my bosses are having an affair with each other, and that’s not the only inappropriate socializing

A reader writes:

I am a wife and mom who works for doctor who is a specialist and owner of a private practice. I also report to a clinic manager (female). It is a smaller private clinic with just under 20 employees.

The doctor and my manager have very recently been caught being physical with each other at a social event at the doctor’s house. The doctor is married with children. Our clinic manager is married with children.

I have enjoyed working at the practice and have liked and felt comfortable working with the doctor until recently (in last months) where I have been invited into a small core group of all female coworkers (including the clinic manager) that socialize with our doctor after work.

The pattern has become (prior to the two being caught being “physical”) that when the doctor wants to go out for drinks after work, we are “expected” to join him for drinks. He is very insistent and it’s very difficult to say no, plus it was at first nice to be asked to go out and I was honored. The pattern has become: He takes out the clinic manager, and me and one or two other nurses for drinks or an expensive dinner, wining and dining us. We are all married. I have told my husband everything about the doctor’s behaviors, where we go, etc.

On several occasions, after drinks at a lounge or restaurant, he will invite us all back to his house, usually when his wife is way, although on one occasion his wife was at home (and I ended up socializing with her more than my coworkers). At his house, we are invited for another drink, and after a drink I usually prefer to leave for home to see my family. During these outings, our doctor can become a little too touchy feely with any one of us, either at the lounge, or at his house when his wife is away. We all have jokingly called this behaviour “sloppy drunk.” My husband has been supportive and tolerant as we are very honest with each other and he respects that I will keep my boundaries intact. Because I have enjoyed working with him in the work environment and have liked him and felt comfortable, and labelled him simply as innocent, child-like, and charming, I never made too much out of his “friendly” advances and just marked it down to alcohol. However, it was on one of the last TGIF occasions, at his house, a trusted coworker caught he and the clinic manager “making out.”

I like my job otherwise, and our family needs the income and the benefits. It has now been made clear to me that both my bosses are willing to cross unacceptable boundaries in my view and are clearly being disrespectful and dishonest. Yes, this happens in a social environment, but they are my bosses and it is not so easy to separate what happens socially, with the power they both have in the workplace. I now feel like any of these subtle “sloppy drunk” advances that have happened to me in the past during drinks (him giving hugs, taking hold of my hand, or hand rubbing my back in the guise of being a supportive boss and friend) were really advances to test our boundaries, and as it happens our clinic manager clearly has few. I now see the pattern as being habitually disrespectful to me and to my husband as well as to others.

I now dread the next time our boss expects us to go out for drinks with him and I feel I will have to say no, but do fear that I will be on the “blacklist” at work. I have lost respect for both him and our clinic manager in a way that now impacts me professionally. I expect the only way out of this is to quit my job to get out of this toxic environment, but it seems very unfair that my family is paying the price (losing benefits, cost of finding new job, down time, stress, etc.) for their behavior without any consequences to the two who are responsible for creating this toxic environment. Do you have any suggestions? Can you see anyway out other than me having to leave?

Not really. This guy owns the business, and the clinic manager seems happy with it too.

I would (a) start looking for a job in a more professional environment, and (b) stop attending these happy hours (and definitely stop going back to his house).

If asked, invent an activity that you’re now doing on Friday nights — dinner with friends, a date with your husband, after-dark rock climbing, whatever. I suppose it’s possible that you’ll be shunned for not attending, but it sounds like there are plenty of the 20 employees who don’t attend without any penalty. From now on, you’re one of them.

Remain pleasant and professional at work, but avoid situations where he or any of your coworkers are likely to be (a) drunk or (b) hitting on you or each other.

And move on as soon as you can.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Arts Nerd*

    I think this is an interesting followup given the “geez, women – stop assuming men are hitting on you all the time” comments on the previous post, given that my first reaction here is that this was clearly inappropriate behavior on the boss’ part from the beginning. (Rubbing their backs? Eek!)

