my boss is my boyfriend and we’re both about to resign

A reader writes:

I’m in a serious relationship with a man who was my colleague, and who was recently promoted supervisor of my department. Yup, he’s my boss. That, in itself, has not been a problem at all. But we’ve both been at this very small company for a few years and have been very successful, and now we are both very ready to move on and relocate to a new city.

Your advice on whether or not to let your boss know that you’re looking around for something else sort of offers two scenarios, and unfortunately each of us falls under a different category. If it were up to me I’d wait until I had accepted a job offer and give my notice. I don’t feel particularly valued or respected by the owner of the company (the person I’d be submitting my resignation to), and I don’t think I’d be comfortable working for an extended period with him knowing I was on my way out. But my significant other has a much closer relationship with the owner of our company (his direct supervisor), and, understandably, he doesn’t want to damage his relationship with his boss by not being upfront about his job search. Everyone in the company knows about our relationship, so it’s reasonable for people to assume that if one of us says we’re headed elsewhere, the other will follow.

Left to our own devices, I suppose we’d probably talk to the big boss together and tell him that we’re looking for other opportunities, and that way neither of us would be seen as coming to him first (or second). But would that cross a line? And when would we have that conversation? We work hard to not let our personal lives interfere with work, and it’s frustrating that in this instance there seems to be no way to leave our relationship out of it.

I know this isn’t what you’re asking about, but before I can answer your question I need to point out that it is Very Bad that your company has allowed your boyfriend to be your manager. Very Bad, with capital letters. If nothing else, it allows for the appearance (even if not the reality) of unearned special treatment, and at worse it opens them up to all kinds of other bad things — such him not giving you critical feedback or assessing your performance impartially, or even charges of harassment down the road (“I wanted to break up with him, but he implied it would affect my standing at work…” — and that would be their legal liability, not his).

I know that your response to this is probably, “That would never happen with the two of us!”  And you may be right. But the employer can’t be of sure of that as you are and so shouldn’t have opened themselves up to it.

Plus, totally aside from the employer’s interests, I also think it’s Very Bad for the two of you — your boyfriend’s job is now (in part) to judge you!  And that’s not a good dynamic to have in a relationship. You’re likely thinking, “Well, it’s not a problem because I’m good at my job” — but that doesn’t matter. Whatever his judgement of your work is, there’s now a power discrepancy built in to your relationship, where he’s supposed to judge you and you’re supposed to work to please him. That’s not healthy in a romantic relationship.

So while I’m glad that you’re actively working to change this situation, I must shout at you to please, please not let it happen again. You may think that you two navigate it just fine, but everyone thinks that until one day they don’t. And this arrangement just doesn’t serve any of the parties here — you, your boyfriend, or the company.

Okay, lecture done. On to your actual question: How should you handle the fact that you have competing interests when it comes to giving notice?

You should each handle handle giving notice independently of each other, because your relationship doesn’t belong in the office.  So if your boyfriend wants to give the owner a heads-up now and you want to stay quiet, that’s what you should do.

Let people make whatever assumptions they want.  If people ask you if you’re planning to move if your boyfriend takes a job in another city, say something like, “No one ever knows what they’ll do down the road, but we’re two separate people with separate careers.” If they push, you can say, “We’ve always tried to keep a firewall between our relationship and the office, and I want to keep it that way now” and/or “I’m determined to keep my relationship out of the office.” And just stick to that.

Of course, this all becomes easier if your boyfriend can avoid mentioning that he’s looking at out-of-town jobs, but I don’t know if that’s reasonable or not (since he may want to use the owner’s network to help in his search).

But don’t talk to the owner together.  That would just underscore all the problems with having a couple in the office.  You two are not a unit when you’re in the workplace — or at least you shouldn’t be.

Good luck!

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly O*

    My husband and I worked for the same company, albeit not in a boss/subordinate role. As far as we were concerned, from 8-5 we were co-workers, but not everyone saw it that way. Our company was a small, family-owned one with lots of crossover between family and office. We were just the newest members of the group.

