By Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.
As a business and corporate consultant and psychotherapist, I’ve analyzed, worked with, and consulted with many difficult bosses over the years. In order to cope and deal with them, you need to know why they act the way they do and how best to deal with them, in order to earn their respect, get things accomplished, change negative situations to positive ones, and preserve your sanity.
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. And remember – all of these toxic bosses in all of my columns can be of either gender. Toxicity does not discriminate according to the sexes. The previous ones include: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, Sewell the Sexual Harasser, Carl the Control Freak, Paula the Passive Aggressive, Clayton the Clueless, Greta the Gossip, Susie the Sugar Coater, Ian the Idea Stealer, Al the Alcoholic, Nancy the Narcissist, Donald the Deal Maker, Vernon the Verbal Attacker, Bobby the Boss’s Relative, and Cynthia the Silent Treatment Torturer.
This week is another difficult boss – Phil the Philanderer, the boss who’s having an affair and you have to cover for him. In my book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day, published by McGraw Hill, I wrote about 12 different groups – 79 individual types – of toxic people who can populate an office. One of the groups is “The Sexually Suggestive,” which include The Sexual Harasser, The Flirt, The Office Couple, The Flatterer, The Mistress, The Boy Toy, and The Jealous One/Stalker. If you are experiencing any of those situations, please read those chapters. This column is based on one of the same group called, “The Office Affair.”
SITUATION: Phil, your married boss, is having an affair with Olivia. What do you do when you have to cover for him – either with the others at the office, his own boss, and/or his wife? Perhaps Phil isn’t married – he may be single, separated, or divorced with a difficult ex-wife. If Olivia is married, separated, or divorced, then you will have an additional character in the cast with Olivia’s cuckolded spouse, who might be a jealous stalker. Then you have to deal with his suspicions, questions, stalking, and/or snooping. What happens if Olivia and/or her spouse work in the same office, department, and/or company? You could even be in danger from him, when he wants information from you and you won’t give it to him.
Other possible combinations can include this – given the liberated sexual times we live in, you could have a female boss who is having an affair, and you have to keep it from her husband. There could be gay situations of either gender or clandestine gay affairs if someone is straight and/or in the closet. Phil may also be a serial philanderer, with one affair after the other, or he may be juggling several affairs at the same time, whether he’s married or not. As you can see, all of this can be very complicated and difficult, with your sanity and your job at stake.
If you’re Phil’s administrative assistant or aide – whether you’re male or female, married or single, gay or straight – this puts you in a precarious position. Young, innocent women and/or single mothers needing the job as well as ambitious assistants of both sexes can fall prey to covering up for the misdeeds of their bosses because they need and want the job. It’s a resume builder, a rung up the ladder in the company, and it pays the bills. But what price are you going to pay? You may feel you’re selling out or making a Faustian bargain with the devil when you look the other way. Some people have entered counseling and psychotherapy when faced with similar dilemmas.
If you have moral qualms about Phil’s adulterous behavior, it places you in an ethical, religious, and/or spiritual predicament. Phil’s wife might be suspicious and ask you questions. Co-workers could discover his affair and lose respect for him or lose respect for you because you’re covering for him. If Phil’s boss is a person of integrity and doesn’t tolerate infidelity at his company, then he/she could regard you as aiding and abetting immoral behavior. They all may look to you as the culprit in keeping his secrets. You could be fired for lying and deception. There are many businesses that have strict policies against anyone dating someone in the same company, or married or divorced people working for the same company. There are many logical business reasons for that rule since it can and does effect the work environment, and ultimately, the bottom line and productivity.
If Phil is being indiscreet and flaunting his affair in or near the office and around town, you may have to field inquiries from other co-workers. You might want to warn Phil that others are suspicious and that he needs to keep a low profile or end the affair. Phil might also try to drag you into fights between him and his girlfriend, asking you to take sides. You may also have to relay intimate messages from one to the other. You may get stuck covering for them when their spouses or partners call on the telephone, when they sneak off to a hotel for sex on an extended lunch hour. Or they may take off on a Friday and ask you to tell the boss that they’re working from home. Juggling schedules, taking messages, keeping the competing parties from meeting or running into one another are all part of the job description in this perilous and awkward situation. It can get messy. It’s unprofessional, disruptive, and divisive for them to bring their personal relationship into the office. You just don’t want to do it anymore. You have a right to speak up and to say that you refuse to continue covering for them in their ruse. You must be assertive, diplomatic, and direct.
EXPLANATION: Phil and Olivia may be bored or lonely in their marriages, they may be looking for excitement, or they may be having an affair as revenge on their spouses whether they’re still living together, divorced, or separated. Secrecy can be part of their thrill. Phil may be using Olivia for his mid-life crisis, feelings of aging, revenge, or other reasons. If Olivia works for the same company, she may be using him for a promotion or a raise. If Olivia is the type of woman who sleeps her way to the top, you may not have initially known about it, or you may have been hired after their affair began. But soon it becomes too obvious to ignore and you’re stuck dealing with it.
Phil and/or Olivia may divorced and on the rebound. It could also be their first real love; one or both of them may be widowed, lonely, and never thought they’d find anyone again. Phil and/or Olivia may be especially co-dependent and not know how to set limits with each other. They may have difficulties with boundary issues–they shouldn’t be mixing their personal lives up in a work environment, but they are and it’s affecting you adversely.
