my employee is having an affair with a client’s spouse

A reader writes:

I have a very difficult question about an employee who is having an affair with a client’s spouse. This employee happens to be a personal friend, which is why I know about the affair. However, a scorned spouse could cause ramifications to my business in a small town.

I have already told my employee that I do not approve of the relationship (as a friend), and I feel that I may need to fire her to protect my business. What legal ramifications could occur if I do fire her, or if I don’t and the spouse finds out?

I answer this question — and three others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I’m newly engaged and totally distracted at work
  • My colleague wants to give flowers to all the women for Valentine’s Day
  • Can I use my ex as a job reference?

{ 196 comments… read them below }

  1. Justin*

    I saw the title and I was like “OOOH JUICY” and then I forgot it’s Monday lunch Inc post. No new drama.

  2. e271828*

    In the case of LW#1, the business doesn’t have to have a policy in place to fire the employee for violating it. She’s displaying spectacularly bad judgment and if client relationships are important to the business, the choice of which to keep seems clear.

    1. Candi*

      In the US, yes. In other countries, not so much.

      Labor laws and worker protections would mean instituting the policy, teaching people about the policy, announcing no one was being grandfathered in (however you say that professionally), and starting to write up the employee when they get caught out. (Someone who pulls this is usually pretty bad about hiding stuff.)

      Also, Montana’s not at-will.

      1. Xena*

        Hmm. On one hand I see where you’re coming from and am glad that there’s a layer of protection that prevents businesses from simply shutting down ‘immoral’ behavior. On the other, this is a pretty clear breach of every ethical independence code I can think of and a lot of businesses have some sort of independence stipulations included in the boilerplate. This would probably fall under that code simply because even if a business/ethical standard allows for clients to be related/involved with employees they usually require that such relationships be disclosed.

        1. tamarack & fireweed*

          Well, this is pretty much the situation that for example US companies have been fallen afoul of labor laws in Germany for. (That and “telling on co-workers” sort of rules, which recent history makes very unappetizing in Germany.) There is a very strong protection of privacy there, and basically as long as the actions aren’t illegal (and thankfully having a relationship outside an existing marriage isn’t illegal) the bar is very high for the employer to have any say. The employer can fire the employee if their performance is affected, of course, or lay them off with severance if there is an incompatibility with the business purpose.

          And I also have a pretty queasy feeling about the radically judgmental attitude in cases like this where we have very very little knowledge of what is actually going down (and frankly, SHOULD not have more knowledge). Sure, there are many repugnant and genuinely harmful behaviors by people who start new relationship to the surprise and disappointment of their spouse. But there are also other scenarios. Marriages fall apart, partners can be violent or verbally cruel … and partners reconfigure before a dead marriage is dissolved. We don’t even know if the relationship predates the customer relationship, or the other way around.

          I mean, I might even share the OP’s moral judgement but not on the basis of all this second and third hand description. If the OP needs to fire their (former?) friend, well, sure, then they need to. But in itself the situation as far as we can be sure what’s going on is surely pretty common and … part of the fabric of human behaviors that businesses deal with.

          1. Despachito*

            I second this.

            I think that
            – we should separate work and private affairs. This is a private affair, and unless it is influencing the employee’s productivity (which it seems it doesn’t), it is none of the employer’s business.

            – it somehow makes me feel uneasy that my job could be at risk for whatever I do in private if it is not illegal (of course there are exceptions, like being a teacher and having a side gig as an adult film star).

            I do not know how likely it is that someone stops being a client in such a situation if previously everything was OK work-wise. I get it that people can go completely irrational in sentimental matters, but if the client learns about the affair, how likely it is that they will interrupt the business with the OP, and if they want to do so, how likely it is that firing the employee will stop them from doing that, because possibly they will (irrationally) see OP’s business was the source of the affair irrespectively of whether the employee was still working there ?

            1. GlowCloud*

              I think this *is* akin to being a teacher and being an adult film star… or, rather, it’s akin to a college professor sleeping with a mature student. Yeah, they might be consenting adults, on a relatively equal footing, but their existing professional relationship makes it problematic, in a way that impacts the employer as well as the cuckolded spouse.

              If the employee was having an affair with some random person, then it would be a private matter for the boss to politely ignore. But this is an affair with a client’s spouse!! The business is concerned with being able to retain this client’s revenue!

              It’s likely to cost the business the client if (when!) they find out about the affair. It could almost certainly impact this employee’s handling of the client’s account. It puts a strain on the employee’s relationship with their boss in a way that calls their professional judgement into question. It creates potential for reputational damage. The nature of this affair creates a dynamic that could easily be leveraged for blackmail purposes…

              It’s just totally inappropriate behaviour, and apparently the employee feels ok casually telling their boss/friend about it… Unprofessional to say the least.

              1. Despachito*

                I do not think it is akin to the professor vs mature student relationship – the student and the professor are members of the same organization, the professor is superior in rank and has power over the student.

                An employee sleeping with a client’s spouse is neither of the above.

                One thing is that I may personally disapprove of the affair (and sure I do), but I find it strange that this kind of affair should have repercussions on the persons’ work.

