Don’t Fish Off The Company Pier…

OK – this is not the normal subject content I usually write about – but I have some questions for you HR professionals. Many of us have already seen this movie time and time again. I guess by some standards, dating co-workers is much more common that it used to be. Some employers still have issues and policies with co-workers dating one another. While I personally don't think that matters as much – an executive leader dating someone (OK having an affair) in the same division where both somehow benefit professionally and financially presents a whole host of issues and pitfalls. Can I say that? OK - I did. I guess some employers have the dating couple sign a dating document? What? OK – but that's for those who are openly dating and everyone knows about it. My example is a bit different…

I have experienced the latter scenario a couple of times in my career and both had bad outcomes - for theThe-office-u-s company and for two employees that were having the fling. In one case, the SVP of operations was seeing (whatever) one of the top salespeople and that created absolute chaos inside the company. Every sale this (attractive) woman made somehow got top priority from the installation and ops team (run by her lover) while others stood by in disbelief. This spiraled into a very bad situation over time – but it took a while. The (entire) sales team started to revolt regarding the consistent preferential treatment this sales person constantly received, while many of us that worked with the ops executive continually challenged him with one- on-one interventions to try to fix the problem. 

Here's the problem. Everyone knew about it, everyone talked about it – but nobody did anything to address the problem. When a top executive makes a (bad) decision to fish off the company pier, the results can really be painful for the entire company. Even the HR lead decided to stand down because of this person's position in the company. We had (a slight) mutiny from the sales team, and everything really changed about this division of the company based on what was going on after hours. Even after the affair ended, the memory lingered on forever.

I'm certainly not an HR professional but have a couple of questions for those that do this for a living. Knowing the scenario I just described - how do you deal with a situation like this full of innuendos and speculation regarding a top company executive who is rumored to be having an affair with an employee in the same company? No facts – just pure rumors and hearsay. Do you confront the executive without having facts? Do you have a conversation with them about the buzz that HR is hearing from other employees? Or, do you sit back and gather more information you can verify before approaching the executive? I'm just curious and want to hear from you. 

I can't wait… 

FOT Background Check

Tim Tolan is a partner at Sanford Rose Associates and specializes in Executive Search in Healthcare IT. He's a closer, and you really don't want to call him unless you're ready to bring out the bazooka to bag some big game. When I started Fistful, I checked four references on Tim - his wife, his kids, his pastor and a client. The references were great, even if it sounded like they were reading from a sheet of paper. I just chalked that up to them being "detail oriented" in their feedback....


  1. Tim:
    In HR legal jargon there is the term “vicarious liabilitiy”. It means that the company assumes the responsibility for the actions of their managers and supervisors unless those people acted in direct violation of the company’s policy and direction. The company gets dinged if they “knew or should have known” that the possibilty of sexual harassment could have occured and did nothing about it.
    This situation you described has two possibilities for sexual harassment. First, the female subordinate gets demoted or fired if for some reason the relationship goes sour. The male boss sticks around she doesn’t. She claims harassment because he wanted to continue the relationship, she didn’t.
    The second situation is one of hostile environment. Every other female sales person whose work did not garner the attention that the favored one did could claim that she was unable to advance because to do so would have required sleeping with boss. She didn’t want to, couldn’t, etc thus could not advance. So the company could have ended up with multiple charges of hostile environment sexual harassment. There are probably about another 3 or 4 scenarios I could come with.
    In this particular case everyone knew about it. If I had been the head of HR I would have made it clear to management and to the VP of the precarious position that his actions had placed the company in and I would have put him on warning. This would show that the company was proactive. If there was then a complaint I would be set to take action to either have it ended or the VP disciplined. (Tough thing to suggest, but nonetheless necessary.)
    In my opinion no one’s personal “affairs” should endanger the overall interests of the company.

  2. Tami, SPHR says:

    To add onto Michael’s comments, you could also have a situation where the male employees claim sexual discrimination. Basically, because they are men, they do not have the same opportunity available (to sleep with the boss to get ahead) and therefore they are being discriminated against.
    If you have a good HR person, they should be investigating and following through. However, HR rarely makes the final employment decision; management does. If the SVP reports to the CEO, and the CEO really likes him and doesn’t see this as a problem, then the organization is stuck with the bad behavior. Unfortunately, too often executive bad behavior is accepted and condoned. This is particularly common, where the executive team is an “old boys club.”
    HR has an obligation to speak out and try to make it right. However, I have seen a lot of good HR people quit jobs (myself included), because executives allowed bad behavior to continue. Then, the organization is stuck with bad behavior and no one willing to do anything about it.
    So, the big question is: What is the President/CEO doing about the problem?

  3. Jason Seiden says:

    Wow, talk about a situation that fails the “common sense test.”
    While teaching a grad course on leadership, I used a similar situation to highlight the limitations of typical org theories——there’s just no shortage of ways in which Stupid renders our best models and theories and plans completely irrelevant.
    All I can say is, play to your best, people. Temptation is a strong, strong force… do your best.
    (I’m trying to think of a single example in history where an affair/tryst/love triangle lead to a positive outcome.
    I’m thinking….
    I’m thinking….
    I’ll have to get back to you.)

  4. James says:

    Okay….devil’s advocate here:
    You know the odds of this happening in the workplace are extremely high. Extremely. Then, if the workplace happens to be Congress, those odds triple and often involve small farm animals.
    So, HR needs to develop very, very specific policies that receive frequent training and sign-off documentation to address inter-office dating as a “no-no” or post a sign in the breakroom stating,
    “Just don’t get caught”.
    Realistically, the company can only hope to protect themselves legally. They can not enforce morality.

  5. Tim Tolan says:

    Great feedback and comments! I guess this situation could take multiple twists and turns. Since I know the details of how this played out – I am happy to report that this never went to court.
    Yes… the company just silently swept this issue under the rug – forever. Thanks to all that posted a comment!

Comments are now closed for this article.

Contact Us | Hire FOT to Speak | About FOT