my boss and my coworker are living together

A reader writes:

I work for a small company (18 full-time employees), and am somewhat of a middle manager. For the past six or so months, my boss has had another one of our coworkers, who is one level below me, living at his house as a roommate. This was supposed to be temporary situation, while the coworker was between residences, but has since evolved into the coworker paying the boss rent, and they seem pretty comfortable with the situation.

My fellow coworkers and I aren’t sure about this, for a couple reasons. We are pretty sure that our boss’s boss (the owner) and our boss’s counterpart in the office are unaware of this living situation, as the coworker is using a relative’s address for his “permanent” address. Also, we know that they discuss company information at home, and our boss has even go so far as to say not to “ruffle the coworker’s feathers,” when going about our normal business.

Should we be overly concerned? Is this a breech of some unwritten rule? Or is it really none of our business?

Ooooh, this has all kinds of potential for problems. Most obviously, favoritism or the appearance of favoritism — this is like a boss who spends a lot of off-time with one employee several rungs down, but on steroids. They’re living together.  That creates a certain type of intimacy that, at a minimum, will affect the way others perceive the relationship — and is highly likely to impact the relationship itself (as your boss’s “don’t ruffle this person’s feathers” comment might illustrate, although it’s hard to say for sure without knowing more about the context for the comment).

And that’s not all. There are all kinds of other disturbing implications this living arrangement could have. Let’s say that your boss comes to rely on the extra income from the rent this coworker is paying — or even just the companionship. Will that impact his judgment if, say, this guy struggles to perform and should be fired? Will he be biased if the company has to lay someone off and this guy would be the logical choice?  And even if he’s totally objective, will other people really believe that he is? (Answer: no.)

Or, what if the boss oversteps the already-inappropriate intimacy of living together and something happens that is sexual harassment or at least looks like sexual harassment?  Or, what if the coworker has trouble paying rent? What if your boss has to evict him? That’s not going to impact work relationships?

Or maybe none of this will happen, and everyone at your company will just feel uncomfortable and worry about it happening.

It’s just a bad idea. It’s bad judgment on your boss’s part. It doesn’t matter if this is convenient or working out wonderfully for both of them; there are other options that don’t carry all the potential for problems listed above, and those options need to be used (i.e., the coworker needs to live somewhere else).

That said, is it your business? If you weren’t a manager, I’d say that it’s technically not — although you’re certainly entitled to think that it’s bizarre and bad judgment.  However, as a manager, you do have standing to point out to your boss that the relationship is causing discomfort among other staff members, because of the appearance of favoritism and the potential for messiness.

And regardless, as a manager or not, you’re certainly entitled to find a way to slip this information into conversation with the owner. I would.

Ick.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    I think you’re off base here. First in what context was the feathers comment used? I don’t see a shred of credible evidence of favoritism yet. Sure the feathers comment may be, but it may be nothing too. And merely being uncomfortable with the relationship is no reason to make it your business. Only when it actually affects the workplace should it become your business. And I actually think finding a way to mention it to the boss might label you as nosy or someone who spreads gossip.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s reasonable to expect bosses to preserve professional boundaries and avoid things that will naturally lead people to suspect/assume favoritism, just like it wouldn’t be good judgment for the boss to go out drinking with one lone employee every week. This is that, multiplied.

      Out of curiosity, would you think everyone should ignore it if the boss was sleeping with the employee?

      1. Lexy*

        Yes! The APPEARANCE of independence is just as important as the FACT of independence, and living with your subordinate violates the APPEARANCE even if they, in fact, are able to separate work/home.

      2. Joey*

        First I’m assuming it’s two males. If a manager brought this to my attention I would ask for details of the favoritism. Absent any what’s there to fix? It’s the same as the boss being friends with a co worker. Good idea, of course not. But if they don’t let it impact work it shouldn’t matter.

        Now if it’s a female/male I just wouldn’t let one supervise the other.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I was wondering that, too. If the living arrangement includes, er, certain perks of a romantic relationship, it could just as easily be gay as straight. Which shouldn’t matter. Company policies on dating in the workplace might kick in if that’s the case. If it’s just a roommate thing, it might have already been discussed with the boss’s boss, who might be okay with it.