                The only thing I concur with you is when you mention the potential blackmail/damage the employee might do to the cheated spouse’s affair… but OP did not mention the kind of business they are in, and this may very well not be a concern at all (you mentioned an account but for all we know, OP’s firm can be a caterer or sell produce or all sorts of business where it would be difficult to imagine for the employee to tank anything on the cheater’s behalf to harm the cheated spouse).

                I absolutely do not think that having an affair with a married person is OK, I can see how a scorned spouse can do unreasonable things, but I am not even sure that if the spouse finds out they will turn their anger towards the paramour’s EMPLOYER. I mean, if any of us (God forbid) found out that our significant half is cheating of us, how likely is it that we will turn against the lover’s employer, instead of the lover?)

                1. Burger Bob*

                  I mean, if the person my spouse cheated on me with worked at a business I was frequenting, then yeah, I would probably start avoiding that business. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all.

  3. Jen*

    This is oretty much the definition of “don’t defecate where you eat”. Yeah, you have to fire her. The fallout on your business can be immense so it’s beat to get ahead of it. If she’s indiscreet enough to be telling her bossz it’s going to come out. She might be your friend but you have to protect your business first.

    1. IndustriousLabRat*

      I like the saying, “don’t shop for meat where you get your bread” for this specific application of the basic principle.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I like the very off color appropriateness of the metaphor. I’m showing my age with the bread = money, but funny is funny, man.

        1. IndustriousLabRat*

          I’m also old enough to equate bread=money. Maybe younger generations will replace it with “chedda” :)

          1. Caw*

            Not sure what era of slang y’all are referring to, but the kids have definitely been using bread=money in the past 5ish years! See: “let’s get this bread” as an extremely popular idiom of ours.

          2. Stopgap*

            What on earth is “chedda”? Bread isn’t that hard to figure out if you’re familiar with the term “breadwinner”.

            1. IndustriousLabRat*

              Chedda/Cheddar is a really common slang for money and appears frequently in hip-hop lyrics. I know it was in use at least as far back as the late 80s/early 90’s – I’m STILL listening to the same Tribe Called Quest albums that I was 30 years ago lol. Bye, gotta chase that chedda!

          3. Anonymous4*

            I always heard, “Don’t get your honey where you get your money,” and I have no idea how old the phrase is.

      2. wendelenn*

        I see that, but really, most people often do get meat and bread at the same location, so if someone said that and the context wasn’t known, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

        1. Candi*

          It’s likely from times/areas where people went to the baker and butcher separately, and someone selling both couldn’t be relied on for quality of either.

          1. SheLooksFamiliar*

            Nope. ‘Bread’ is a 60s slang term for money. Gelt. Moolah. Spondulicks. Lucre. Dough. Simoleons. Bones. Clams. Folding stuff. Scratch. Paper. Coin. Loot. Bongo bucks. The green stuff. And so on.

    2. Koalafied*

      If she’s indiscreet enough to be telling her bossz it’s going to come out.

      Indeed, this is someone who has clearly never contemplated the phrase “plausible deniability.”

  4. Optimistic Prime*

    My friend said a guy came up to her at work today and said “Sorry I didn’t get you a Valentine. I got one for all the girls in the office last year then got in trouble with HR.” She was like “Okay, creepy guy”

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I worked a place where a male co-worker would bring flowers and give one to all of us female co-workers. At the time, it seemed a bit sweet to me, but I think I now understand why he was still single.

    2. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

      Ugh, that is so creepy. I hope HR talks to him about bothering people because HR told him not to send people Valentines this year.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I enjoy the plot twist that he hit on walking up to all the women in the office and explaining why he wasn’t handing them a rose this year. Yeah, no one’s going to view that as a weird boundary pushing thing to report to HR.

        1. All the words*

          While explaining, he will pantomime the act of gallantly presenting an invisible rose to each of the “girls” (small “g”).

        2. Amaranth*

          “I’d be totally inappropriate except that dastardly HR has a rule against creeping on fellow employees.”

      2. generic_username*

        The dude is the epitome of not understanding what the problem was. No one wanted your Valentine’s Day gift dude

    3. Jean*

      I see he learned basically nothing from getting in trouble the first time. “I got in trouble for doing this weird thing but totally would have done it to all of you again if I had gotten away with it.” What an assclown.

      1. Observer*

        He sounds like one of the classic “Well, it’s SO CONFUSING these days! You can’t even be NICE to people anymore!” idiots.

        1. Koalafied*

          “They told me I couldn’t give all the women roses, so I guess I can never talk to women at work again if I don’t want to get me-too’d.”

          1. Princesss Sparklepony*

            If only they would stop speaking to women… I always want to respond to comments like that with “Promise?” I don’t want your creepy come ons. Go to a bar and bother women there.

      2. Siege*

        With a side of “it’s your fault for being a humorless lady-type who undoubtedly would complain if I did it.”

    4. Meep*

      lol. I think that is more creepy than getting Valentines’ for all the women in the office. (Not to mention, stop referring to them as ‘girls’!!!) I wonder how creepy those Valentines’ were. I wouldn’t say no to causally dropping a fun-stick or a single rose with nothing attached on my desk, for example, if everyone got one.

      1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

        I gave everyone on my team a little kid Valentine card that came with a plastic bug and terrible bug puns. But, like, EVERYONE got one and they are as romantic/sexual as the DMV.