    Last week, he got let go from his job. The details of that aren’t important, but collectively those of us who remained were told it wasn’t a performance issue but he “wasn’t the person” to “take us to the next level” and the opportunity was used to pretty much remind everyone that not toeing the line exactly is reason enough to be let go with no notice.

    In an odd bit of coincidence, our daughter was sick that same day, and I had to leave for a while to take her to the doctor. By the time I took her home, talked with him, and went back to the office, the new person was in his office and life had moved on. I will tell you that coming back every day is difficult. I understand business decisions and I am trying my best to soldier on, but it’s not easy at all.

    I say all that to point out that like the OP I thought as long as he and I were okay with working together, it ought to be okay with anyone else, but it’s just not. And it’s not easy. And you have to be ready to deal emotionally and mentally with “what if” something were to happen to the other person’s job – can you come back in the office without him or her and keep functioning at a high level?

    I also say that to point out that you MUST keep this separate. You cannot go in together to talk about anything, ever. Period. We always made it a point to go up different chains and to never, ever have conversations about work related things together unless it was completely necessary (i.e., a project we both happened to be involved in.) That has made it possible for me to separate my personal feelings from the work I have to do, and it’s helped others see me as separate.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Thanks for this comment. I’m sorry you’re both dealing with that; it must be awful.

      This illustrates why I don’t like the idea of couples at work in small offices in general, even if they’re not boss/subordinate. If one person is fired or develops a beef with their boss or just becomes generally disgruntled, it is very, very hard (if not impossible) for it not to affect the other person. Obviously relationships do develop among coworkers and it’s difficult to avoid that, but this is why people should resist as much as possible.

  2. BossLady*

    My fiancee recently suggested that I try for a position at the company where he works. It is a huge multi-national company and the position was in an area completely unrelated his, but even that to me seemed like a terrible idea.

    What if the company hit trouble and had to lay off a significant number of poeple? Or worse went bankrupt? Or had something terrible happen where the paid-in-stock retirement benefits suddenly lost significant value? As a couple we’d both be in trouble, unable to lean on the other while we searched for a new gig.

    I guess that’s an employment diversification strategy.

    Also, I would hate to work where my fiancee worked. Would rob me of the feeling that my career sucesses are mine, all mine! This career gal is pretty proud of that. :)

  3. mouse*

    Interesting; after reading your advice, I re-read the OP’s letter and I got a distinctly different impression from it than you did. I rather go the idea that the OP and her SO weren’t dating when they started working for the company but likely met because of work. The OP didn’t actually specify anything to the effect of the timeline involved, but I thought it was interesting that you and I seem to have gotten fairly different impressions. I get that many would still think this is a bad idea (personally I say it depends on the people involved). I frequently work for and with my best friend of 20 years and we have a perfect work dynamic. When I was more about casual dating, I often dated people from my work with no problems. Even if the break up was awkward, I always made a point of keeping it out of the workplace. So yeah, I think it depends on how people handle it though I get why folks generally think it’s a bad plan.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, I think it could go either way — either they were dating before they worked together or they met on the job — but either way, the company never should have allowed him to manage her once they were dating, regardless of the timeline.

      1. mouse*

        Yeah, I see what you mean. I just always think it’s interesting when people come up with valid but different interpretations of something. Shows you how imprecise language really can be sometimes.

      2. Gayle Laakmann McDowell*

        It’s a very small company. The choices might have been:
        (1) Allow the boyfriend to manage the girlfriend
        (2) Fire one of them
        (3) Move one of them to a department that they aren’t qualified to be in (for example, moving an engineer into sales). This may be essentially a demotion, and not all that different from #2.

        What would you do, as manager?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’d not have promoted the boyfriend. Or, if it was possible without going through too many contortions, I would have had her report to the owner or someone else, if there was any way for that to make sense. But the company can’t open itself up to the various liabilities that this arrangement contains, which is why so many companies have policies that expressly forbid romantic relationships between managers and subordinates.