  2. JLL*

    Sounds like grooming to me.

    He’s a habitual line stepper, and I seriously doubt that he is “unaware” that his behavior, within the confines of a “normal” office, would be seriously out of pocket.

    Set your boundary and stick to it- you can’t control what the others do, but you can definitely not allow yourself to be put in situations where your integrity and personal space are compromised.

    1. fposte*

      The OP called it: “I now feel like any of these subtle “sloppy drunk” advances that have happened to me in the past during drinks…were really advances to test our boundaries.” Exactly.

    2. jennie*

      I wouldn’t use the term “grooming” when it comes to adult women. Certainly the doctor may have been testing their boundaries and looking for someone who is interested, but it’s still consensual and there didn’t seem to be any coercion. The women have a choice whether or not to engage in any hanky panky. One chose to.

      1. V*

        I am surprised that everyone assumes the “affair” is consensual. The OP describes it as one “make out” session. It is very possible that the doctor/owner came on to the clinic manager (his employee) and she felt that her job would be in danger if she refused him. The bottom line is that he is in the position of authority and engaging in this behavior with his suordinate is inappropropriate, even if it is consunsual. Condemning the manager, without knowing whether the situation was consensual, runs the risk of blaming a victim of sexual harassment.

      2. JLL*

        Point taken, although I’d allege that your boss pressuring you to go out socially is coercion, simply because of the uneven power dynamic. She feels there would be negative consequences professionally if she refused.

  3. COT*

    Alison’s right: you can’t fix their behavior. It sounds like you find a lot of enjoyment and socialization in your workplace, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that might be part of why you are so hurt and horrified, because their behavior intrudes on both your personal and professional life.

    It might ease the sting a bit (and make it easier to transition out) if you continue to focus on your social ties outside of work. This will be a good distraction from your dysfunctional workplace environment and will provide you with support during a job change. I know it’s hard to put energy into this at the same time you’re looking for a new job, but the more you can throw yourself into your family and out-of-work friends, the saner you’ll stay until you find a new job.

    Good luck!

  4. Elizabeth*

    “Thanks for the offer, but I already have plans. I’ll see you Monday!”, said with a smile. No one needs to know that your plans involve you reading a good book in the bathtub or watching TV with your husband.

    I’ve had occasion to see that healthcare is often rife with inappropriate relationships. I know of at least half a dozen doctors in our small facility who have had relationships with staff that led to disciplinary action for one or both parties. Grey’s Anatomy isn’t completely fictional in that respect.

    I agree, it is time to start looking for another job. The other half of the coin with medical office staff is that turnover is extremely high, so there is almost always an office looking for someone who is good at their job and who won’t require a significant amount of training.

    (A tip: an hourly employee having a sexual relationship while on the clock can’t be fired for the relationship, but they can & will be fired for stealing time from the employer. At least, that is the case in our facility.)

        1. fposte*

          I’m responding to Elizabeth’s general point about firing for time misuse rather than actual relationships.

          However, given that there are reportedly 20 employees, this office should meet the threshold for Title VII, so if it turns into a punitive situation for those who won’t play with the boss, he’s opening himself up for an EEOC suit.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Ah, but that wasn’t “we’re firing you for not having sex with the boss” (which would have been illegal). It was messed up in a totally different way.

            2. fposte*

              That was also an office too small for Title VII to apply, so she wouldn’t have been eligible for an EEOC complaint.

            3. twentymilehike*

              WTH?!?!? That was pretty messed up. So HE has no self control, and blames it on her? If I was the wife I’d be mad at him, not at her. Especailly after that “bulging pants” comment.

              I liked this comment, When Nelson’s husband tried to reason with Knight, the dentist told him he “feared he would have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”

              “I’m going to have an affair with you whether you want to or not!”

              1. A Bug!*

                That was pretty messed up. So HE has no self control, and blames it on her?

