people are gossiping about my boss having an affair

A reader writes:

I’m a kind of co-leader of my department, though I do not have official management capabilities or a management title. Basically I’m a team lead, and am the go-to person after my manager, but I am not a manager myself.

Rumors have been flying around our department that my manager has been having an affair, possibly with someone in our company. I don’t know if it is true or untrue, and in my opinion it’s none of my business unless it interferes with our work. However, lately this has meant that whenever my manager is away from the office, speculation and gossip are prime entertainment in the department. Not only is it whispered about, it is also speculated upon quite loudly, for long periods of time, and I know people outside the department can hear the conversations going on. There have even been betting pools about who is involved in the affair.

I’m very uncomfortable with these conversations being broadcasted so loudly. I feel like it makes the entire department look unprofessional and gossipy. However, since I have no real management authority, I don’t feel I have a right to tell anyone not to discuss it. If I did, I would likely be scoffed at. Obviously it would be a very strange thing to bring up to my manager. So I am torn. So far I’ve been discouraging these discussions by making it clear that I don’t see why it’s any of our business. Is there anything more I can do?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Engineer Girl*

    Couldn’t this also be a form of sexual harassment? Especially if it isn’t true?
    Does the OP have an ethic office that they can contact for guidance?

    1. sunny-dee*

      Probably not, if the manager is male? Although, if they’re pulling in other coworkers into the rumor, maybe.

      1. Aurion*

        Why would the gender of the manager matter here? If it’s egregious enough to be considered sexual harassment, it should apply regardless of gender.

        1. sunny-dee*

          It shouldn’t be. But people tend to be more sensitive if the target is a woman and less so if it’s a man.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            IANALlama, but I believe that legally, it would still be harassment if the activity meets the definition for it regardless of the person’s gender. But you’re kind of right about the perception.

    2. stevenz*

      What do you mean? Who is harassing whom? No, I don’t think sexual harassment can be stretched far enough to include speculation on the private lives of co-workers.

  2. Amelia*

    People in your office are definitely being childish and gossipy and they shouldn’t be doing this. With all that said, I actually think OP should just ignore it and try to stay out of it. If he or she keeps jumping in to essentially defend the boss, it might give people the impression that OP is the affair partner and damage his or her own reputation. I’d roll my eyes and do my best to ignore it.

    1. Not a Real Giraffe*

      I mean… I suppose that’s a risk, but it seems unlikely to me, so long as the OP puts a neutral tone on it.

    2. Merry and Bright*

      This is a very good point. The OP could get drawn into this so deeply – especially if other teams have overhead the gossipy conversations. Besides, since when did gossip about coworkers’ affairs stay inside the team anyway? In no time half the company could be thinking it’s the OP in the affair and trying to throw people off the scent.

      I do agree that the OP needs to take action as the team lead though and should probably have that quiet word with the boss about the gossip. But the OP is in such a tough position. It’s a bit like the age-old “should I tell my friend her husband is being unfaithful?” Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

    3. neverjaunty*

      Except then people are just as likely to say dumb things like “wow, Fergus gets really quiet every time the affair comes up… do you think HE might be the side piece?”

    4. hbc*

      That’d be pretty strange. “Ooh, she’s off to have her rendezvous.” “Cut it out guys.” “Awfully defensive, aren’t you? It must be you!” “…Yes, the boss is off having an affair right now, with me, while I’m sitting right here.”

      1. neverjaunty*

        More like, they start talking about the LW behind her back just like they’re talking about the boss.

  3. Sketchee*

    I’m with Allison here definitely! If it doesn’t have to do with work, you aren’t obligated to take part and it’s okay to have limits on what personal items you are comfortable being involved in. I can understand the social pressure and that they might even start gossiping about you. Which they might and that’s how they exert their own influence. Best to continually tell and show your personal and professional values here.

    It also sounds like a good opportunity to clarify your role

  4. Queen Anne*

    I bet you are not the only one who feels that way. I would speak up and I bet you will find others that are glad you did and agree. If you do talk to your boss please, please emphasize that you do not care about her personal life as Allison said. She may immediately focus on the rumor itself and feel defensive rather than the issue the rumor is causing.

    1. stevenz*

      I’ll take this opportunity (I happen to be reading this comment at the moment) to repeat my earlier comment because the more I think about it, the stronger I feel. The OP should not under any circumstances speak to her manager about it. That would be an awkward discussion if it goes *well*. It could be fatal if it doesn’t. The manager won’t see it as doing her/him a favour by bringing it up, and anyway, the manager is not in a position to deal with the problem because he/she *is* the problem.

      The best way you or anybody else can demonstrate their lack of interest in someone’s personal life is to not bring it up in the first place.