          1. clobbered*

            It’s a bit harsh to say that one would not promote a person because they are dating somebody in the group. I mean, it’s a sweeping statement whereas I think this falls into the many areas where it is better to look at individual people rather than have blanket rules.

            I have worked somewhere where this was *so* not unusual, HR had a standard form for it – I think it was (seriously) called something like “the nepotism form”. It basically said if you had a relationship (not necessarily a romantic one) with somebody you supervised you had to declare it, and also surrender some of the normal managerial powers (like being able to set compensation levels). After that, it was up to the manager’s manager to ensure everybody is being professional.

            I realise this is the sort of thing that sounds horrendous in principle, but in practice it is often no big deal. Also, I personally would rather not be a morals police and dictate who can and can’t date whom – after all, hundreds of years of such rules in academia have done nothing to stop students dating their professors.

            That said, even though I am not at all bothered by the relationship aspect, absolutely deal with any notice one person at a time without reference to the other. If he wants to talk to his boss, let him talk to him, if you don’t, don’t.

  4. Joey*

    I’m going to disagree with Alison for a few reasons. First I think since you’re dealing with the owner he probably doesn’t have a problem with your relationship (at least by default). Then if you approach him separately the relationship is going to be the elephant in the room. I think it’s better to approach him together because so many of the logistics of your leaving are going to be interdependent. It’s so much easier to work out those details collectively especially since he manages you (which is a whole other problem).

    1. BC*

      I agree; at this point, “keeping the relationship out of it” is like trying to shove toothpaste back into the tube. The damage has been done – and the obvious (and persistent) question, once the boyfriend announces he’s leaving, will be to ask, “….And when are YOU leaving?”

  5. JustMe*

    Two examples of why couples at work don’t work:

    I once worked at a family owned company for a number of years that was owned by a husband and wife. Their three adult children worked there, as well as the spouse of one of the children, and a couple siblings of the owners. It was all fine and dandy for a while, then the relationship of the adult child and her spouse got ugly and they divorced, yet both continued to work there. Eventually the new boyfriend of that adult child came to work there (while the ex-husband was still there) and that relationship got ugly too. Everything unfolded right there for everyone to see whether we wanted to or not and because it was “family” it went basically unchecked. I could write a book about the incredibly distracting drama (and job stress) all that nonsense created.

    Recently my husband changed companies and one of the predominant reasons (other than a God-aweful commute) was the complete disintergration of a couple that worked at his company. For years this couple was the life of the group – everybody loved them, then it all went bad – alcoholism, infidelity, serious problems with their children – and it all unfolded within the walls of the organization. They did not keep private matters private by any stretch of the imagination and their antics put a huge damper on the mood and morale of everyone that worked with them because they constantly complained about each other to everyone and tried to force people to take sides. My husband had considered them both friends, but because of all they had put everyone through (that went unchecked by management!), he was so happy when he walked out of that organization for the last time.

  6. A. Nonymouse*

    I’m just curious as to why they are ready to move on and want to relocate to a new city. Whose idea was that?

  7. Savvy Working Gal*

    I met my husband at work. We tried to keep our relationship a secret, but after we announced our engagement all the women said they knew. Despite not working in the same department I still found it stressful and would not recommend it to anyone. I worked in accounting and would have to listen to other managers criticize his budgets/projects/billability. I left one month before our wedding.

    At my current company we have a boyfriend who supervises his girlfriend. BF moved her to his department after he was promoted. Management didn’t want to hear they were dating, plus they were both married to other people at the time. It has been nothing but trouble. Almost every employee in the company thinks she receives special treatment. She is perceived as coming and going as she pleases and not doing her fair share of the work. The boyfriend/boss is constantly called to HR to discuss complaints about her. He gets defensive. He tells her who said what. She doesn’t speak to anyone. Nothing but trouble.

