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.