            1. Anonymous*

              I just saw your comment right before your post. I was going to say I think it’s a roommate vs. romance situation in the comments. Once people know which one it is, things should be clearer.

          2. Joey*

            Let me clarify. If the relationship is more than friends and one supervises the other then yes I think you can bring it up.

        1. JamieG*

          I don’t see why gender matters for this; two men could just as easily be sleeping together as a man and a woman.

          The fact is, even if the boss is being completely impartial at work, it might not seem that way to other employees. As AAM wrote, if layoffs are happening, even if it’s perfectly logical for the roommate to keep his job, people will still wonder if it was influenced by their personal relationship. It’s unprofessional to leave those boundaries blurred, which is what they’re doing in this situation.

  2. JfC*

    It’s difficult for post-college adults to maintain old friendships or make new ones outside of work, but this demonstrates why you should still make the effort!

  3. Jaime*

    I think there’s sometimes a fine line here. People talk about how important mentors are to getting ahead and succeeding. Having someone who is willing to help you be a better asset in your field AND someone who advocates for you. It makes sense that such a mentor would become a friend as well as a work contact. So, it seems like living together might be taking it too far for all of the above reasons. But, especially if they are of a similar age or have really developed their friendship outside of work, I could see how this type of situation could happen.
    The biggest negative seems to be from perceptions of favoritism – but couldn’t that occur anyway with a close mentor relationship? The obvious difference being that the boss may favor the roommate because they make a mean margarita, rather than for their ability to hook new clients. But in the absence of someone saying something obvious – “yeah, Bob always empties the dishwasher, takes my dog for walks and makes great pancakes – I’ll keep him on forever for those things alone!” – how to tell it’s from the personal relationship rather than the professional mentoring? (assuming the boss has taken a mentor role)

    1. JfC*

      I think there will always be some degree of “favouritism” at the office, i.e. some people will be paid more, be considered more often for promotions etc. To be fair, this should be tied to performance as well as being able to work well with others. So that’s really why someone should decide to mentor someone else. Of course, working well with others often translates into good rapport with the mentor.

      1. Jaime*

        Oh yes. I have never had this type of mentoring relationship, but I imagine it could be quite easy for it to overlap with your personal life.

  4. Charles*

    Agreed. Three points that I would add:

    1. Yes, it should be something that the OP let’s “slip.” What I mean is do not make a big deal out of it; but, still mention the potential problems. OP might want to just say to her boss “hey, pass that by the owners to make sure it isn’t a problem” Then let drop it – OP, you’ve now done your “duty.”

    2. Yes, as manager it is your business; both because it involves someone who reports to you and someone that you report to. It is a manager’s job to PREVENT problems not just fix them AFTER they happen.

    3. And, this is something that I would consider to be the most important – CYA! What if the owners find out and are not happy with this? What if something does happen; and they want to know why you, as a manager, didn’t do something to prevent it? (Don’t know for sure that would happen as I don’t know your workplace; But, I can still hear: “You KNEW about this?! and, yet, you said NOTHING?!”)

  5. blu*

    I can’t tell from how it’s worded, but does the one roommate ultimately report up to the other? It sounds like that could be the case if it is a small company and the one roommate is 2 levels above the other. If that is the case, that makes this an even worse idea.

  6. Anonymous*

    Back when I was fresh out of college a number of years ago, I made the mistake of rooming with a one of my employees for a short period of time. At the time, I had a couple of housing options – none of them good – and this one seemed like the lesser of two evils. Things got so bad so quickly both at home and at work that I wound up moving out within a couple of months. My working relationship with that employee never recovered. To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking.

    In retrospect, the organization we worked for at the time was an absolute mess: bad management on all levels, huge boundary issues between supervisors and subordinates across the board, nonexistent morale, you name it. There were no good role models, period; in fact, I don’t ever remember any of my superiors ever offering me anything other than very bad advice, if they offered any advice at all. No one batted an eye at a supervisor living with an employee simply because there were so many other awful things happening there. As bad as that place was, I will say that my time there made me hyper-aware of the signs of bad management and bullying in the workplace.

  7. Mike C.*

    Hahahahahaha!

