Several years ago, a friend of mine objected to higher-ups about an ongoing affair at his company between a senior executive and a lower-level employee.
The liaison was hardly a secret in the firm, with opinion divided between those who denied that the couple’s dual relationship (boss/employee and intimate partners) made any difference, and others who considered it to be unprofessional and destructive. When my friend, a man of great integrity and devotion to his work, pointed out publicly that the affair had resulted in special benefits for the department where the junior employee worked, his forthrightness cost him his job of 18 years.
In the sea of human relationships, it’s not unknown for advisors, too, to sail a little close to the wind. Dating a client can compromise one’s ability to think straight and do an honest, trustworthy job, not only with that person but with others. Moreover, as my friend’s case demonstrates, opening this Pandora’s box can lead to unforeseen consequences, not only for yourself but for others.
According to Linda Gadkowski, an advisor who teaches the required ethics courses for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, there is no explicit reference to job-related sexual indiscretion in the CFP Board’s ethics code. This strikes me as odd. Is male-female attraction in the workplace still such a taboo subject that no one wants to talk about it?
After more than 30 years as a therapist, I have some opinions on the subject that may be valuable if you yourself are in such a relationship–or are confronted with one where you work.
If a therapist has an affair with a client, even after therapy has been terminated, it is a serious breach of ethics because the very nature of the therapeutic relationship is unequal.
It’s common for clients, viewing their therapist as a professional authority figure, to transfer to him or her the attributes of a parental figure. This may occur in an attempt to recreate the past or forge a new and improved relationship with maternal or paternal authority. Either way, “transference” blurs the professional connection with elements of the parent/child relationship. Thus, an affair would be highly unethical, no matter who initiates it.
When it comes to life coaching, transference is diluted because a coach is generally seen as more of an equal. It’s not frowned upon to have a limited social relationship. In my opinion, however, it would still be highly unprofessional for a coach to have an intimate relationship with a client. I would have less concern about an affair with someone who is no longer a client.
Many financial advisors encourage their clients to view them not as an authority figure but as a partner on the journey of financial empowerment. In so doing, they may create a relationship that is more evenly balanced and falls into the same ethical gray area inhabited by life coaching.
The outcome is complicated when powerful instances of transference occur between more authoritative advisors and their clients, or between colleagues who work together. Dual professional and personal relationships are fraught with difficulty, and should be evaluated in terms of the emotional cost to the individuals involved and those who work with them.
Transference Is All Around Us
As a therapist friend said to me, “Our relationships are awash in a sea of transference.” In simple terms, we all have patterns of behavior, attitudes, and needs that begin with our earliest relationships: our parents, siblings, and other powerful figures in our lives. We transfer these early imprinted ways of acting, reacting, believing, and needing to our later relationships. When we choose a spouse, according to the renowned therapist and educator Harville Hendrix, we are attracted to someone on whom we can project the positive and negative qualities of our parents–and then we hope to get from that mate what we never received from our mother and father.
At work, we often react to authority figures just as we did to one of our parents. (And it may be a woman boss, not necessarily a man, who reminds us of Dad. Our needs and expectations have more to do with personality and approach to life than with gender.) Similarly, other colleagues may come to resemble a parent, a sibling, or another strong influence in our early lives. The longer we stay in a particular work environment, the more likely our co-workers are to become a “work family,” reawakening past experiences, hurts, wounds, and even traumas.
When these relationships represent something negative, such as dashed hopes, critical judgments, or rejection, they create negative transference. When they’re good, or recreate positive feelings, they constitute positive transference.
Because you are an authority whom clients approach for help, you will almost inevitably be put in the role of an authority figure from the past. Depending on your style and personality, this relationship may evolve into a strong transference, either positive or negative.
And there are two sides to the coin. Some clients may remind you of powerful relationships in your own past, such as a too-demanding parent or a sibling who worshipped you. You may also relate to work colleagues through a transferential lens. How do you know when this is happening, and what can you do about it?
When you have an immediate and intense reaction–positive or negative–to new clients or colleagues, transference is occurring. You may feel at the first meeting as though you’ve known them forever, because they echo earlier parental or sibling relationships. Someone who “sets you off” right away is almost surely reminding you of another person in your past with whom you’ve been in conflict.
In a long-established work family, you probably will be able to identify who are the “parents” and the “siblings,” and which colleagues recreate your own family of origin. These issues are explored in “The Power of Transference,” an article in the September 2004 Harvard Business Review by Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst, business consultant, and Harvard professor.
To responsibly manage transferential issues in an organization, Maccoby stresses the importance of knowing yourself as well as you can in order to minimize tendencies toward rationalization or denial. One way to foster honest self-evaluation is to get feedback about yourself from family, business colleagues, and outsiders.
His second recommendation is to promote mutual understanding by making sure people see you clearly and know you well. I often recommend regular work retreats that allow everyone to view workplace relationships through another set of lenses. Openly share your vulnerabilities, strengths, and weaknesses with colleagues you trust. Be open to feedback about how your relationships may be affecting them. If you are in a position of power, make your expectations as obvious as possible, and try to understand as clearly as possible what others expect of you.