my coworkers think I’m having an affair — but I’m not

A reader writes:

I recently learned that there’s a rumor at my office (a company of ~250 employees) that I am involved with a male work friend of mine. This news is extremely upsetting since there is no truth to it. While we do talk quite a bit at work, it has never “crossed the line.” We’re both happily married, don’t have romantic feelings for one another… our friendship is strictly platonic. This friend and I frequently have lunch together, but always with other friends and always in the office cafeteria. We don’t do one-on-one lunches, we’ve never left the office together, etc. His wife (who doesn’t work with us) is also a close friend of mine, but I don’t think our coworkers are aware of this.

I’m perplexed as to how this rumor started since there is no evidence supporting it. I feel strange even writing this letter because the whole thing is just so ridiculous and immature.

I don’t know who started the rumor, nor does my friend. He was given a heads-up about it from another friend of his. Immediately upon hearing it, my friend went to his manager to set the record straight. He said he wants her to know the truth in case someone comes to her about it. I doubt that was the best move, but I honestly have no idea what else to do in this situation.

What can we do, if anything, to stop this rumor in its tracks? Or do we just have to wait it out and hope it goes away? I feel like my reputation is on the line, but I refuse to stop talking to a close friend at work on account of petty gossip. This news has affected my productivity level and, frankly, made it quite difficult to come to work because I’m so disturbed by it. Please help! Do we have any recourse here?

Ugh, this is so gross. It’s one thing for someone to quietly think to themselves, “Huh, it seems like Jane and Fergus are really close,” and something entirely different to spread a rumor that you’re having an affair. There are marriages and jobs and reputations involved here, and whoever started the rumor is really in the wrong.

Practically speaking, though, I think you have a few options here.

Most obviously, you can try to stop it. This can be tricky when the gossip is essentially whispers and you don’t know the source, but you have a lead: the co-worker who tipped your friend off to the rumor. You could enlist his help in figuring out where he heard it and trace it backward from there, setting the record straight with each person in the chain and appealing to their sense of right by saying something like, “I’m obviously really concerned about the impact of this on my reputation and my marriage, and I’d appreciate your help in shutting this down.”

There’s some inherent awkwardness in doing this, so you’d have to decide if you were willing to take that on. (Keep in mind, though, that people who passed along the rumor should feel far more awkward about their side of the conversation than you do.)

You could also try thinking about how you’d spread gossip if you wanted your coworkers to know something. Do you have a colleague who always seems to know the latest gossip? That person might be an effective lever to pull in spreading correct information, too. Or you might just enlist other co-workers whom you trust: Explain to them what’s going on and ask them to go forth and shut it down wherever they hear it.

A totally different option, and one that might seem counterintuitive: You can ignore it. Often when you’re at the center of something like this, it feels like you have to figure out a course of action – but sometimes you really don’t. Sometimes you can roll your eyes and decide not to care and go about your business. Of course, this isn’t always feasible; if a rumor is affecting your marriage or your reputation or the way people treat you, you don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. But I’d seriously consider this route if none of those things seem like likely risks.

A better course might be a modified version of ignoring it. Figure out what the risks of the rumor might be, address those directly, and then commence ignoring the rest. That might mean that your friend should tell his wife about the rumor so that it doesn’t blindside her one day, and that you follow his lead and talk to your boss about it too. I know it feels really weird to approach your boss about something like this, but a short, matter-of-fact heads-up to her will probably give you some peace of mind. You could just say, “Hey, this annoying thing is happening that I don’t think I can do much about, but I don’t want you to hear this and think there’s any truth to it.”

Which of these strategies to pick really just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. But don’t let fear of awkwardness be the thing you weight most heavily here. The situation already is awkward, through no fault of yours, so to some extent this is about choosing which type of awkwardness serves your interests the best – the type that might come with ignoring the situation or the type that might come with setting the record straight.

I don’t have anything to do at my internship

A reader writes:

I’m an intern at a prominent tech company in the field I thought I wanted to go into after I graduate next spring. I’ve done research previously, but this is my first internship. I’m a few weeks in, and while I still have a couple of months left, I’m worried that I’m not going to get much out of this program or seem very impressive as a potential full-time hire.

