meanwhile, maybe start documenting all conversations and saving all emails concerning this troublesome triad. If nothing else, you have the makings of a great screenplay.
Thanks also to Tom Spiggle, Spiggle Law Firm.
PRO TIP: State laws on employees’ “duty of loyalty” vary, but generally prohibit direct competition, disclosure/misuse of confidential information or otherwise acting to harm their employer’s interest.