    If you think this is bad get this: just about all of the H1-B visa holders at my last workplace lived in apartments owned by the owner of the laboratory.

    That was so messed up.

    1. Ry*

      Wow, that is very seriously creepy. If I understand correctly, H1-B visas are job-dependent: you have to keep your job to keep your visa. Having your housing tied to your job on top of that sounds… dangerously close to an abusive situation. What if one of those lab workers upset their boss? They’d suddenly be a homeless illegal immigrant? Did that ever happen that you know of? Tell me I’m reading this situation wrong, please!

  8. Aaron*

    Sure, bring it up, but be prepared for the owner to be ok with it. Sometimes the benefit of a small business is that the owner can ok something that wouldn’t be a good general policy, because he can judge the risks. If these people are two levels apart they may not have that much interaction (or not… we don’t really know).

    Also, what’s with the accusatory tone re: discussing work? That’s not inherently inappropriate , right? Obviously something has annoyed OP about this situation, but it’s really hard to know what, so it’s hard to figure out if this complaint is legit.

  9. Manager*

    I’m not surprised by the main answer as much as I am by the additionally implied point that it would also be inappropriate for a manager to have a close relationship to any of their subordinates more generally, that having drinks with one same employee every week should be avoid (because of a potential appearance of favoritism), etc.

    I am very close to a relatively new staff member at my organization. On top of that, we are of opposite sexes and relatively close in age. I’m sure our relationship could “appear” to someone to be inappropriate. But it is not.

    And I happen to see key leadership skills in this junior staff member that I feel I have an absolute responsibility to develop on behalf of the organization. If I limited my time with this staff person, or never had drinks with them, etc. it would be much more difficult for me to develop them into the capacity the organization needs.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Mentoring and grooming someone is great … but you’ve got to preserve professional boundaries, which is basically impossible if you’re living with someone.

    2. Emily*

      I once had a coworker who was very good “buddies” with our boss’s boss. They drank together, picked up women together, etc. Both my coworker and my boss were lovely people and some of my favorite I’ve ever worked with, but my coworker’s relationship with our boss’s boss meant that he got his way more than he “should have” – our boss would be restrained from the way she wanted to manage him in a way she wasn’t restrained from managing the rest of us. That’s the kind of situation you’re inviting with these kind of relationships. As someone said above, giving your staff even the appearance that the junior employee is a favorite son, even if they’re just imagining things, is disruptive and bad for your company’s operations. The only way to avoid that appearance is to very consciously maintain professional distance, which I think for most people precludes being roommates.

    3. moe*

      But appearances do matter, and it’s incredibly easy for concerns about favoritism (or inappropriateness) to develop. Consider the POV of a longer-term staff member in your org; could they misinterpret the situation, be jealous, something else? If you realize it may look inappropriate, is it worth it?

      In general, people are going to wonder and perhaps talk about opposite-sex people at work having weekly, one-on-one drinks. I happen to think it’s flagrantly inappropriate, and I don’t buy that having drinks one-on-one is the only way one can develop leadership skills (?!). Further, it won’t be at all good for his/her career if questions about your relationship are entangled with promotion decisions down the line.

  10. GeekChic*

    I don’t know about this… I’d have to see a lot more evidence of favouritism and / or an unprofessional relationship before I got concerned about this situation.

    I’ve roomed with males and females in apartments and houses and these were business relationships. Not friendships. Not romances. Sometimes we had separately keyed locks on our bedrooms and sometimes not – but there wasn’t always a great deal of closeness. Often there was very little.

    In every situation there were background checks done for safety reasons but otherwise, we didn’t necessarily know a lot about each other and kept work and personal lives separate. I don’t see why that couldn’t be possible in this case.

    1. twentymilehike*

      I appreciate your viewpoint here, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a roommate situation like that. At some point one roommate always became critical or or annoyed by the other. Granted, I’m sure that a lot of it was because we were young and volatile, partying and whatnot; some of it was because we were older and set in our ways and wanted to make our own “house rules.” Even when I didn’t really end all that badly, there was always some harbored bitterness at least at some point.

