Employee Accused of Having an Affair with a Coworker

This Advice From HR Should Professionally Guide the Employee

78317226.jpg
••• PNC/Stockbyte/Getty Images

A reader asked this question about what to do when coworkers think that she is having an affair with another employee. She says, "I am good friends with a male coworker, who is not my boss, but a step higher than I am. We talk at work on the days we work together about both work-related issues and non-work-related things. Naturally, it has gotten back to me that people think we are having an affair.

"Not surprised. Anyhow, one of the other employees complained to my manager that I 'talk to him too much' and I was told by another member of management that it would be 'coming up in my performance evaluation.' My performance evaluation?

"Okay, a few things you need to know to answer my question. One, I never let my conversations with anyone interfere with doing my job. Two, I want to ask my manager exactly how much time in hours and minutes is talking to someone 'too much?'

"Three, does she realize that I'm going to have to talk to him to get the job done? Four, and most importantly, I want to know if that is a form of sexual harassment from the accusing coworker.

"There are some very religious people on my floor and I think they are bothered by us talking because of their own ideas and imagination. Where does it stop? Are they going to pick and choose with whom I am allowed to speak? Why are they being given this power?

"I have been told that people think I'm 'pretty' and that they 'notice' when I walk into a room."

HR Response to Employee Is Accused of Having an Affair

Human resources responded, "I've had lots of conversations with male colleagues, and I would be absolutely floored if someone thought that I was having an affair with one of them. The fact that you're not surprised leads me to think that you know you're not behaving appropriately in the office.

"I know you believe that they are jumping to conclusions because they are religious, but consider for a few minutes that you're jumping to conclusions because they are religious, but let's skip that and go through your questions."

What will happen if you ask your manager to define, to the minute, how long you can speak to this coworker? This will absolutely antagonize your boss and support the idea that you are not behaving rationally. It is rather a petty way for you to express your annoyance that in no way adds to your aura of professionalism.

Of course, she realizes that you need to talk to this man in order to do your job. What doesn't need to happen is unprofessional behavior. It's the unprofessional behavior that leads people to think that you're having an affair.

Not present in your workplace to make any observations but based on experience this is probably a good description of what goes on between the two of you:

  • You talk quietly in the corner.
  • You regularly eat lunch together, without other coworkers joining you for the meal.
  • You talk frequently behind closed doors.
  • You arrange your schedule so that you're more likely to be with each other than with others.
  • You touch each other, giving arm pats, and the like.
  • Your conversation suddenly goes quiet when someone else walks into the room.
  • You giggle and make other childish, inappropriate conspiratorial sounds.

This is the type of behavior that your manager will want you to stop. She doesn't care that you're discussing work. But, work, in almost all cases, should be discussed in the open, and not behind closed doors. The entrance of another employee to the room or conversation should occur naturally and inclusively.

If closed doors are necessary for privacy purposes, you'll have closed door conversations with other coworkers as well, and no one will see his behavior as abnormal. But, if this is not the case, then holding private closed-door meetings invites speculation.

Do These Actions Qualify As Sexual Harassment or Discrimination?

You also asked whether your coworker's complaint about this situation is sexual harassment. Nothing you've said here leads any Human Resources practitioner to think you're being harassed or discriminated against because of your gender. This position assumes, though, that your male coworker has been receiving the same negative feedback. If he's not, you should absolutely bring this up with your manager and, if necessary, with Human Resources.

Here's your opening statement:

“Several people have accused me of having an affair with Mark. I have been told that this will be mentioned in my performance appraisal, but not his. We aren't having an affair, but regardless, if we were, the response should be the same. Otherwise, it smacks of discrimination on the basis of gender.”

That should snap your boss into action, but if it doesn't, you escalate it. When you escalate your complaint, put it in writing with the following subject line: “Official complaint of gender discrimination.” The reason for this is that it leaves the company with no way to pretend you haven't complained about what you believe is illegal behavior.

Actions to Take About the Coworkers Speculating About an Affair

The next logical question is what should you do about your coworkers and their speculation. Your relationship with your other coworkers has probably not been great. People don't generally accuse their friends of bad behavior at work.

Is it possible that you've categorized these people as “not my type,” the same way you think they've categorized you? Focus on building positive relationships with the others at the office and you may find that the gossip problem resolves itself.

If it doesn't, you need to speak up every time someone says something rude to you. “Why would you say that?” and then smile and wait. And wait. And wait, until you get a response. People don't expect to have to explain a rude comment, and it can become very uncomfortable when you call them out on it. When they sputter a response you can add, “That's not true. I really wish you wouldn't gossip about me.”

Now, one last issue. People say that you're pretty and are noticed when you walk into the room. As long as you are dressed appropriately for the business, that's a compliment. If you're not dressed appropriately, that's a nice way of indicating that you should change your wardrobe.

Assuming that you're dressed appropriately, the proper response to such a statement is, “Thank you.” Nothing more. Even if they mean it as an insult, you've just stumped them by being polite. And that's a winning situation for you.