    I think I will casually mention maybe it would be best if she kept her current job, but reported to someone else. I do think he would have a hard time letting go though.

  8. Bob G*

    I’m not clear why the OP would be submitting her resignation to the owner if the bf is her boss? Wouldn’t it be up to the bf to notify his boss (the owner) that an employee was leaving?

    1. LP*

      I currently work in a small company (about 10 full time staff) where all the staff and management work together. My boss is the person who manages me and allocates my work, but I still have regular contact with the owner. In this company, my resignation would go to the owner – that’s just what is expected here and I think it’s fairly common for a small business.

  9. LP*

    It seems that while you should avoid dating people in the workplace, people accept that it will happen – but it’s pretty clear that this should never be in a supervisor/worker relationship. What would you suggest doing to avoid this happening? If you are dating someone in the workplace and the company (knowing of the relationship) wants to put you in the position of managing them, or them in the position of managing you? Do you not accept the position/ask your partner not to accept? What if you’re not really given the option? Is there an appropriate way to explain to the employer that it wouldn’t be the right decision, without looking like you don’t think you’ll be able to maintain professional/personal boundaries?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is a great question. I think you have to start with the premise that you just absolutely cannot manage someone you are dating. Period. Everything must stem from that premise. So if you’re offered a promotion that would have you managing your significant other, you tell your company that you’d love to take the job but that you can’t manage your S.O. because (a) it will be bad for your relationship (a legitimate reason on its own) and (b) you’re not willing to open the company up to even the appearance of impropriety. (And you could have the strongest boundaries in the world, but no one can predict how things will end, and you’re not willing to make the company vulnerable to harassment allegations down the road, let alone how colleagues may perceive things.)

      And then you explore whether there are options that would allow you to take the promotion without managing your S.O. Can the S.O. report to someone else? If not, you just can’t take the promotion. It’s the price of working with a romantic partner, unfortunately.

  10. Veronica*

    I work at a small-ish division of a very large company. I met my boyfriend at work and although we work in different departments, our tasks do intersect. We kept the relationship a secret for 2+ years, which at times was inconvenient, but ultimately a good strategy. Also, my good friend was hired in another department and then applied for an open position in my department. My first candidate declined the offer, and so I hired my second choice…my friend.

    Navigating personal relationships at work has definitely been a learning experience! So far, no regrets.

    1. Anonymous*

      But they actually do.. These days when a lot of people are working two jobs and have no time to go out and meet someone, work romance seems to be thte only option.

  11. Kelly O*

    Just as an addendum based on some of the other responses I’m seeing, our company has a LOT of family relationships – parents and children working together, other situations where spouses work together. Many of our locations are in small towns, and at least in my case when we moved to BFE, there weren’t many options for me.

    Over the course of the last year or so, they’ve been working to separate some of the family members and get them out of the same chain of command. It’s not an easy task, especially when you have people who really aren’t necessarily qualified to do something else, or people who can’t see anything at all wrong with their current setup because “it doesn’t matter to us so why does it matter to you?” It’s part of the growing pains of this small company that’s growing a little faster than some are comfortable with.

    I know that especially in larger companies, the dating pool is larger, there are more ways to work around the whole dating/professional relationship thing, and it may not seem like a big deal. I worked at a large university in a central administration area. My ex-husband worked in one of the schools on the other side of campus and we really didn’t have to see each other all the time, but I will say that it was so awkward when we divorced, I left. I went back to work at the university after a few years, and with a new last name. Ran into him at a function and it was still weird and awkward.

    I know it seems like making a huge deal out of something that ought to not be a huge deal, but seriously, seriously reconsider working with a spouse or significant other or close family member. I can also say that it can be hard even when things are okay, because you NEVER get away from either thing. The home tensions that come up can seep into the day no matter how hard you try to ignore it, and then you hear the work stuff again when you get home.