I haven’t been assigned much work, and a lot of the work that I have been assigned I’m not really sure how to proceed with. Additionally, my manager has been in and out of the office and difficult to get a hold of. I’m paid hourly so I can’t just get my work done and leave, even if I need to wait days to hear back from my boss about something. I’ve asked him and his co-workers in my office for more, but everybody has been busy. And then I end up spending a LOT of time bored at my desk, on the internet, reading about things vaguely related to what the company does. I worry that it appears that I’m slacking off, but I am not sure what else to do.

Another aspect is that, while I don’t know if I want to work for this particular company after graduation (especially given the directionless last few weeks I’ve had), I do really want to have a good reference and the ability to talk about my contributions in interviews with other companies next year, and also put them on my résumé. Are my expectations too high? What kind of direction and/or guidance should I expect from my manager? How do you kill time in an office without seeming like it? If I’m so bored now, should I be rethinking the industry or department I want to go into? Help!

This isn’t a terribly uncommon thing with internships, even though it should be. People often bring on interns with vague ideas about what they’ll work on, without actually thinking through what those projects will be, how much time they’ll take up, and how much energy the manager will need to invest in supervising the work. In fact, I have to fess up that the first time I hired a summer intern, she finished in three weeks the list of projects that I’d thought would keep her busy the entire summer. I’m cringing looking back on it, and it definitely taught me not to hire interns without far more preparation — but yeah, it’s a thing that can happen.

That said, your expectations aren’t too high. It’s reasonable to expect that if a company hires you, they have work for you. It’s also reasonable to expect that you’ll get guidance from your manager, particularly in an internship, where the whole point is that you’re new to the workforce. So while it’s a thing that happens, it’s still a thing that shouldn’t happen, and you aren’t naïve or unrealistic for expecting that you wouldn’t be stuck watching YouTube videos all summer.

Your best chance of solving this is to schedule a meeting with your manager and talk about what’s going on. Sure, he’s not in the office much, but you can email him and say you’d like to schedule time to talk about what you should be working on. Then, in that meeting, say this: “I haven’t been assigned much work, and I’m hoping we could come up with some longer-term projects I could work on that will keep me busy much of the summer. It’s really important to me to earn a good reference here and also to come away with experience that will help me as I start to build my career. I’m not expecting glamorous work, of course; I just want to keep busy and contribute however I can.”

Ideally, this will guilt him into realizing that this has been a pretty bad internship for you so far, and he will try to remedy that. But if it doesn’t, you could try having a similar conversation with a few others in your office who seem approachable. (Don’t be intimidated by everyone seeming busy. That just means that you shouldn’t walk up to their desk and launch in, but you can email them, ask to meet, and give them a heads-up about the topic.)

Also! Try proposing your own projects. That can be a little tricky as an intern because you might not have a great vantage point yet on what would be helpful or what might be stepping on someone else’s toes, but if they’re abandoning you to your own devices, maybe there’s a problem you could try solving, a program you could write, or a project you could tackle (that they then could use or not). You’d want to run it by your boss so he can tell you if there’s some reason not to do it, but that could be as simple as “Hey, I’m going to experiment with X as a way to get some experience with this, with the understanding that it may or may not end up be something you ultimately want to use. Let me know if I shouldn’t!” Frankly, your boss is so hands-off that he might be relieved.

If none of that works, your fallback is this: a self-designed program of study for the summer. Work on coding, work on learning a new programming language, whatever makes sense in your field. That will help you stay busy without looking like you’re just slacking off, and it’ll give you something productive to describe when you talk about this internship in the future.