      Regardless, the situation definitely appears to muddy the boundaries between “work” and “personal” and has a potential to end badly. I could forsee any number of situations … “Bob doesn’t rinse the dishes off enough before putting them in the dishwasher and it’s SO IRRITATING,” or “Frank NEVER takes the trash out!” If the employee isn’t being shown favoratism, it could turn out to be quite the opposite: Bob gets annoyed with Frank and Frank’s worklife becomes difficult. So, I guess really it could go either way!

  11. Canuck*

    During my internship days, my coworker (very, very small office) used to have sleepovers with the executive director, go shopping and have dinner. It was slightly awkward for several reasons, especially when I found out that during evaluation time the executive director hadn’t even bothered to fill out the coworker’s form. In addition, one would call the other to say that she would be late getting to work (~2 hrs) and I would show up to an empty office. The coworker finally began to adopt the Executive Director’s attitude and became very bossy. Anyway, I stuck it out, tried to smile and get along, and gave my very honest feedback to the executive director and the board in the end.

  12. KLH*

    I was working for a state office in a group of about 30 people when one employee was promoted to manager. It took a year for the big boss to notice and put the kibosh on all the tangled relationships in that division centering on the manager that had been flying under the radar. He and one of his potential direct subordinates were roommates, and he was close friends with several other people that were placed under him to supervise, and this friendship included going on trips with them to visit his family. Everyone treated this as perfectly normal.

    Man, that workplace had/has a lot of problems.

    1. Anonymous*

      The other thing that is problematic here is that even if the higher-up is genuine and not playing favorites, the subordinate may view this in a totally different light – feeling they have no choice etc. That is always the problem in relationships where, like it or not, there is a power imbalance.

      How can you as a roommate not know that you might piss your roommate who happens to hold a high position in your organization when you decide not to empty the dishwasher? The subordinate may feel they have to do all sorts of things, at home and at the job, just to keep the higher up happy, even if the higher up is not ordering him around explicitly or even thinking he is doing so implicitly. People in authority have to realize they have implicit power and so what they say ends up having greater import, whether they are consciously using their power or not (I am an easy going person but I am a manager, I am always amazed how what I say is scrutinized and analyzed by my staff, even comments I am making to make conversation).

      People in general tend to want to please their bosses and people in higher positions than themselves. I think this is damaging to all and usually the lower person is in the more vulnerable position.

  13. Long Time Admin*

    Look, they both know this would not go over well with the big boss owner. The big clue – the employee uses his relative’s address as his own.

    This really is more about the perception of favoritism than the proven fact. It can destroy a smooth-running office operation. I’ve seen it happen, and it ain’t pretty.

    The co-worker could and should find other living accomodations.

    It will be interesting when this all hits the fan.

  14. BCW*

    Man, I’m happy I don’t work with some of you people on here, because you really don’t know how to mind your own business do you. Can the situation turn bad? Absolutely, but I’ve heard nothing in the post the suggest any inappropriate perks have been given. If your boss is undermining your authority with this guy, thats one thing. Or if he is clearly giving preferential treatment, thats another. But it seems you just don’t think they should be friends outside of work, which isn’t anyones place to say. My current roommate I met through a co-worker. Though me and my roommate get along, I wouldn’t say we are best friends. These guys may really just be buddies who work in the same office but don’t let that interfere. It is possible you know?

    As someone mentioned, there is always favoritism. I would argue that any managers with kids will always give the benefit of the doubt to subordinates with kids over subordinates without kids because they have been in that situation. People may have mutual friends as well. Things happen, thats life. But until you have actual evidence of impropriety happening, you should keep it to yourself, otherwise it just seems like you are looking for problems where there may be none.

    1. Befuddled*

      Here, here, BCW. This all is way overblown. People have lives. Sometimes those lives are complicated, or seem strange or different to others, or whatever. Unless and until there is more to it than that, butt out.

    2. Anonymous*

      Your post reminds me of the clique a writer wrote in about just earlier this year.

      Everyone is saying that the OP should let this slip out and have a way for the boss to find out. Where is the line drawn in being a snitch? Maybe when it affects you and your work?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The concept of snitching really doesn’t apply at work. If it’s something management should know about, it’s legitimate to tell them.

