From the August 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Fast Track: Affairs of the Heart

Emotional affairs are the leading cause of company cultural death

I have a girlfriend who lost her job for having an emotional affair. Here's what happened: She was the vice president of marketing for a fast-growing company that embraces the new wave of employee-centered management. They have an open and trusting culture, a flexible work environment and encourage employees to spend time together. She has no office, in order to encourage her to spend time on the outside meeting with prospective clients. It was a dream job, and she loved it.

As head of marketing, she worked closely with the VP of business development, often going on client calls together. After working together for three years, and attending a number of company-sponsored employee events, she became close friends with him.

Like many coworkers who end up in nonphysical yet emotionally intimate relationships, they considered their friendship "safe;" they didn't have physical infidelity to feel guilty about, and their company actually encouraged friendships between employees. Even so, my friend began to realize that the relationship had gone too far: they were meeting after work for coffee, talking over the Internet, and becoming more emotionally attached to each other.

A Cure Worse Than the Illness

So my friend took the first step; admitting that she had a problem and seeking professional help to solve it. She worked out a plan starting with a discussion with her co-worker/partner, and they agreed to try to return to a more normal working friendship.

Ironically, it was their "solution" that led to their getting "caught." It seems that suppressing their feelings from one another at work, and not having a manager or consultant to talk to about their issue, made them targets. With little investigation or even discussing the matter with either of them (which would have revealed they recognized their problem and were taking steps to correct it), their employer fired them both, citing a restriction against "company culture."

Thanks to the exploding trend of social networking, and employees working longer, more stressful, hours together, emotional affairs--that is, relationships without physical infidelity yet with emotional intimacy way beyond that of a normal friendship--are becoming a major problem for many businesses, especially small businesses. In fact, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, while 15% of married women and 25% of men have had sexual affairs, an additional 20% of married couples have been affected by emotional infidelity. Because emotional affairs don't create the same sense of guilt that physical affairs do, they are easy for overworked, overstressed employees to fall into, too. In my experience, they have become far more common (particularly in Next Gen employees) than actual, physical affairs.

Like physical affairs, the problem with emotional affairs is that they create a level of secrecy within a firm, and consequently, an undisclosed emotional attachment between employees is very hard to manage. The problems caused by undisclosed intimate relationships can put a major strain on an otherwise happy and harmonious working environment. Secrecy is almost never a good thing in the workplace, and when it involves coworkers or supervisors, it can be even more destructive. I'm not suggesting you create a corporate culture of Gestapo-like surveillance, yet identifying emotional (or physical) affairs between your employees sooner rather than later can go a long way toward mitigating the damage it could cause in your firm.

The Biggest Problem: Personality Issues

In the more than 10 years I've spent consulting with businesses on people issues, I have learned that only about 20% of those issues have to do with organizational charts, compensation structures, and employment manuals. Nearly 80% of my job is dealing with deeper personality issues about people that affect cultures. I've developed a rather keen sense of when something untoward is going on between a firm's staffers, but seems to be more of an art than a science, so ...

... I can't really tell you how to do it. To start with, it helps to have a clear picture of what you're looking for. Here's how the American Marriage and Family Therapy folks tell people how to determine if they, themselves, are having a relationship at work that has gone too far:

  • You share personal thoughts or stories with someone of the opposite sex.
  • You feel a greater emotional intimacy with that person than you do with your spouse.
  • You start comparing that person to your spouse, and begin listing why your spouse doesn't add up.
  • You long for, and look forward to, your next contact or conversation.
  • You start changing your normal routine or duties to spend more time with that person.
  • You feel the need to keep conversations or activities involving him or her a secret.
  • You fantasize about spending time with, getting to know or sharing a life with the person.
  • You begin to spend significant time alone with that person.

Recognizing an emotional affair from the outside is a bit trickier. It may be the way two people look at each other, or avoid looking at each other, a glance, or a smile. Or, that they talk to each other differently than they do everyone else like ending sentences or interrupting. Whatever it is, a level of intimacy between two people is very hard to hide for long.

Nip It in the Bud

The best way to head off emotional affairs is before they start. The goal of my work with clients revolves around building open and trusting cultures. If you build these cultures, most interpersonal problems in the company are solved. But like anything in life, building open and trusting cultures can cause other smaller problems, like emotional affairs. Knowing this, we educate our clients and employees on these issues. I include training about emotional affairs to employees--how to recognize if you're falling into one, why they are harmful to yourself and the firm, and most important, who to talk to about it if you need help. We let them know up front that we don't ignore the behavior as a firm. We will deal with it, with you, because the secrets it creates undermines our open and trusting working culture.

Despite your best efforts, it's possible that some employees in your practice will find themselves in an emotional affair. If so, the most important thing to remember is not to overreact, like the employers of my friend did. Losing two key employees is very expensive and hard to overcome. The goal is to save both your working environment and your employees. Most often, simply bringing the situation to the offending couple's attention is enough to solve the problem. Usually, their desire to stay with the firm is far stronger than their need for each other's emotional support. More often than not, employees want to save their own marriages, but they need encouragement to get working on it. I've dealt with several emotional affair situations in my work, and going to the couple and asking about the suspected affair has always put a screeching halt to it.

Be direct, without being confrontational or accusing. Tell them what you've noticed or heard, and ask them to ask themselves the above questions. The key is to get the employees themselves to acknowledge that their relationship has gone over the line. Once they've done that, you've hit a home run. Reiterate that their behavior is contrary to the open and honest working environment at your firm. Give them professional resources, like referrals to a marriage and family therapist to get them help. But if they recognize that they have a problem, and are willing to take steps to correct it, you and the rest of your staff would be more than willing to let them continue with the firm. It's in your best interest--and theirs--to make termination the last resort. If you do this, you will keep good employees.


Angela Herbers is a virtual business manager and consultant for independent financial planning firms. She can be reached at angieherbers@cox.net.

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