And don’t let this experience sour you on the whole field. This likely isn’t representative of what it would be like to work in the field full-time (witness how busy everyone else there is). This is just a terrible case of intern neglect.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Not Karen*

    Regarding this statement in the second letter:

    I’m paid hourly so I can’t just get my work done and leave

    It sounds like you are under the same misconception I was that once you’re salaried exempt, you can leave once you get your work done. For some f’d-up reason, this is not the case. You are supposed to stay at the office for 40+ hours regardless of how long (or short, as the case may be) it takes you to get your work done.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In this case, I think the OP is non-exempt (since an intern) but since he’s getting paid hourly, if she leaves she’ll lose money she was counting on.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Why is being expected to be in the office a minimum of full-time effed up? If you’re a full-time employee, 35-40 hours a week is pretty standard, though there may be more schedule flexibility on when those hours are worked as exempt staff, depending on your job and organization.

      If someone with a full-time job and routinely found that they completed their work early and expected to be able to leave, I’d recommend we explore part-time options for them or find other projects they could take on to fill the day more.

  2. Turanga Leela*

    NY Mag’s stock photos make me so happy. That giant phone is my favorite thing ever.

    1. Cathy*

      I was just wondering “How old is that photo!?” Haven’t seen a brick like that in a loooong time LOL

    2. Shelby Drink the Juice*

      Yes! That phone is fantastic! I wonder how far back in their stock photos they had to go to find that.

  3. Not a Creeper*

    Fun Fact: Jack the Ripper started out all of his letters with “Dear Boss” as well.

  4. Liz*

    This actually happened in my office, started by a colleague who was jealous about a promotion that the other woman got, and I know some of the people who report directly became involved in discussing it. I shut it down by offhandedly saying (when they repeated it to me), “God, didn’t we leave all of that mean-girl/bullying stuff back in high school? I don’t have time for petty gossip, do you?” No one likes to a) be called a bully; b) be called immature in the workplace; and c) have someone imply they don’t have enough to keep them busy if they have time for gossip. I don’t know if it 100% stopped – it certainly stopped being a topic anyone raised with me – but I think when this sort of malicious gossip happens, it needs to be stigmatized, pronto.

    1. Strictly Platonic*

      Wow… kudos, Liz! I’m going to try that tactic next time someone tries to share a piece of juicy gossip with me, instead of just acting uninterested and pretending to be too busy to chat.

      1. Mona425*

        Thank You! I will be using that in my office. We have got some petty, gossipy mean girls that are bringing the whole team down.

    2. Database Developer Dude*

      Good on you! If someone came to me, no matter what my role was, and tried to spread such a rumor with me, my response would be “Why should I care about that? That’s none of my business”.

  5. Sassy Boots*

    Sometimes you can roll your eyes and decide not to care and go about your business…figure out what the risks of the rumor might be, address those directly, and then commence ignoring the rest.

    Agreed. The fact that someone made and shared this assumption says more about that individual than it does the OP. The same goes for anyone who help to spread it. It’s ridiculous, immature, and has absolutely nothing to do with the OP and everything to do with whoever started the rumor.

  6. Rye-Ann*

    I don’t have much advice, except to say this: rumors are weird, and don’t necessarily have any basis in reality. In college, I was president of a club, and at one point someone started a rumor that the VP was going to overthrow me (!) and become president herself! Never mind that that wouldn’t have been possible for reasons I won’t get into, my VP was clueless when I asked about it. To this day neither of us have any idea how this got started. All you can really do, I think, is just set the record straight, as Allison suggests.

  7. Mike C.*

    Ugh, I really hate this sort of thing. Dispite what you heard from a silly movie years ago, Men and Women can be friends, mentors, colleagues, and so on without wanting to make the relationship physical. That’s what adults do.

    1. D Gamble*

      As a male in an office that’s 85% female, I really have no choice. It’s female friends, or no office friends at all.

      With regard to the rumors: if such a rumor was floating around about me, and noting that I’m not the most attractive specimen of the gender, I’d consider it an honor just to be nominated!

      1. I can't see Russia from my house*

        That’s because, as a male, the stigma and reputation damage you would face would be significantly less than if you were a female.

        1. Database Developer Dude*

          You’re right about that, and it’s sad on two levels.

          Level 1 being the unequal treatment where a woman would take a worse hit to her reputation than a man in the same situation.

          Level 2 where a man is treated as a slave to his own desires, and expected not to have control over himself just because he’s a man… so having an affair gets excused.