        1. BCW*

          So am I to understand that you think anything that happens, whether in or out of the office, is fair game to tell the manager, even if it hasn’t affected the office in any way?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            No. As I wrote right above your comment, “if it’s something management should know about.” As I wrote in the original post, there are all kinds of reasons that they should. (Just as they should know if a manager is romantically involved with a subordinate.)

  15. Jamie*

    This may be more shocking to those who haven’t worked at family owned businesses.

    I have, more than one, and it’s just part of the deal that some of the people with whom you work have personal relationships outside of the office. The appearance of favoritism can’t be any more of a concern with roomates than with parents and adult children, spouses, in-laws, cousins, etc. all working in the same organization.

    In a perfect world everything at work is impartial – but in family owned businesses it’s just a fact of life that you will never have the same level of access or influence on your boss as their spouse who works in your department.

    So I wouldn’t even notice it, but I can see why it would be a concern for some people.

    1. BCW*

      Exactly, no workplace is entirely impartial. If a boss has worked with a co-worker for years, they naturally will have some bit of favoritism for them vs. a new hire. Even just 2 people who are fans of similar sports teams or television shows will have some bonding that others may not have. If you are going to be jealous of those things, you need to be more professional.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s not about being jealous; it’s about perceiving the very real possibility of the boss’s judgment being clouded. How many of us could easily lay off a roommate? Or have a serious performance conversation with him, knowing that we’d both be watching TV together in the living room that night? Some people can pull that off, but they’re few and far between. It’s reasonable that this arrangement would make people concerned.

        1. BCW*

          The problem is people perceive things that aren’t necessarily there. As I said, a bosses judgment can be clouded by a lot of things. It doesn’t sound like this is a direct supervisory role, so I don’t think its as big a deal as you are making it out to be. I just don’t think all of a persons actions outside of work should be decided based on how people at work may perceive things.

        2. Joey*

          So what’s your solution if youre the boss besides warning him of potential favoritism which still won’t fix the perception issue? Do you tell the manager who he can and can’t live with? And what do you do if he doesn’t? Fire him even though it hasn’t impacted his performance?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’d be pretty confident in my abilities to persuade the manager of why this was a bad idea, so I’d talk to him about it and raise all my concerns. It’s possible that he’d say something that would assuage my concerns (e.g., “the guy lives in a guest house at back and we rarely see each other, and it hasn’t impacted my objectivity, because in fact I have some concerns about his work that I just talked with his manager about last week”). But if that didn’t happen? I’d have no problem saying that it was a conflict of interest and the manager needed to find a different tenant, or that we needed to move this guy out of his chain of command (although at a small company, that might not be possible).

            1. BCW*

              I can’t believe you really think its appropriate to tell someone who they can and can’t live with if NOTHING has happened to warrant that except people MAY see something that isn’t there.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Yep. Managers are held to a higher standard. They can’t live with someone they supervise, and this guy is in the manager’s chain of command. Companies also routinely tell managers that they can’t be involved with certain people romantically/sexually. Conflict of interest, liability to the company, etc.

              2. twentymilehike*

                BCW, I’m surprised that your so shocked by this! You know when you get a new job and you have to sign some documents or read handbook, or whatever the particular business uses? In my experience, 9 out of 10 of those say explicitely that you are not supposed to be dating/sleeping with/living with/roomming with your superior/subordinate. From my understanding (and others, it also seems) that’s typically the norm. Eighteen employees is also not too small of a business to apply that rule to. I work at a company with 8 coworkers, with very loose house rules, and we have a strict “no friends or family” rule.

                A friend of mine started dating his coworker and after years of keeping it a secret, finally transferred to another location when they moved in together. They knew what they were doing and somehow managed to keep it professional, but not everyone can do that, which is why we have rules like this.

            2. Joey*

              But what expectation do you communicate to the manager? Friends can’t manage friends, money can’t be exchanged or only the combination is the problem? And would it matter if no money or a nominal amount was being exchanged? And if its purely the perception does anything his staff perceives to be a potential problem need to be fixed even if there’s been no real impact?

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I’d frame it as conflict of interest — just like you can’t manage a family member or a romantic partner (something that people generally accept easily), you can’t manage your roommate. For similar reasons to the romantic partner — conflict of interest, opens the company to liability, etc.