                I agree that it’s pretty messed up, but the idea that men are uncontrollable in the face of a woman’s sexuality is not actually a very rare sentiment. It’s just unusual in how the guy chose to express it.

  5. Chriama*

    Oh gosh, what a terrible situation. I know that honesty is usually the best policy, but this is one of those times when it isn’t. Take up a new hobby that keeps you busy on Friday nights and bring it up every time they ask you out. Also, start looking – but be SUPER discreet about it. I just can’t see this situation ending well if you stay at the clinic much longer. As you’ve said, the Dr. is testing your boundaries. This means he’ll be unhappy if you continually say no, and he’ll probably pick up on your discomfort even if you try to hide it (because as a ‘predator’, he’s looking for those signals). So get out of there ASAP — literally, quit while you’re ahead!

  6. V*

    I just want to comment on the OP’s statement about losing respect for the clinic manager and Alison’s statement that the manager “seems happy” with the affair. Please keep in mind that the doctor/owner is the manager’s boss too, and the affair may be unwanted /sexual harassment. Just at the OP has been hesitant to turn down her boss’s invitations for drinks for fear of being “blacklisted,” the manager may be fearful of turning down his sexual advances for fear of losing her job. Holding the manager in contempt withot knowing her side of the story only makes the sexual harassment (if that is what is happening) worse and more difficult to address.

        1. Esra*

          It’ll come in handy one day for your bestselling exposé, Please Don’t Ask A Manager: The Dark Underbelly Of Employment Blogging.

        2. Adam V*

          Set up a rule that if an incoming email contains the words “toilet” or “bathroom”, it forwards it to me instead. :)

  7. AB*

    One thing I’ve noticed with most writers asking for advice on how to deal with a bad work situation, is that they tend to start considering one of two extremes: either quit immediately, or stay and accept the discomfort.

    But in most cases (as AAM has repeatedly pointed out in her posts) the best option is in the middle: remain professional, and stay at your current job while actively looking for a new position. I know it’s harder to find time to search and apply to jobs when you have a job, but this downside is offset by the fact that as an employed person you are in a much better position to attract potential employers (may not be fair but it’s normally the case) and to negotiate (since you have a salary and benefits that become your floor).

    So, anyone that isn’t comfortable with their situation needs to keep in mind that you have choices, and typically the best one is to stay at your job, but just until you find a better place (by actively searching).

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      +1! OP, in your situation I’d look for another job — unfortunately this probably means burning vacation/personal days, but what a previous poster said about medical offices always looking for qualified staff sounds pretty plausible, so hopefully you won’t be looking for long.

      1. some1*

        I don’t know where the LW lives, but I have had all of my accrued vacation time paid out when I resigned. Actually, when I was laid off, too.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think AdAgencyChick meant the OP will need to use those days for interviews. (But while we’re on the topic, only a couple of states require that vacation time be paid out when you leave. In most, it’s up to the employer.)

        2. Schnauz*

          My employer used to pay out up to 40 hours of accrued vacation but they changed that policy a couple of years ago. I think they’ve worded it in such a way that it could be successfully challenged though.

  8. LCL*

    You are way overthinking this. Your question spends a lot of time analyzing everyone else’s boundaries, questioning what is happening, saying this is OK but this isn’t because of this and that and etc, and you end with wanting to impose consequences for someone else’s affair. Reading it all made my head hurt. Just stop it, and follow Alison’s advice.
    You don’t like how people behave when you go out with them, don’t go out with them, and don’t involve yourself in worrying about what the rest of the group is doing on party night. Alison’s advice is perfect on this, re-read it as needed.

    1. Anonymous*

      I agree with LCL on this. Stop worrying about what anyone else is doing-the only behaviour you have control over is your own.

      When the activities currently going on implode (and they will-that kind of indiscreet behaviour is like standing too close to the edge of a crumbling cliff)- you will be much better off being far away from the ensuing mess.