  5. hayling*

    At my last job, the CEO was having an affair with one of the managers (who was then promoted to director…). I refused to believe it or give the gossip any attention when it was first whispered about, but then they were *so* obvious about it. It made me really uncomfortable!

  6. neverjaunty*

    OP should definitely bring this to the manager’s attention. As for the co-workers, I recommend not so much defending the boss as treating it like a subject you just find totally inappropriate, e.g. “I really don’t want to spend any time thinking about Jane’s sex life, much less talking about it. Anyway, what did you think of the latest revisions to the rice sculpture report?” That lessens the possibility that the rumormongers are going to think you are the affair partner, and puts them in the position of saying ‘well, actually I *do* want to talk about Jane’s sex life,’ which almost everyone would realize is over the line.

    Although I concur, wtf is wrong with these people?

  7. Katniss*

    Oh hey, this was me back in the day!

    The rumor did turn out to be true, but I asked people to stop talking about it during work hours and they did. They often brought it up during get-togethers after work, and I would usually leave the area when that happened because I was just uncomfortable with that kind of speculation. The manager moved on to another department soon afterwards.

    1. Rebecca in Dallas*

      Oh, how funny! Who won the pool? (Kidding!)

      Glad they knocked it off, I can see how that would get really old really fast.

    2. Anna No Mouse*

      I just read your update! What a trainwreck of a situation.

      I’ll never understand how people walk around like they live in a vacuum believing their actions don’t affect others. Glad this situation worked out for you, though!

    3. Brett*

      I want through the same thing at a previous job.
      There were constant rumors that my manager was having an affair with one of my co-workers. Turned out to be true, and led to his divorce.

      Didn’t matter that it was true. When people talked about it, I told them very firmly I did not want to hear about that at work. And they stopped talking about it.

  8. MillersSpring*

    It might be helpful to point out to the coworkers, that the gossiping is highly unprofessional and affecting their productivity. Also, anyone overhearing is going to judge the gossips as much as or more than the manager allegedly having an affair. Finally, if other managers or executives find out about the incessant gossiping and betting pools, all of the employees could be severely tarnished.

  9. Chaordic One*

    I’ve been in two work situations where such rumors turned out to be true, and in both cases the affair severely damaged and undermined the confidence of workers in their leaders.

    In one situation a department head left his wife for someone outside of the company whom worked for one of the company’s clients. His wife had previously also worked at our company and a lot of people felt loyal to her. Relationships toward him within the company became strained and he ended up leaving the company and starting his own consulting and coaching business.

    In the other case it was the CEO who had the affair and left his wife for an employee. He kept his job but there was an unusually large number of people left the company for other jobs after that, and his personal conduct was a major reason why.

  10. Chaordic One*

    I once worked at company where employees had a “Death Pool.” People bet on who in the company would pass away.

    There were high odds on the CEO who developed a brain tumor, but he got better; a department head who had a pacemaker put in, he also got better; and a poor woman who, I don’t know exactly why but she had ostomy bags and did not look particularly well and then died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. There was a big payoff when a different department head died unexpectedly from complications of pneumonia which started with what seemed to be just a bad cold.

    Pleasant place it was.

  11. Jo*

    I think Chaordic One’s post should be added to the Weirdest Things You’ve Seen at Work thread.

  12. stevenz*

    I disagree with Alison on the point that speculating shouldn’t be done. People can speculate as much as they want about whatever they want as long as they keep it to themselves. But I doubt she was trying to say that they shouldn’t do so in private.

    More seriously, I disgree with her advice to speak to your manager. My advice would be to elevate it to his/her manager and let them do the talking, as is their job. I do agree that you’re in as good a position as anyone to speak up about it with your team; you’ve got the moral high ground on your side. Otherwise, I’d keep my head down.

  13. AisforA*

    As someone who was a victim of a rumor similar to this, I agree with Alison. This past semester, I had a male intern who was close to me in age (I am female). We got along very well, as we have similar interests and personalities, but always kept things professional. At the same time, I broke up with my fiance, who I was with for many many years for completely unrelated reasons that were frankly none of anyone else’s business. Rumors were flying like crazy, and some were even started by our Director of HR and my own boss. My employees participated, as did some random other people in the building. I ended up confronting my boss about it, and she apologized profusely, but the damage was already done. It was humiliating and could have caused major professional issues for me personally (since I am also an adjunct professor for the university that the student was from). It made a hard time in my life (the break-up with my fiance) way harder than it needed to be. And although I love my job and my facility, I no longer feel like I can trust the people around me.

    I’m sure, OP, that it will at least give your boss comfort to know that there is someone who he can trust if you do stand up to the gossipers.

  14. Liza*

    Alison, what would you suggest the manager do after the OP tells her about the rumors? There the manager is, having suddenly learned that they’re the topic of gossip and that a lot of people think they’re having an affair…

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