          1. Usagi*

            Hey, the DMV and Disney Land both have several things in common! Expensive fees! Long lines! Sometimes you even take a photo at the end of the line!

        1. Meep*

          This is the way. Even a cute little box of those candy hearts with the phrases on them would be fine. Just make it not weird. This guy definitely made it weird.

            1. Bob-White of the Glen*

              I brought donuts for everyone. No complaints. Although on average the guys do eat twice as many. :)

            2. Emily S*

              One year when I was single and looking for a fun way to celebrate the holiday, I got a bunch of little kid Frozen themed school valentines that each came with a Frozen themed pencil and either a sticker or a temporary tattoo, and put one on the desk of everyone in my department along with a single Lindor truffle.

              Key things being the valentines were 1) 0% romantic content whatsoever and 2) given to everyone regardless of age/gender/relationship status, which made it a friendly/lighthearted gesture of goodwill instead of a creepy implication that I might be evaluating any of them as romantic interests.

        2. Arrghhhhh*

          One of my coworkers did this one year and it caused quite the uproar. Mostly because she didn’t sign them and it was unclear at first that she gave them to everyone on the floor.

          Most people ended up being okay with it, but she never repeated it. I think it would have been fine if she had signed them.

        3. For the Moment*

          This is the Valentine’s Day I love.

          Little kid Valentines! Terrible puns! Strawberries in my morning pancakes! An excuse to ship myself flowers! Adorable stuffed animals to give to my kid!

          Pulling gender into it is … not my style and in a professional setting is weird/creepy. If your reasoning is “I’m only giving flowers to the demographic I might be interested in dating” then your celebration is inherently not work safe.

          Plastic bugs may also not be work safe, but I’m all for it, and its leagues and leagues better than getting all weird and pseudo romantic. (And then pointing out HR already warned you not to do that?!? WTF.)

          1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

            Yeah, I signed them and also personally handed them out to my coworkers at the same time and everyone laughed. I was also SUPER careful about which plastic bugs got handed out (the cards were shaped like little mason jars and you attached the bugs to the with little twist ties)–I only used the aesthetically pleasing ones and left the roaches and the preying mantises out, lol.

              1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

                Yeah, they were pretty cool looking–but given their, er, signature move, I figured it was probably best to save them for non-coworkers just in case, lol.

            1. Anonforhere*

              Aww, I think mantises are delightful!

              … but I suppose they’d be wildly inappropriate Valentine’s gifts for men, or women with male partners for that matter…

              1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

                They are! I was just typing too fast, lol–I meant to say I only used aesthetically pleasing and non-controversial, heh.

            2. Princesss Sparklepony*

              Someone once tried to prank me with rubber roach. I actually hate the things but as I moved the papers that were placed over it, I could tell it was fake. So I just picked it up and tossed it in the trash. The idiot prankster was so upset as he came out from around the corner he was peeping from. And then I just rolled my eyes at him and told him to grow up. He was not happy.

          2. marvin*

            Once you really dig into the heteronormativity of it, it gets even weirder. If one were only interested in dating queer women and non-binary people (as an example), it would be extremely strange to single those people out at work for special attention.

        4. President Porpoise*

          IDK, I’ve seen a stranger’s private bits at the DMV before. So, uh, I guess this may not be universal.

          1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

            I’d call that particular DMV a lot of things, but romantic isn’t one of them…

        5. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I sent a valentine to all my coworkers through Teams at the start of my shift: Garfield poking his head through a pink heart and then saying Happy Valentines Day. The key is: goofy and went equally to everybody.

          But then they also know I put Garfield images up in teams daily counting through the days of the week… has become my thing, and you can laugh or ignore as you wish.

        6. CoveredinBees*

          Yeah. I had a boss who would get bags of little chocolates and leave them on our desks with an email that they were from her, hope enjoy them, and there were leftovers in a bowl in the hall if you wanted to trade what you got.

    5. Bernice Clifton*

      Even if they weren’t coworkers and your friend was interested, “I was going to do this thing for you but didn’t” isn’t the compliment Dude thinks it is.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Yup – he’s the walking picture for: “this is why you are single” with its good cousin “nobody in their right mind wants you.”

      1. COBOL Dinosaur*

        What about another woman? I had a female manager who used to always refer to us as girls and I really hated it but never said anything to her about it.

        1. IndustriousLabRat*

          I think the added context of her being the boss makes it sound condescending or even infantilizing. That would bother me too. Not in a ‘creepy’ way, but a ‘hmm, would you call BigBoss and GrandBoss girls at the next meeting? No? Why EVER not? Chew on that for a bit.’ way.

        2. Neurodivergentsaurus Rex*

          Not necessarily creepy, but annoying and it’s internalized misogyny. I had a super toxic female coworker who would do this to refer to me and my other coworker who all had the same job title as toxic coworker, but toxic coworker liked to think she was our boss. She told me “(Actual boss) said I should act as you and Jane’s supervisor”. I said “Oh really, that’s strange because Actual Boss told me the exact opposite.” Then on a different day Toxic Coworker actually repeated this lie to Actual Boss’s face, who said nope, never said that, you are not their supervisor. (Yes, Toxic Coworker was definitely the liar, not Actual Boss. Actual Boss sure did decline to manage Toxic Coworker though.) Anyway, I digress, but Toxic Coworker definitely referred to us as “the girls” to reinforce this idea she had that we were inferior to her. She was about 15-20 years older than my other coworker and I, but she was on her second career and had less experience in our field than we did.