          Note: None of this should be taken as me judging someone who has an affair, I’m just commenting on the double-unfairness of such a situation on a gender-related basis.

  8. Brett*

    The intern’s letter is a big problem in general with new employees at tech companies (just as Alison mentioned it is a problem with interns in general). Without understanding someone’s abilities, it takes a while to determine what is a reasonable amount of work for them to do in a certain time period. If you have no knowledge of a particular tech skill, a simple task can take several weeks while you learn, train, and get up to speed on that skill. Whereas if you know the skill cold, you might be able to crank out the same task in a couple of hours.

    One way we on board new tech employees faster is to have them interact directly with other employees on their current projects and give those employees the latitude to task the new employee with specific issues. Maybe the LW could also discuss with the manager which employees could have that latitude to provide them tasks. Once those employees have a better assessment of the LW’s skill set, they can take over the role of give the LW specific work while the LW’s manager focuses on the non-tech management aspects of the internship?

    (As a side note, rather than doing specific technical tasks, I have come to realize that understanding the tools and methods of planning a tech project is some of the most valuable experience you can get out of an internship. Is the company practicing a form of agile or some other development pattern? How does this pattern function, what tools are useful, how does the team break up the work into units and determine priorities, etc.)

  9. animaniactoo*

    One thing you can do to debunk the “they’re having an affair” thing – talk to some people you trust around you. The route you want to choose is “Okay, I don’t get it. I’ve heard there’s this rumor out there about us, I’ve looked at what might cause people to think that since we’re *not* actually having an affair and I can’t figure it out. Is there something I’m missing?”

    Usually you’ll either get feedback that means “huh, I hadn’t noticed that, even if we’re not having an affair, there does seem to be some preferential treatment going on, I better make sure to correct that” or you end up explaining a few things that seem odd but really aren’t and you have people who can shut down the rumor and will be on top of it now that they know it’s an issue.

    There are always going to be a few outliers who won’t believe the truth if it hits them with a clue-by-four, but those are not the people you are really concerned about and shouldn’t go out of your way to overaddress this with them – they’ll just take that as more “proof”. As long as the majority opinion is swayed, that’s where your concern is.

    1. Strictly Platonic*

      Thanks, animaniactoo. I hadn’t even thought of asking other trusted work friends and then gauging their feedback… and enlisting their help with debunking the rumor if should they hear it. I’ll definitely try this!

  10. The Rat-Catcher*

    Husband, from a distance, looks somewhat like Coworker, and I know of at least one case of mistaken identity over lunch. I addressed it with Husband in case anyone ever brings it up with him, but haven’t paid it any mind at work. Coworker is a friend but we are not close by any means. But this is an environment where even bringing up such things could be considered sexual harassment, so no one wants to push too hard.

  11. WhichSister*

    I could have written this letter a few years back. I transfered in from one location and the male co-worker transfered back to the location not long after. We were both “warned off” each other (due to office politics) so we were both naturally curious. Turns out we are both die hard fans of the same sports team… so that was it. We hit it off and are to this day BFFs We rarely even went to lunch together… (it was a manufacturing site and I mostly worked day shift, while he worked swing or graveyard.) We were both married at time and neither of our spouses had a problem. When my BFF ended up with a secondary infection after appendicitis, I helped take care of him as his MIL was dying at the time and his wife was beyond her limits. To this day, she tells people I saved his life. When he got tickets to see our favorite team in a playoff game, it was his wife’s idea that we go together. What was bothersome is that we both ended up leaving the company. A few years later, I went back to the company at a different location. This was after my divorce (unrelated to my bff) and I had resumed use of my maiden name. Someone who was not even at our location said they were surprised my last name wasn’t BFFs last name. (which told me the rumor had spread beyond our location) I responded with I think his wife would have a problem with that. The rumor has always bothered me but it doesn’t keep me up at night. He and I and his wife know the truth and that’s really all that matters.

    1. Strictly Platonic*

      “He and I and his wife know the truth and that’s really all that matters.”

