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Wed, Sep 11, 2013
The Straits Times
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Blow the whistle on office affair?
by Fiona Chan

I was chatting with a friend last month when he mentioned a problem he was having in the office. At first I thought it was about work, but it turned out to be much more interesting.

"One of my colleagues is having an affair with his subordinate," he confided. "Should I report it to my boss?"

In general, my friend is not one to poke his nose into other people's, well, affairs. But in this case, he was concerned that his married colleague was giving his office paramour - also married - preferential treatment at the expense of other workers.

Little things, such as letting her leave work early or allowing her to work on more high-profile projects, were adding up to create an atmosphere of tension and unhappiness in the office.

Just as my friend was about to step in, his quandary was resolved: The rumours going around the office had prompted my friend's colleague to own up to the relationship and ask for a transfer.

The episode, however, throws up a larger question. We are often told that blowing the whistle to report corruption or fraud is commendable, but telling tales or spreading salacious office gossip is not.

For an issue such as an office romance, which possibly straddles both aspects, what is the right thing to do?

Whistle-blowing is the official term for employees or third parties reporting a lapse of ethics or governance in an organisation to a higher authority. The idea is that people working for or dealing with the organisation are better placed to observe such possible acts of corruption or fraud.

Most people associate whistle-blowing with major illegal infractions that often involve outside parties such as suppliers, customers or potential clients.

But many companies and organisations have whistle-blowing guidelines which encompass other practices that may not be illegal but are possibly unethical, such as conflicts of interest and improper behaviour.

Whether one should blow the whistle on an office romance depends, therefore, on whether the relationship could infringe one of these guidelines or has already done so.

"The crux of the issue hinges on each company's policies," says Mr Paul Heng, founder and managing director of human resources firm Next Career Consulting.

"I know of companies that strictly prohibit office romance, especially if one party is a direct report or subordinate," he notes.

"Still, there are firms that see themselves playing Cupid, subscribing to the value that an office romance is fine, so long as it does not encroach on situations involving pay rises, promotions, bonus payouts, and the like."

My friend's company, like many other organisations, has a detailed whistle-blowing policy. It made no mention of office relationships, but it did highlight that conflicts of interest and employee misconduct would be legitimate avenues for complaint.

Since it may not be practical for organisations to have an exhaustive list of situations that qualify for whistle-blowing, having a defined set of corporate values can be useful as a framework for employees, notes Mr Heng.

"These could be used by employees as the determinant to make that decision whether to blow the whistle," he says.

Broadly speaking, a romantic relationship in the office where one party reports to another is typically a green light for blowing the whistle. Even if both parties endeavour to keep each other at arm's length and no unfair treatment has yet occurred, the potential for conflicts of interest is omnipresent.

Some organisations are also chary of relationships where the parties involved do not have a boss-subordinate relationship but are working in the same division. This is more of a grey area in terms of whistle-blowing, but if there is a clear breach of company policy, making a report could be justifiable.

But before you decide to blow the whistle, take a deep breath - and not just so you can exhale with more strength.

Instead of immediately telling your boss or human resources, try to approach the colleague in question and raise the issue tactfully. It will be a difficult conversation, but it is only fair to let your colleague know that there are concerns about the relationship and give him a chance to either end it or report it himself.

If that does not succeed or if speaking with your colleague is not an option, start gathering evidence or like-minded co-workers to support your case. Find out your organisation's whistle-blowing procedures and clearly state why you think the office romance could be detrimental.

One factor to consider is what you hope to achieve by reporting the relationship. In a worst-case scenario, one or both parties may lose their jobs - a not inconsequential outcome for what is essentially a love affair.

Finally, it is best to be prepared for any fallout that might come your way. While most organisations allow anonymous informants, secrets are often hard to keep and the reputation that ends up suffering the most from the incident may well be yours.

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readers' comments
If your colleague or the couple having affairs has an influence in your promotion or advancement, or maybe they are given preferential treatment, you should give them ' A RAISE'.

Raise your voice to expose their affairs in the office.

If not, why bother ?

Posted by kyotykcaj on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 21:02 PM
Blow whistle on office affairs ? Why ? Sex is in-thing now. Enjoy it. It's so attractive and pleasurable. More important, more people trying thickskin now ! Throw morality aside.
Posted by Kontikki on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 21:01 PM
Both should put inside pig cage and be roasted...:eek::p:D
Posted by 158X128kg on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 20:55 PM
most will gossip abt it, but will not report to mgmt
no mgmt like to be the busybody to face the culprit n say u r fire

in my company, confirmed sign of married woman having affair
1. mid wk half day afternoon leave, at least once a mth
2. leave tell tale sign tht she know someone rich....but u wont know who
3. know how to dress well, flirty on border line

there's no way u can escape in spore, peoples saw her....
Posted by jameslee58 on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 16:46 PM
Staff morale definitely get worst when everyone know that an affair is brewing. Give you an example, my country director had an affair with his subordinate. He is married and she is not. Both always had lunch and work late together holding hands (caught with our own eyes). She then carry a bump to the office few months later. The team was shaken all these while as this guy (I worked with him for over 10 years) were well respected in his work. We rather he tell us he is in love, can't help it or may be divourcing (which he did not). He kept quiet and he led this life. The girl is not even married, 20 years younger and then pregnant. It just make people lose respect on him. My big boss kept quiet (as like you said, none of our business) but the team wasn't happy because .....
Posted by mystrawberry on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 15:48 PM
Some got blow oredi but neber tell :D
Posted by maipenrai on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 15:33 PM

I disagree with this. :o

If the staff concerned were key employees, firing either one will destabilize staff morale. That's bad for the company.

Either way, if the courts rule that nobody should mind someone else's emotional affairs, then who are we the moral judge and who are we in what authority pass judgment?

If one holds this view also remember the person who hold such view must do what they preach afterall the sword cuts both ways.
Posted by renyeo on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 15:26 PM
You can stop people from falling in love or hate as they spent more than 1/3 of their day in an office. Couple should come clean to declare their relationship. Afterall it keep the gossips at bay, unnecessary judgement on either party's leadership skills, etc. If love is so hot and not accepted by the company, probably one should leave ... with the lady usually being sacrificed.

But ... if its an extra marital affairs, by all means colleagues to spread it please. No respect for the person :D
Posted by mystrawberry on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 at 13:11 PM

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