          I have a current coworker and friend who also refers to coworkers as “the girls”, and it’s not to make us feel inferior, but I do find it grating and I think it’s rooted in internalized misogyny. I’m pretty open about not wanting to be referred to this way and that I think it’s sexist.

        3. tamarack & fireweed*

          I wouldn’t like it, and if I have the social capital, would speak up.

          Still, a woman referring to other women on her team as “girls” may be trying to create commonality, which can’t be the case with a man. (And frankly, I have had situations where I was ok with someone, even a co-worker, saying something like “OK, girls, are we ready for getting lunch?” – but it’s sortof a special situation where THIS PARTICULAR group of people (typically no more than 3…) relates to each other in THIS PARTICULAR way. It’s *always* temporary, and no new person can be expected to be ok with it.)

          There’s always weird micro-cultures. Like someone from working-class Newcastle referring to everyone as “pet”. Wildly inappropriate in most cases, but if it’s the genuine article & dialect, I would never say anything.

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            Comedian Sarah Millican is from near Newcastle and she regularly calls male and female members of the audience “pet”, or “flower”. I think it’s delightful in that context, I’d probably bridle at being called flower in almost any other situation.

        4. CoveredinBees*

          It would bother me more in the workplace but I’m also not a fan of it in my social life. I’ve had friends who sent out messages that started with “Her girls…” when they could have picked one of many other salutations. It doesn’t bother me enough to say anything, just think, “Could we not, please?” in my head and move on. In work, especially when there’s a power difference, it makes me uncomfortable.

      2. Lyngend (Canada)*

        Yeah, gotta disagree. It’s such a common usage that there’s nothing automatically wrong with the people who use it.
        Should we all do our best to use women or ladies? Yes absolutely. But not doing so isn’t creepy. Because it’s a automatically used to dismiss or infantile the women it’s being directed at.

    6. Momma Bear*

      I like the chocolates for everyone in the kitchen idea if he insists. He also, frankly, doesn’t know who has a spouse that would go ballistic if she received flowers from another guy. Don’t do it.

      1. Observer*

        That doesn’t really matter. Not inflaming unreasonable husband’s is by FAR not the only reason to not do this. Making this the key really just reinforces sexism.

    7. Jaydee*

      I believe this falls in the same general category as the old joke “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Finding half a worm in your apple!” The difference being, I would prefer either apple to having that coworker.

    8. No Name Today*

      From our “But I’m a Nice Guy ™” collection.
      And to be fair, don’t miss our “I’m not Like Other Girls ™” line for all your office “Obliviots: Sexism” needs.

    1. Nanani*

      Yep, and Martin’s ~~intentions~~ don’t mean a thing. Effects matter more, and the effect is singling out one gender, which is sexist no matter if it’s flowers or stinkbombs.

      Send Martin back to primary school. Bring valentine cards for the entire class, Marty!

  5. Loulou*

    I’m completely baffled by the reference question. Is there any chance OP could have misunderstood and they meant they’d only accept a CURRENT manager or coworker, not a former one? That makes no sense either, but marginally more sense than asking for people you know personally. I can’t understand what they’d be asking a personal contact.

    1. Antilles*

      I was wondering that too! When OP said “I’ve been asked for three references who are not relatives or former employers”, I don’t interpret that as them asking for long-term friends or personal references.
      I can see a scenario where a company doesn’t care to ask for former employers. For example, if OP has been working at the same place for a long time, there might not be a relevant ‘former employer’ to provide a useful reference – I don’t want to ask for your current employer (obviously) but I also know that there’s no point in calling the company you left in 2001 or whatever. Or perhaps this specific industry is rife with only providing ’employment verification’ and we know that, so we want to make sure we get someone who’ll actually chat.
      But I’d still assume they want business references – clients, co-workers, managers who left the company, etc. Not personal references.

      1. Artemesia*

        The request seems to indicate they don’t want business references hence the ‘no former employers’ — but certainly an ex-wife is a ‘relative’ within the meaning of the word here. Using her could become legend and dog his career forever — the guy who had his ex-wife be his reference.

        I’d be inclined to ask for clarification. Personal references are worthless but if they want those ask former colleagues you can trust or people you have done volunteer work with .

        1. Emily*

          Are they looking for references from “respectable people” in your community as a character reference? I’ve had to provide that kind of reference in the past for immigration. So you could ask people like a school teacher or sherif or somebody like that?

          1. Ed123*

            I applied to a job that asked for a reference like this. I think they used a phraise “good standing in the community”. They had a list of examples such as military, police , teachers, accountant, health care workers. I just put down my accountant boyfriend and few friends that work in health care. I applied for a basic office job.

          2. Nanani*

            I’ve had this too but never for work, it was for things like getting my first passport (and late, having it renewed while living abroad)

            There is a very narrow list of who qualifies though, and if that’s what they meant I’d expect a list that goes like “mayor, religious leader, judge, … ” etc

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          My interpretation is co-workers who the applicant isn’t related to.
          (And come to think of it, that would be tough for someone trying to leave a family-owned business!)

