Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune - January 25, 2008
(Peggy's contributions are in italics)

Relationships: Got the third-wheel workplace blues?

By Gail Rosenblum

            People having office affairs often exist for months, or years,
            in their own happy bubble. The same cannot be said for their co-workers,
            forced to either endure the awkwardness, confront it -- or quit.

His workplace is no "Grey's Anatomy," but nurse Steve Adams of New Hope has seen his share of drama, first as an Air Force medic and, now, in hospital and clinic settings. As a man in his profession (only 17 percent of registered nurses are male), the married Adams has been hit on by co-workers and the mothers of his pediatric patients.

His wife needn't worry. "Even though I have worked with some smart, nice and attractive women," said Adams, 47, "I have not seen anybody in the workplace where I would be willing to gamble with those stakes on the table. I just couldn't handle disappointing my wife and kids."

Those stakes have been painfully public for others who didn't follow the same advice.

Just six months after becoming president of the already scandal-plagued American Red Cross, the married Mark Everson, 53, was ousted in November for a "personal relationship" with one of his subordinates.

A month later in Houston, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal was being pressured to drop his re-election bid after romantic e-mails to his personal assistant surfaced.

Rosenthal, who is married, wrote messages such as, "I want to kiss you behind your right ear," and many contained the phrase, "I love you."

And while French President Nicolas Sarkozy is divorced (albeit freshly), his bold dalliances with ex-model Carla Bruni have annoyed even the normally tolerant French who, one could argue, are all his boss. They claim he's choosing pleasure over work.

Tout a fait (precisely).

Such falls from grace, high-profile or not, are hardly new and the surrounding scandals will fade as soon as others come along to supplant them. But Adams and others point up a large part of the story that rarely gets told: The emotional, and potentially economic, toll an affair can have on other people in the workplace.

Two office affairs Adams witnessed, for example, "really created a tense atmosphere in the clinic and the hospital," he said, "[and] really did make going to work kind of painful, until one of the people transferred out."

Other workers face bigger problems. Six months after she began working for a small local food company, Martha Palm of Minneapolis was "suddenly" let go. The only other co-worker kept her job. That woman also happened to be having a "hot and heavy" affair with the boss' boss. Palm said she didn't bother going to Human Resources, because that particular CEO "does that type of thing."

In fact, human resource managers, department supervisors and others are often loathe to deal with such a dicey situation, unless it is clearly a case of sexual harassment, which is another story entirely. They simply don't see monitoring people's personal lives as their responsibility.

Linda Holstein, a partner at Minneapolis law firm Holstein Kremer who specializes in employment-related litigation, also knows how rough these situations can be on co-workers.

"An ongoing affair that is fairly well-known inside the organization can be embarrassing," she said. It "sexualizes" the atmosphere, she said, which can affect the productivity of the couple having the affair, as well as those around them. "Some people look the other way," she said, "but just about everybody is uncomfortable."

The bottom line may suffer too. Productivity can plummet when co-workers feel demoralized by hard work that goes unnoticed by a distracted boss and figure why bother? Others are morally offended by the behavior, or in turmoil when asked to cover for the cheater.

"My assistant is having an affair with the [married] boss," wrote "Disappointed Manager" to, a site dealing with extramarital affairs of all kinds. "I'm very angry at my boss ... and sick to my stomach that my assistant would do such a thing. I have worked for the company for over 11 years and I have worked very hard. What to do?" And sometimes, co-workers are too busy being entertained to get any work done. Her? With him?

"It's not universal that everybody is upset about this," said founder Peggy Vaughan, formerly a corporate consultant on male-female workplace issues. "But it affects productivity regardless."

Same story, different players

Studies suggest that most affairs (not to be confused with office romances between two unattached people) now start at work, although the Internet is likely to surpass the office in the very near future. Between 60 and 80 percent of affairs begin through workplace connections, Vaughan said.

Office affairs look different today too. While the classic "powerful boss-dutiful secretary" scenario of decades ago still plays out, these days the powerful boss is sometimes female. More common, though, is a rise in affairs between co-workers at the same or similar levels. "Half the time, at least, it's peer to peer," said Vaughan.

Fair or not, that rise is frequently attributed not only to the long-established higher numbers of women in the workforce, but to other realities of modern life: longer hours, weekend team-building outings and out-of-town travel. Despite the fact that office affairs have been going on since the 1950s-'60s couch-hopping days depicted on "Mad Men," the Wall Street Journal called the office "the new home-wrecker" as recently as 2005.

Still, Holstein and Vaughan, who have both advised corporations on this challenge, know it's not easy to witness this "elephant in the living room," and it's certainly not easy to stop it.

"Oftentimes, the employer tries to warn people, insist that this end, but that is not entirely effective," Holstein said. "People can state they'll end it, and they're sorry this happened and it will never happen again. Then the employer finds that isn't the case." Couples in these relationships, she tells clients, "are the only people who look forward to Monday morning."

What's a co-worker to do?

You have several options, and none is terrific.

You can do your best to ignore it. You can talk to the offender or offenders. You can go to human resources or your boss. Or you can get your resumé in order. (See sidebar for a few tips on how to deal with the role of unwelcome observer in such scenarios).

Palm selected option four when it was clear she was downsized out the door because, "I wasn't [sleeping with] the boss."

Adams, the nurse, tried option two with mixed results. He bravely took the two men he worked with aside and asked them if they were willing to suffer the inevitable fallout from their actions, professionally and personally. "I'm sorry to say that they did not heed my advice."

At least, not at first. Much later, both men surprised Adams. "They did end up telling me that they wished they had followed my advice and not followed through with the hook-ups, because their lives sure got complicated by their actions."

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