Social Enterprise

When a manager has to deal with fallout from office romance

I once managed a team of people, all of whom were in their 20s. They were all creative and hard-working and got along with each other well. Too well, in fact, as I was to find out that two of them—I'll call them Jane and John—had begun dating. Since they were peers (one didn't carry any corporate influence over the other), the company had no formal rules against their dating.

As manager, I wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation because Jane could sometimes be a little unstable in her personal relationships and I feared the effect a spat between them might have on their working relationship. As it turns out, they only lasted about a month. If I had been uncomfortable with the dating, you can imagine how ill-prepared I was to deal with the breakup.

John was eager to get past the bad feelings and went out of his way to speak to Jane, sometimes walking by her office to say hello. Jane, on the other hand, was not so eager. The next thing I knew, Jane asked to speak to me confidentially. She explained to me that she thought John was maybe stalking her. She said she didn't want me to take any formal action but she just wanted me aware of it.

Now, let me just say that I seriously doubted John was stalking. He'd initiated the breakup to begin with, and he was a really nice guy, so I think he was genuinely trying to reach out to be friends again. However, a hostile work environment is in the eyes of the beholder. If Jane felt his actions were threatening or offensive, then that became the fact of the matter. Legally, I had to take some kind of formal action. If I didn't and John turned out to be some closet psycho, I and the company could be sued. I had to document Jane's statements and speak to John.

In the case of a hostile work environment lawsuit, I would have to be able to produce some documentation that the matter had been dealt with in order to protect the company from liability. I had to step away from my gut feeling about this guy and speak to him. I also had to draw up a short warning for his file explaining her interpretation of his behavior and had him sign it. From that day on, he steered clear of Jane. (Which, ironically, probably created a hostile work environment for him, but he never mentioned it.) But I had a legal obligation and as manager I had to protect the company. It was just another one of those times where, as manager, I had to step out of my personal feelings and walk the company line. Have you ever had to deal with a similar situation?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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