    2. Lenora Rose*

      Personal references are a thing. I don’t know why they’re a thing, except maybe when the know they’re hiring people with almost no professional references (in which case they should still specify academic or “person who can speak to your work ethic”, as “personal” implies calling up a buddy), but it’s a real phenomenon. And they usually don’t want relatives by blood or marriage, because somehow there seems to be an assumption your best friend will be less biased than your sibling.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I would view it as a crude stab at “Do you have positive relationships with three people who would say something nice about you?” Which they sometimes do for pet adoption–if you don’t know anyone who thinks you would be an okay dog owner, the shelter figures your friends and family have been trying to talk you out of this idea for reasons you’re hiding from the shelter.

        1. Momma Bear*

          Also, some jobs with background check requirements may ask for these as part of that investigation.

          1. Dragon*

            A civilian apartment neighbor applying for a military clearance asked me for a reference. I could see the military/government being interested in both professional and personal.

            1. Nesprin*

              Yup- they’ll want people who knew you over X yrs, and who can speak to the fact that you existed, lived where you said you did, and had no interesting chemical dependencies. Neighbors and friends are common.

    3. Bee*

      I had to be a personal reference for a job-hunting friend once, and it was incredibly weird. They asked at the end if I had any reservations about them offering my friend this job, and I was like, absolutely not, I want my friend to have a job, she wouldn’t have given me as a reference if we weren’t great friends, but also I have never once worked with her and have no idea what you’re looking for in an employee anyway! How is this helpful for you? (She did get the job!)

  6. KHB*

    #2: I just bought a house, which means I spent a good couple of weeks fielding non-stop phone calls during business hours from my real estate agent, home inspector, mortgage lenders, and all kinds of other people. My work suffered during that time, but I told my boss and coworkers what was going on, explained that I’d be a bit frazzled for a while, and asked them to be understanding – and they were.

    I guess that’s not quite the same as what’s going on here, because LW2 is distracted by daydreaming, rather than stuff she has to take care of right then and there. Still, if she has good colleagues and a track record of otherwise excellent work, she might be able to make a withdrawal from the “good will bank” without losing their respect entirely.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Only if she get is reined in quickly. One, like you said–this is daydreaming, not unavoidable business-hours stuff, and two, most engagements these days seem to last for like a year? That’s a pretty open-ended timeframe in which to be distracted and dreamy. Yes, the newness will wear off but since this isn’t her realtor, etc., calling she actually *can* avoid it.

    2. anonymous73*

      I think the key here is “a couple of weeks”. Yes there are times when something in your personal life will bleed over into your work life because you can’t do everything after hours and on weekends if you work a typical 9-5 job. Wedding planning is generally a long process and yes it is stressful and can take up a significant amount of time. But if it’s taking over every aspect of your life 24/7 (which sounds like the path OP was heading towards), you need to take a step back and reevaluate your priorities. I did some of my planning at work but only when I had down time. I wasn’t pushing aside deadlines and work tasks for a year and a half to make phone calls and coordinate vendors.

      1. I.*

        There’s no indication LW will do this for a full year. In couple weeks the reality of wedding planning will have descended and work might very well become an escape from the million small details and family expectations. It’s been what, a couple days? Let’s not jump the shark just yet.

        1. anonymous73*

          “I get about five minutes of actual work done before I’m sighing over a wedding dress or Googling how much XYZ Venue rents for.” This seems like plenty of indication. If you need to block websites at work because you have no self control, that’s a problem.

          1. KHB*

            If feeling distracted at work a couple of days into a major life change is indicative of a problematic lack of self control, then I suspect the world is full of a lot of problematic characters. If you’re not one of them, congratulations.

        2. Bee*

          Seriously, she’s already trying to enforce some boundaries for herself! She’s just three days engaged and still a little giddy about it! Give her a week before we start saying it’s a fundamental flaw in her character!

  7. STG*

    Very early in my career, I worked in a plasma center with a number of other 20 somethings typical in a college town. Most of the people were involved with others (including myself). There were 3 ladies on the team who weren’t involved with anyone and I thought it’d be nice to give a small box of chocolate covered strawberries to each on V-day. Figured with all the V-day flare around, it would cheer them up a little. I’m gay so there was no interest in anything beyond just giving a gift but the women didn’t know that as I wasn’t out at the time.

    All and all, they expressed that they enjoyed it and took me out to dinner the next week. I tried to avoid the dinner but I realized that I must have placed pressure on them to reciprocate the gift when I gave them something on a holiday in the first place. Ultimately, it felt like I just put more of a burden on them in the name of ‘being nice’.

    I look back on that now and it feels a bit cringy. Some blind spots on the sexist undertones (like a woman couldn’t handle not having a companion on Valentine’s day or something) that I can see now. Just don’t do it.

    1. Observer*

      Thank you for not being Martin. The fact that you realized that you made a mis-step, and that you learned from it is worth a lot.

  8. Blisskrieg*

    Letter Writer #2 (just engaged)–Congratulations!

    Try using a productivity app–I like Forrest. Reward yourself with a certain number of minutes to think about your wedding, AFTER you have been laser-focused on a work function for the number of minutes you decide.

    1. Lenora Rose*

      I used to like Forest, then they took out all the stuff I found useful and stuffed it in a paid premium account, which, I could understand — but they ALSO took away the things I had *already* earned. I could understand them feeling the need to be paid, but not grandfathering in earned rewards.