      Don’t worry about the “it’s not fair that [I/my family] *have* to lose, work/benefits”-that kind of thinking simply keeps us stalled in neutral and the longer you stay there the more you lose.

      Skip the social actitivites and use the gained time to start preparing for finding a new place to work.

  9. Anon*

    This would gross me out and make me angry. Only a matter of time before Miss Hot Pants gets special treatment – extra long lunches, a raise, a promotion, extra breaks and vacations – while everyone else has to sit and watch this and fume. Or Dr. Hot Pants wants to add other employees to the fun times.

    Not to mention the possibly of Mrs. Dr. Hot Pants getting wind of this, grouping all of you into the Evil Group and then forcing Dr. Hot Pants to fire all of you.

    There are other jobs, with good pay and benefits, not just this place. I would quietly get my resume together and start finding another job. I know all organizations have their challenges, but this type of unprofessionalism…NO.

  10. Elizabeth V*

    I received several disturbing emails at work from a colleague – disturbing in their perceived intimacy (from someone I’d never formally met or ever interacted with, hence the disturbing part). I declined lunch and his reaction was if I’d broken up with him (again, I’d never actually met or interacted with this person). I kept my distance and fortunately didn’t have to work with him – I just physically kept myself away from him (we are 900 people in this HQ location). Thankfully he left the company 11 months later, but not without a last ‘goodbye’ email to me sent the night before. I didn’t quite realize how much it bothered me until the relief I felt at his departure.

    1. Anonymous*

      I used to work with an IT guy who hit on me through the office messenger. I never actually met him, he friended me on MySpace (my profile was private & the profile picture wasnt even really how I looked), and when I ignored him he would take over my computer and open the chat window. He also asked if I wanted to do drugs with him. What is wrong with people?!

  11. pidgeonpenelope*

    Eww! Professional boundaries exist for a reason. As much as I like my boss (she’s really amazing), I would never go out and have drinks with her and my coworkers. I know this gal did it because she felt obligated to and so my issue is with the boss. He definitely doesn’t know professionalism. Plus, cheating on your spouse is not ok. Cheating on your spouse with your coworker is double stupid. I don’t like to mix personal life and professional life ever.

    1. some1*

      I don’t think having drinks with a boss and/or co-workers is necessarily unprofessional. I’m an adult who knows my limits when it comes to both alcohol and being professional. I am able to sit and have a couple of beers in a bar without hitting on anyone or otherwise making anyone feel uncomfortable.

  12. Lyz*

    I find it hard to believe the answer to this is – you can’t do anything from Askamanager? because he is the boss. Maybe im a troublemaker but I would go to a higher upper and say what is happening, I mean its totally inappropriate and it shouldn’t impact the person’s job in this way. I’d say something maybe I’m outspoken.?

  13. OldSoul*

    Methinks that the OP is kind of young because she seems surprised at what’s going on in the office.

    OP, what you are seeing is kind of ‘normal’ for the working world. I have seen the same or worse at jobs and I have worked in a variety of fields (same type of job-different environment). The only thing you can do is set professional boundaries and stick to them.

    I have a super strict rule about socializing/getting personal with people that I work with-I don’t.do.it.ever. I occasionally eat lunch with my co-workers or chitchat about vacations, kids, or weekends but at 5 p.m., our ‘relationship’ is over until tomorrow at 9 a.m.

    That has saved me from a lot of workplace drama and gossip. Although, I have met some people who I would have liked to become friends with outside of work, the risk just was not worth it.

    1. fposte*

      “OP, what you are seeing is kind of ‘normal’ for the working world.” I wouldn’t say it was mind-blowingly rare, but I wouldn’t call it normal either. Some of it depends on what “it” means, but an office where subordinates are expected to go drinking as an audition for being the boss’s mistress? Really not normal.

  14. Secretary*

    It is obvious the practice administrator is screwing with one or more of the docs in our office. She walks around like nobody knows, but we all know it’s the only way she has a job here. She knows nothing about nothing, it is disgusting.

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