If Phil has told you about the affair, then you need to tell Phil yourself directly that it needs to stop before they both get into trouble with the higher ups. By telling him, you may even be saving him or both he and Olivia from being fired if his boss finds out. You have to be direct with Phil because it’s obvious that he has difficulty with sensitivity to others’ needs and what is appropriate – yours, his other employees, and the company. Phil, like the other The Sexually Suggestive mentioned above in my book, can use tactics like manipulation, bribery, flattery, guilt, threats, coercion, and blackmail to get you to continue to cover for him and not quit. For you to stay on as Phil’s assistant, you must tell him that he has to stop the affair, and if he doesn’t, you need a transfer to another boss. Even if he does end the relationship with Olivia, you may have already lost respect for him and you may want a transfer anyway. No matter the situation, you must tell him directly yourself. Be calm, logical, rational, and direct when you talk with him about your decision. You resent all of their drama. Don’t let your anger become somaticized and cause you physical problems, like getting headaches, ulcers, backaches, acid reflux, or other stress related ailments.
You may come from a religious background where this is sinful and/or unacceptable behavior. On the other hand, you may not be phased by it at all and not hold any moral judgment about it, but you don’t like lying to Phil’s boss or his wife and you don’t want to be fired for doing so. Regardless of how you feel about their ethics, Phil is roping you in to cover for and protect them; even lie for them, and you resent it. You have every right to not want to play that game and you need to stand up and say so. You may want to say that you know they’re having an affair or you may not. If Phil has told you, then you’re in on his little secret. If he hasn’t told you, then say nothing about the affair and remain silent about it, just telling him you want to transfer to another department. If Olivia and/or Phil’s spouses are especially jealous and if they find out that you are part of their deception, you could be harmed or even shot in a jealous rampage if they ever find out and come to the office with a gun. It’s happened before. Regardless, stay to the issue at hand—you’re not going to cover for them or do their work.
Sexual deceivers can be very sneaky, manipulative and they can try to set you up to take the blame. So always document everything. When you send an email, keep a copy of it. Keep track of your phone messages on your cell phone. Photocopy your cell phone records and copies of the emails and put them all in your safety deposit box at the bank so no one can get them but you.
SOLUTION: Refrain from putting anything like this in writing. You don’t want to create a paper trail if you want to protect Phil and yourself. If you know about the affair because Phil has told you, you may want to say something like this to him: “Phil, I enjoy being your assistant and I find this to be an interesting job that is well suited to my skills. I know that you are very satisfied with my performance from my reviews and your compliments. What doesn’t work for me is this – I resent having to cover for you when you take long lunches with Olivia or lie to your wife when she calls on the phone or when the boss suspects something. You’ve told me to say you’re out of town on a business trip, and I know you’re not. I want you to know I’m not happy about being put in that position and I’m not going to do that any longer. You’re going to have to face it yourself if your wife comes to the office wondering where you are. I don’t want to be involved in your deception. I’m not going to do it anymore. So if you end the affair, I will stay. But if you decide to continue your affair and if you need another assistant who will cover for you, then please transfer me to another executive where I don’t have to do this. Know that your secrets are safe with me. If you get a divorce and I have to be called as a witness, I will then have to tell the truth about this under oath or be charged with perjury. Please don’t put me in that position. I do enjoy working for this company and I’d like a transfer if you are still going to see Olivia. I hope you understand the position I’m in. Thank you.”
Make sure that Phil knows you won’t blab about his affair, or he could make life very difficult for you. If Phil is a psychopath, he is not beyond murdering you and making it look like an accident, or hiring someone to kill you. If he’s determined to keep up appearances and not get a divorce, you are expendable. Be realistic and protect yourself.
If you feel Phil and/or Olivia might be setting you up and you need proof, schedule a consultation with an attorney who has no connection to your company. If the attorney advises you to make copies of the telephone records, telephone messages, voice mail messages, and other documentation, then do so and put them in a safety deposit box at your bank. You may want to give your attorney a copy of everything as well to be put in his vault.
If you have your suspicions about his affair, but Phil hasn’t told you, then just politely ask for a transfer to another department without giving him a reason. You may want to have already gone to HR to ask for and finalize a transfer before telling Phil you are leaving without telling HR why you want to leave. You can say you want something more challenging or something more suited to your skills. Don’t tell HR he’s having an affair. Be diplomatic because you would like a good recommendation from Phil and HR, whether you stay in the company or leave. Discretion is the greater part of valor (and career longevity), as they say.
In general, it’s best to keep sex out of the workplace as you may have learned from this. When someone falls in love with someone at work, it’s best to take a lateral move to another department within the company or find another job, but not get involved with people you work with directly. It’s too dangerous for your reputation, for the company, and for your partner. You can also be accused of sexual harassment. You don’t want that on your record or in your personnel file. So keep your mouth closed, your name clean, and your reputation impeccable. Perhaps Phil and his wife will get a divorce. Perhaps Phil was guilty of criminal behavior, of which you were and are unaware. In either case, you may be called upon as a witness, and then you will have to disclose the truth when under oath. If you don’t, and the law finds out, you could go to jail for perjury. It’s a very complicated situation. Get legal advice and even a second opinion from another attorney. Protect yourself.
—Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, national speaker, and columnist. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Orlando. She is the author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day” (2010 – McGraw-Hill). The book’s website is: www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com
She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, Canada AM, and The O’Reilly Factor (twice), and the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW. She has written for Forbes, CareerBuilder, Monster, A&U Magazine, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.