      1. Blisskrieg*

        Ah! That does sound frustrating (and unfair). I will have to check out the paid premium account. I didn’t know that exists…now I wonder what I’m missing! I do occasionally purchase crystals to buy the special celebration items, but it’s been minimal. I love all things plants even though I’m not a great gardener, so I love watching the app populate each day.

    2. Distracted Librarian*

      Or Pomodoro and use your 5-minute breaks for wedding stuff. Or (and some people won’t like this) make yourself crank out a bunch of work at the beginning of the day, then give yourself some slack-off time to daydream and look up wedding stuff. That approach can be a real motivator to get stuff done, but it only works if you aren’t being closely monitored and don’t have time-sensitive responsibilities throughout the day.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I like to adjust my pomodoro settings to 50-minute work with 10-minute breaks when I have a lot “homing-from-work” items to work on. Ten minutes together lets me pick up more steam than 5 minutes at a time.

  9. Me (I think)*

    #1: this is another example of why it’s not great to be personal friends with an employee – close enough that they share that they are in an affair with a client’s spouse. So, first, you can’t say “I didn’t know” when the angry client calls you, and second, it’s hard to fire personal friends.

    1. Meep*

      As the employee on the receiving end of having to listen to her employer’s sex life (I will never unlearn about the seven-year-long affair she had while still married to her ex-husband…), we really need to normalize “friendly and personable but not co-dependent” as a working relationship for small companies. I would love to hear about the cute thing your rabbit or kid did last night, and maybe celebrate how your son got a job, but no one /needs/ to know you cheating on your boyfriend of two years who you are only dating because he is a multi-millionaire (another thing she made me accomplice on).

      1. Karia*

        Yes. One of the worst jobs I ever had was primarily awful because my boss appeared to think i’d been hired as her personal counsellor. She made me incredibly uncomfortable, and she actually became punitive when I tried to set boundaries. I think some bosses, esp in small companies, think being their friend is part of the job.

        1. DJ Abbott*

          Definitely at one of my jobs! The owner assumed friendship with all of us. She also assumed we would meet all her emotional needs, appropriate or not, including taking abuse.
          It was amazing how unaware she was of social norms and basic decency. She seemed to see herself as royalty and her employees as servants. She also sabotaged her other relationships. She was a psychiatrist’s dream.

    2. Momma Bear*

      Yeah. I worked for a company where most of us were friends outside of the job and it did sometimes make life awkward. OP, I think firing her and distancing yourself from her is going to be necessary to protect your business. She’s more of a frenemy than a good friend. Time to cut ties.

    3. Littorally*

      Hm. I’m not sure I agree in this case. I’d say it’s better for the OP to be aware now and be able to get some damage control in (ie FIRING), rather than being blindsided when the whole thing boils over. I don’t think “I didn’t know” would be enough to salvage the client relationship.

      1. Princesss Sparklepony*

        It depends on how well the employer can sell the I Don’t Know. If she’s a good actor, she could probably brazen it out as long as nothing comes out that she knew about it before the client did. Some people do keep their affairs on the downlow, although this one didn’t.

    4. DSWYE*

      I have been in a situation where a boss forced us to all form deep emotional bonds over a short period of time. She was a “motivational speaker” (very much in the vein of Marianne Williamson) and our all-staff meetings included lots of time talking about very sensitive personal issues. We were required to attend at least one of the seminars she led where we heard clients we worked with frequently speak publicly about very sensitive issues (think body image, assault, relationship problems). It was all *technically* done with consent, but she purposefully created a culture designed to own up or be ostracized.

      Typically the repercussions were no worse than a humiliating vulnerability hangover from crying in front of coworkers. The main issues emerged when the pandemic hit, and she quickly tipped over from woo-woo to conspiracy theorist. She required us to all join a slack channel entitled “Freedom” that quickly became overrun with misinformation and tried to force us into the office when local ordinances stated in no uncertain terms that we could not work in person. I was literally the only person in the office willing to say, “I’m not comfortable with that.” I quit during the worst of the pandemic unemployment with no options because I couldn’t take it.

      Ironically, despite her insistence that we all share our most vulnerable business, I still consider her one of the most facetious people I’ve ever met.

  10. Lucious*

    >>Unfortunately, it sounds like it may be past the point where she can salvage the situation; even if she broke off the affair now, the damage has been done.

    Agreed. Especially in small industries (or towns), reputation matters. Show of hands- who here would do business with a vendor whose previous client had an affair with the vendors staff with no consequences?

    1. NotRealAnonForThis*

      Plot twist – who would apply to work for the vendor in question, too? (I think I worked with this vendor, or at least a close cousin of it. Noped right out, and fast!)

  11. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

    I gave everyone on my team a silly elementary school-style Valentine card that came with a plastic bug and a terrible pun today, but 1) everyone got one regardless of gender, and 2) they were about as non-romantic as possible. If some dude from my company sent me flowers I would noooooot be cool with it. ICK.

    1. generic_username*

      Yeah, I’ve passed out chocolates before, but in a “I couldn’t resist and bought too much candy, would you like some?” way, which reads entirely nonromantic.