              2. Joey*

                Romantic partner doesn’t apply because the liability is based on sexual harassment. And family member is different because people generally have more interest in the financial success of their immediate family members.

              3. BCW*

                Agreed. The reasons for companies not wanting you to manage family or romantic partners are very different for a living situation. This manager could conceivably be better friends with someone else at the company than the guy he lives with. Is that a conflict of interest too? I think it just becomes a slippery slope because then you really start to say who someone can and can’t be friends or have personal relationships (platonic) with.

              4. Joey*

                I agree with you that it’s not a slippery slope for most of us, but I don’t think it’s right to force employees to make the right choices about their personal lives. Sometimes you’ve got to let them learn on their own that personal choices can have a negative impact on the work environment and I believe it’s only appropriate to step in when that impact is real or imminent.

              5. Charles*

                Another way to look at this is to consider what if this company went public?

                I’m assuming for now that it is a privately-held company (as many small businesses are); so, yea, they can do whatever they want (with some exceptions, of course).

                But, if they were to go public, what would the stockholders think? What if they sold to a larger company? What would the parent company’s CEO (or whoever) think and expect?

                I’ve worked for small privately-held companies just as they were sold – and guess what? Some folks do lose their jobs or get transferred, not because of any imminent issues; but because of the potential for or appearance of a conflict of interest.

                So, I don’t think that it is rally wacked out or anything for the OP to mention the possibility of problems to the manager involved.

    2. Anonymous*

      I think there have already been some red flags here that warrant significant concern about the situation:

      (Assuming that OP knows for sure that the manager and roommate are discussing company situation at home) This could definitely be problematic. Of course as co-workers they would be expected to discuss work at times, but if the manager is sharing information that shouldn’t be shared, it will cause problems in the workplace.

      The “ruffle the feathers” comment – another major red flag. I think this is the biggest indicator that the working relationship between these two has changed, and not for the better. This type of comment makes other employees (like the OP) feel restricted in doing their jobs, which include managing this roommate.

      Also, wouldn’t a good manager actively work to combat any appearance of impropriety that might arise from a situation like this? Really, they wouldn’t get into this situation in the first place. But say they did, or had no choice, or whatever — doesn’t the fact that this manager isn’t aware of the potential issues obligate them to be a proactive in trying to prevent them? This doesn’t seem to be happening.

      The manager asked OP not to ruffle this person’s feathers. If I may be candid… how stupid could you possibly be?! You (should) already KNOW that this situation is a strange one, and you build on it more? Come on.

      They discuss company information at home. The manager hasn’t attempted to prevent this situation by setting boundaries. This is more than just the appearance of impropriety. It is affecting how well OP can do her job, and potentially violating confidentiality rules.

      1. Anonymous*

        ^^^ (same anon) my point is that whether the appearance of impropriety is cause for concern, which I think it does, is irrelevant at this point. The impropriety has already manifested itself in the manager’s comments and discussion of company information at home with his roommate.

        1. BCW*

          I’d agree, but you don’t really know the context of the “ruffle the feathers” comment. Its possible she was making a comment to her subordinate about their living situation, which I think is fair enough.

          And also, you don’t know what the “company situation” comment is. Its very possible that its something inappropriate. Its also possible thats its the same type of company situations that could be discussed at over drinks among people who don’t live together.

          I just think this guy is getting buried when he really may not have done anything inappropriate.

          1. Befuddled*

            Totally agree, BCW. This is quite possibly barking up the wrong tree. There is likely much greater cases of favoritism throughout any company than the one created by rooming with someone.

            I can’t actually imagine working for a company that DID follow all of the guidance suggested in the comments here. It would be a very cold, impersonal place.

  16. Anonymous*

    In my case, its the owner/boss and employee (on same level as all the other 9 employees) so there isn’t really anywhere to go and speak up about the issue. It does feel ethically wrong, does impart a sense of favoritism that is heavily visualized in the workplace, and certainly makes things uncomfortable. I just do my best to ignore what I can and keep in mind that I will hopefully be able to find someplace else to worse in the near(ish) future.

Comments are closed.