Career coach: How to manage an office affair

Extramarital relationships between colleagues create rare burdens for executives.

I have recently been coaching Mary, a chief executive who is aware of an office affair between two married colleagues. It is deeply uncomfortable for her personally because her own marriage ended after her partner had an extramarital relationship. It is also professionally troubling because the people involved are valued members of her senior management team - neither of whom she wants to lose.

She believes no one else in the organisation knows about the relationship and she doesn't know what to do. There is nothing in the staff handbook on how to manage such a situation, and it is outside her professional experience. She is reluctant to talk to the trustees, because she would be breaking a secret she believes is not hers to break.

I've been encouraging Mary to trust her own integrity and allow herself to be guided by it. There are no procedural rules, so she needs to remain level with herself about what is going on while she considers taking action. That involves working through her anger towards her colleagues and former partner. We are also acknowledging what an onerous responsibility it is for her to keep this a secret.

We are at the point where divulging the secret has become a viable option. Exactly how Mary will do that and to whom we are not yet sure, and there will undoubtedly be consequences. However, she is clear that she doesn't want to be isolated for much longer carrying this potentially explosive secret, and she is concerned about the effect on the staff team should the secret break as a result of suspicion and gossip.

My advice if you find yourself in a similar situation is to discuss your concerns with someone you trust and get support before deciding how to proceed. We all have assumptions and judgements about affairs, and it is worth talking them through.

This could help you clarify your prejudices and ensure that you remain level about such an emotive issue. If you don't already have one, this could be the perfect opportunity to find a mentor or coach.

I am very grateful to Mary for suggesting that I bring this issue to a wider audience, because it is her belief that she is probably not the only manager to be faced with such a predicament. I look forward to reporting back in a future column on how the situation is resolved.

- Amanda Falkson is a psychotherapist who runs monthly Tough at the Top groups for voluntary sector chief executives.

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