  12. I'm just here for the cats*

    I know these are old but I wonder for #3 if he could send something for everyone. Like a flower arrangement for the lobby/ front desk/ break room. something that everyone could enjoy. Or maybe some nice chocolates or something ( I don’t know how big the company is).

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I think that would land well–particularly the one involving simple carbohydrates, which are usually wildly popular.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      I wouldn’t advise that. Valentine’s Day has the specific cultural implication of being a romantic celebration in modern western adult society.

      While primary school kids may bring Valentines Day cards to school and while it makes sense to expect anyone participating to bring a Valentine for everyone, most people move past that by Gr. 8 and it would be strange to send Valentines’ Day cards to all your high school acquaintances. By extension, it’s pretty odd for adults to do this with work acquaintances.

      1. Jaydee*

        Yeah, at work it’s one thing to stop at the bakery on the way to work and pick up some festive donuts or heart-shaped cookies with pink icing and put them in the break room for your coworkers to enjoy as a treat. It’s another thing to do anything individualized (like a card or treats for each coworker – or worse, just for certain co-workers) or anything non-food-related for the office as a whole.

    3. Cheezmouser*

      Agree, it’s fine if you do something nice for the whole department/office to share your appreciation. Where “Martin” goes wrong is singling out individuals by gender.

    1. Allornone*

      I just received a happy valentine’s text from my stepmother. She’s a lovely woman, but yeah, I feel this.

      1. FlyingAce*

        LOL… In my country it is known as a day to celebrate love (of all kinds) and friendship, so I’ve already got texts from my dad, my stepmom, my mom, and my sisters… but not my husband, now that I think about it!

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Hahaha, I remember this one. On the nose. I have asked a certain relative a zillion times to just stop but somebody has a Hallmark addiction. >_<

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I think it’s an excellent example on both sides of a mature workplace conversation.
      “I want to do X. What do you think?”
      “I think it’s a bad idea because x, y, z.”
      “I disagree. I think it’s good because a, b, c.”
      “It really isn’t. It’s saying x, y, z.”
      “I disagree. But I accept your opinion because you are a member of the group/you live there/I was genuinely asking.”

      1. Nanani*

        and of course the real meaning: “But i meaaaaant well you’re so mean for not putting my pure intentions ahead of reality for me”

  13. Falling Diphthong*

    I wish I could be surprised that the employee in Letter 1 thought to herself “It is VITAL that we keep this secret. So I’ll confide all the deets in someone whose business is going to take a nasty hit if the affair comes out–Shhh. It’s secret.”

    1. Meep*

      I am still amazed by the boundaries some people don’t have. I mentioned her above already in regards to bragging about being a serial-cheater, but I have a coworker who spread a rumor that our boss was/is having an affair with a Japanese prostitute because he loves going to Japan so much (he is just a weebo). Why she would think that is an appropriate thing to say to interns/contractors is behind me.

      1. Meep*

        I forgot to mention at the time SHE was also an contractor and had known this man for less than six months.

    2. anonymous73*

      Yeah I think it’s safe to say that someone who is willing to have an affair with a client’s spouse doesn’t have the best judgement and therefore would think nothing of telling her boss friend about it.

    3. Batgirl*

      People who have affairs have a genius for choosing the worst possible people to do it with, and the worst people to confide in. There’s often a surprise at the dismay/panic/heartbreak or just any kind of reaction from people too when it inevitably blows up. I wonder if they think that everyone secretly does it and because it’s not a big deal to them, it’s not a big deal to anyone else. Almost as though the deceit is nothing more than a social politeness.

  14. Usagi*

    Alison, are you offering to have a photo of your scowling face available to us to put up on our desks? That would probably help me with keeping on task too, haha.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        OH, that would be great for Worst Boss of the Year…Angry Alison Avatar.
        It’s the virtual funko pop collection I didn’t know I needed.
        A “don’t be that person” scowl of disapproval.
        A “the actions you are describing indicate that person is out of their gourd” wtf face
        A “your job is so unique and intriguing, like the burlesque dancer” face of wonder

    1. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

      I came to write a similar comment, an Alison scowl would also make an excellent NFT.

  15. Bernice Clifton*

    I know it’s an old letter, but why did Martin even ask what the LW thought if he wasn’t going to listen?

    1. C in the Hood*

      If I had a dollar for every question that was asked of me that didn’t have the answer listened to…

    2. I AM Sparkling }:(*

      He probably assumed the LW would think it was a great idea and only mentioned it to get validation. Or else he’s one of those people who ask questions not to get input but to state what they’ve decided, but phrasing it as a question makes it look like they’re, like, communicating and junk.

      1. EvilQueenRegina*

        From what I remember when that one was originally posted, he claimed at the time that it was a tradition in the UK to do that. Cue lots of comments from us British commenters saying “No, it’s not!”

        1. UKDancer*

          Yes I think it’s the only time I’ve seen complete agreement of the British commentators that something was a terrible idea and definitely not done. We were unanimous in that.

        2. Batgirl*

          Yeah that had a heavy side of “I will hide behind my (hopefully unknown) culture and make up nonsense to be creepy”. I don’t think I’ve actually ever come across an en masse gift giving on Valentine’s day at all in the UK. The idea of making or sending Valentines in the plural, I’ve only ever seen referred to in stories or programmes about American childhood. Or I’ve seen it mentioned here, with a non-gender, jokey vibe if it’s for the workplace. Whereas if you partake in the UK it’s usually as an adult aiming to have some romantic time with your significant other.