      This is exactly how “Fergus” and I feel about the matter (its been a few weeks since this news came out). We and our spouses know the truth and that’s what’s most important.
      Sorry that happened to you… its crazy how gossip can spread between multiple office locations! Small consolation is that person who commented on your different last name must’ve felt pretty awkward. ;)

  12. Stranger than fiction*

    I just think it may be worth clearing the air, just in case it gets to the wrong people and does affect her/their reputation.
    I’ve told the tale here before, but this happened to me and to this day I feel like it contributed to my making the layoff list.
    In my case, however, it was my coworker “friend” who I found out way too late was spreading the rumor. Also find out way too late he was being watched because he was on a Pip, and that’s how/why our instant messages about very private things were seen and misconstrued on top of the fact he was telling his buddies we were getting it on.
    So when layoffs came, we were two of the eight people, even though I had stellar performance, so you do the math. Apparently I was guilty by association.
    Another lesson learned the hard way for me.

    1. Strictly Platonic*

      Wow, that’s awful!! Sometimes its hard to know who your true “friends” are, isn’t it? What a snake :(

      1. Strictly Platonic*

        Not to mention this is even more incentive for me to enlist friends, tell my boss, etc. to try to shut this thing down ASAP. Thanks for sharing your story.

  13. Wren*

    When my best friend and I interned as undergrads (separate work places,) we didn’t know many people in our school who had interned, and were tearing our hair out with boredom. Eventually we heard through the grapevine from students at another school where it was far more common to intern, that even with all the industry relationships the school had fostered for this major internship program, their students were still commonly bored out of their minds and it was common practice to take a correspondence course while on work placement. (All of these were reasonably well paid opportunities in engineering and tech.)

  14. Not So NewReader*

    OP, this is what people do, they gossip. If they can’t find something real then they will manufacture something. I think most places have this type of problem. I would do nothing. Even if you inform everyone of what is not going on, there will always be new hires and someone will keep the story alive.

    I think you could tell anyone who mentions it to you in the future that, “Since I know that is not what is going on here, for someone to assume that it is going on, tells you bunches about them.”

    Typically when people make an accusation against us and the accusation makes NO sense, they have just told us what they themselves are doing. And they assume everyone else is doing the same as they are.

    1. Strictly Platonic*

      That’s a good point, Not So NewReader. I’m sure this happens everywhere. My company has a lot of roles that are fairly dull, repetitive work (its the “white collar” version of a factory that manufactures teapots)… so any news, however ridiculous, is jumped on by the less mature colleagues who are looking for *anything to make their day more interesting. Its sad and I feel sorry for those people.

      Then again, perhaps they just assume the worst since they’ve had affairs of their own, like you said…..

      1. Ann without an e*

        A rumor about me got started when a male coworker joked about being the father of my unannounced actual pregnancy…….. I thought ignore was the best advice. My son was two and I was still overhearing arguments whether a brown haired brown eyed man ( co-worker) could have a blond blue eyed kid ( my kid)………. that rumor is the reason I decided to quit and stay home with said kid. Even after that guy left the rumor didn’t. The buyout drama didn’t help.

        Do not underestimate how bad this can get.

        1. Strictly Platonic*

          Duly noted, Ann without an e…. and thanks for sharing. How awful! I’ve actually been considering leaving my company for quite some time now (I also have a young son). This just might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak. I’m now actively looking for other jobs. Its a shame because, other than the silly gossip of other employees, I didn’t mind this job at all and enjoyed having a part time schedule. In my line of work that will be difficult to find elsewhere. :(

  15. stevenz*

    Speaking from some direct experience… I would confront the rumor mongers and be indignant. Not publicly, but take them aside and put it on the line. You have the moral high ground here, and since this affects you at a very personal level, it has no business being a matter of discussion around the office – especially because it isn’t true.

    Also, tell your manager, and be forceful not defensive. Decide if you want to ask her to do something, and what, before you talk to her.

    As for telling your spouses, I’m a bit more conflicted about that one. It could draw unnecessary attention to something that doesn’t warrant attention – the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” syndrome – and could diminish the quality of your friendship with the guy.