    I have to admit, the one nice thing that’s come out of all this is that I can put work in its box when I go home, and put home in its box, when people aren’t asking me how John’s doing, or how I’m doing. It makes dealing with this a lot easier when I can put things in their box and deal with them separately.

  12. FrauTech*

    Have to chime in with the folks who say a relationship at work is a bad idea. Personally my best reason working at a large company is the same as BossLady. You can’t stop both of you from being laid off at the same time but if you work at the same company you are tempting fate I think.

    I work at a large company where there are rules about relationships. This doesn’t stop the nepotism though and it’s disgusting. When you hire your friend, or bring your friend under your department, everyone knows. When you hire an employee’s husband or wife, everyone knows. High level managers here can pretty much guarantee their wives getting a hand-out job in another department. Just because it’s not prestigious doesn’t mean it doesn’t piss everyone off. Often there was a qualified internal or external candidate who had to get turned down for that. And it really makes you question ALL the managers who are involved in this system. And even when it’s not about nepotism and is completely separate, divorce can still get ugly at a big company. So like Kelly O mentioned, just because you are mature and think you can handle it doesn’t mean your coworkers are ok with it.

  13. Anonymous*

    As someone who has worked alongside couples, it’s always a big deal to everyone else, even if the couple themselves have no problems with it. I actually turned down a job once when I found out that everyone was dating everyone else in that office. (that workplace really should have a Bravo series, perhaps titled “Real Coworkers of ABC Company”?)

  14. Original Poster*

    So, relationships in the work place are a hot issue…! Thanks for your input, everyone!

    I don’t think it’s at all fair to expect my SO to turn down a promotion just because the company didn’t have the foresight or wherewithal to realize that it was a bad idea for him to be my supervisor. We’re talking about management that didn’t even bother to bring our (part-time) HR rep in to talk with my SO or myself about any potential problems, before or after the promotion. The company is so small there is no one else for me to report to if there as any inclination to re-direct who I go to for managerial issues, and my resignation letter will go directly to the owner, as would any other employee’s.

    Regardless of how we came to be in this situation that we are in, our number one priority is getting out of it. And our biggest questions are the direct result of being in this sloppy, unprofessional and poorly managed work environment. For example, it’s tacky and inappropriate, but I’m certain the owner will come to my desk, in a room full of people, and ask me when I’m leaving if my SO tells him ahead of time that he’s looking around for another job. How do I be upfront with the owner in this situation, without being dishonest?

    We could, of course, not say anything to anyone and put our notices in when we have found other jobs. But it could conceivably require significant time and energy to find and hire replacements for two employees at the same time, and we want to be seen as doing the right thing and not screwing the company (and especially our co-workers, who will have to pick up any slack while new employees are hired and get the hang of things). So what do we do, flip a coin to see who goes in to talk with the owner first, while the “loser” has to wait outside the door and go in afterward to deliver the same news?

    Also, for the record, my SO and I were in lateral, non-competing positions until a few months ago when the department was restructured and he was selected to manage the department. We worked together for a year before we started dating, and were dating for more than a year before the promotion.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I stand by my advice in the post — handle this independently of each other. You don’t need to time your notice with your S.O.’s. If the owner or anyone else asks you about your plans, use one of the answers I suggested and refuse to engage. Or make a joke. Or whatever. Don’t allow yourself to be treated as part of a unit, because in the workplace you’re not.

      1. Joey*

        I think youre not taking into consideration that the owner accepts them as a unit. Why let everyone fill in the the blanks? The purpose of giving notice is to give the company enough time to get a transition plan together. How can the SO help coordinate a transition plan if they’re not upfront about her resignation? Either way they’ll know it’s coming.

  15. Anonymous*

    I think an even bigger problem will be when it comes time for a reference check for your new position. When you hand them a list, your SO will also be your boss! Awkward. And probably pretty unprofessional too. I agree with Allison’s advice, notify seperately. Best of luck finding new, better positions, and in different companies!

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