  16. M1EK*

    I’m a manager and at the last job I (with help) anonymously gave every person (regardless of gender) on our project a Valentine, but it was Star Wars: The Force Awakens kid’s valentines, given to everyone regardless of gender, intended to confuse and entertain. We think it worked…

  17. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    Everytime I read the third letter my first impression is that Daniel wants to do it Japanese or Mexican style, then I read the rest of the letter and realize he’s just a big sexist dinosaur.
    I’d love to get some girichoco

    1. Nanani*

      Girichoco is also sexist as hell, “but its another culture” doesn’t make that go away.
      Funny how women are expected (that’s the “giri”) to give chocolate to all the men in their life but men only expected to get gifts for one woman, if and only if they’re actually dating.

      (Source: many many years working in Japan)

  18. generic_username*

    Re: #3. If sending flowers to all of the women is akin to sending a birthday gift as Martin claims, then he is still excluding some people from a very public display of gifting, which is still wrong. Even without the romantic undertones. He could also just send a bunch of flowers to the office if he wants to send flowers – the bouquet can go in the breakroom or at reception or somewhere else central where everyone can enjoy it.

    1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      Martin the Mansplainer. Asking a woman what women will think and then telling her she’s wrong.

  19. Lobsterman*

    LW1: Fire them or decide you’re going to weather it and stop dithering. Either is good and bad in its own way.

  20. LifeBeforeCorona*

    Your employee must be fired. Depending on the size of your business it may already be common knowledge and a source of entertainment for your other workers. Years ago we watched an affair play out over the course of a year and it ended with the married worker taking a transfer out of town and leaving his pregnant mistress behind.

  21. mockingbird2081*

    LW #2: OH! The joys of love and the excitement of a new phase of life and all the fun things that go with that. I work in an organization that has a lot of women who work for us that are on the younger side. When I have a member of my team announce they are engaged I am thrilled for them. Over the moon with joy BUT I also go and talk to the other supervisors and we roll our eyes and complain a bit about the lost working hours that are about to happen. The otherwise great worker who used to spend their days working diligently will spend hours at work scrolling through Pinterest or looking through David’s Bridal. I try to give them a week or two to calm down but then I am having discussions with them if I notice it continues after that. It can be frustrating to their coworkers. So I really like Allison’s advice. Just remember how it feels to be sitting next to a co-worker that you are having to work harder for because they are distracted. Congratulations! I can relate as sometimes planning a vacation or buying a house can be distracting as well. I hope you have a FANTASTIC wedding day and a great marriage!

  22. Elizabeth West*

    1. Oof. Unfortunately, other people probably already know. That’s the downside to small towns; everyone knows everything. OP, if you feel her work has been good otherwise, and you’re feeling conflicted about firing her, you could let her know that if a future employer should contact you, you would speak well about her actual work.


  23. Chickaletta*

    The silver lining to being a witness or recipient of the flower-giving coworker, and any similar situation, is that there’s no guessing who’s a creep – they just out themselves. Maybe offices should allow it just as a friendly “heads-up” to all the “girls”.

  24. Hmm*

    LW4’s letter really does demonstrate the ridiculousness of the entire reference checking process. Studies show most managers are bad at their jobs, and that most people leave managers more than they leave companies or jobs. Workplace bullying is rife and the vast majority of the perpetrators are managers.

    So why is it always assumed that an ex-manager is going to be honest or objective about someone? What utter nonsense! Especially if it’s a back door reference, the referee has no obligation whatsoever to tell you the truth, and will often have their own agenda. They may rob you of an excellent employee out of sheer spite.

    I’ve been recruiting people for years and years and I’ve heard every type of dishonest bad reference there is. Just think about what someone who doesn’t like you – especially if it’s based on nothing that’s either fair or reasonable – and ask yourself if you’re happy for that person to tell a potential employer how they feel about you.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Yeah my former boss hates my guts because I made him pay up the severance I was owed. I went to extraordinary lengths to get him to do that, and it wasn’t even all that much money. Just more than for most workers because I had been there a while, and most people gave in to his bullying and resigned instead.
      The one before that hates my guts because I didn’t let him bully me into doing more hours than I was paid for (and inexplicably, he loved my colleague who was always staying late, even though my productivity was literally double hers).
      Luckily in France people rarely ask for references.

  25. DSWYE*

    #1 – Normally a friend’s poor relationship choices is a situation you should not meddle in, but Allison’s right, the potential repercussions are far beyond your personal relationship with that friend. If you haven’t expressed (in no uncertain terms) to your friend/employee that their relationship could seriously hurt the business, you need to make that very clear. And if they still won’t clean up their mess, you would be well within your rights to fire them. Think of it this way: say you found out friend/employee was stealing money from the client and you knew about it and allowed it to continue. The client would be well within their rights to take their business elsewhere and caution others to do the same.

    For what it’s worth, a truly good friend would be concerned about the impact on your business (not to mention their own job) before engaging in such behavior. It sounds like they’re putting a selfish fling over your personal and professional relationship, and that’s not a friend you want, in my opinion!

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