    If you choose to ignore it, and that may work fine because people will get bored by the whole thing eventually, still tell your manager.

    (I had a good female friend who I spent a lot of lunchtimes with – generally eating lunch. OMG! I found out after I had left that people thought we were having an affair. That shocked me. It’s not that there wasn’t mutual attraction, there was, but it never occurred to us to pursue something like that. But it was flattering in a strange sort of way.)

    1. the gold digger*

      it was flattering

      I had a massive crush on Steve when we worked together. We became very good friends and would hang out. I was single; he had a girlfriend whom I had never met. He would talk about her – they were having problems and I kept hoping that he would ditch her. Then he would talk about how compatible he and I were.

      One evening, he came over to my house – he had a big confession to make.

      Finally! This was it! He was going to tell me he was breaking up with Anna because he wanted to be with me!

      Well no.

      He told me he was gay. Anna was Sergio. He just couldn’t keep such a secret from a friend any more.

      He didn’t tell anyone else at work. Other women would say, “You and Steve, huh?” And I wanted to say, “Have you looked at him?” (Tall, fit, very handsome) “Have you looked at me?” (plumpish, very very ordinary looking) “Do you really see the two of us together?”

      But I wouldn’t say that because it was so flattering than anyone would think that he would ever pick me to date.

    2. Strictly Platonic*

      Thanks for the solid advice, stevenz. I’ll admit that I’m not the most confrontation person… so I doubt I’ll be indignantly confronting the rumor mongers any time soon. I’ll definitely talk my friends’ manager or mine, to see if there’s anything they can do. I hope this doesn’t sound ignorant or sexist but, since my boss is male, from another culture, and we haven’t worked together very long, I’m not sure he’ll understand my perspective. At the very least I’ll reach out to my friend “Fergus’s” manager since I’m closer with her and I know she’d want to help if I went to her.

      I happen to agree with you about telling our respective spouses. I don’t want to put the idea in their heads that its even remotely a possibility.

  16. Bored Law Intern*

    The intern letter is literally me, right now. Most of the people I’ve talked to have straight up told me not to worry about it and enjoy my time abroad. I am, but I’d also like to have work to do! (I can’t believe I’m saying that)

    1. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

      As a current lawyer and former law intern, it’s a tough position, yes? Interns can do very few things, officially. (Unless there is a 3rd year practice act in place).

      My suggestion? Ask to tag along on anything you can. If you’re in a court setting, check with the bailiffs to see what’s going on. You’ll learn so much more by watching lawyers practice than in the classroom or doing research projects.

  17. boop*

    Ugh this sort of happened to me, except we were a teen girl and a mid-30s dude. Problem was, he turned out to be a bit of a creeper, and didn’t deny when our employer asked about the rumor. Of course, being the teenager, no one believed me when I denied the romance and it was constantly thrown in my face the few years I worked there.

    I hate “Nice Guys”.

  18. Kay*

    People gonna gossip, and the presented suggestions are good for either confronting or ignoring it. One thing to consider when choosing which method to use is to consider the general gossip culture and employment turnover rates of your office. Is your workplace full of gossipy folks who are always looking to dish the dirt, but it’s also a relatively young/mobile crowd who might be your coworkers for only a couple of years at most? You’re probably best off ignoring it; the next hot topic will come along soon and distract those who love rumors, and a few years from now no one will remember any of it.

    However, if it’s a workplace with little turnover where rumors can gain traction and still be hanging around in the heads of your colleagues for several years, best to confront it. The idea of using a fellow gossiper to spread the truth is a very good one, but I’d recommend talking to your boss as well if it’s really a concern.

    1. Strictly Platonic*

      That’s a very good point which I hadn’t considered. Its actually the latter…. very little turnover and most employees stay for many years (even many decades!)

      I liked the idea of using fellow gossipers to spread the truth…but not sure I can trust any of them. I know of at least two but they could be “nice guys,” like boop said. Can’t necessarily be counted on LOL. And I’m guessing the female gossipers I’m closely acquainted with would just use the info to propagate the false rumor… assuming they haven’t heard it already. :(

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