Troubleshooter 3 14

Thursday Troubleshooter: How do we report an office affair?

March 14, 2013
We aren't sure how to tell the owner dentist about his employees' affair.

QUESTION: Our associate dentist is dating one of our married team members. We have seen them out in the parking lot privately chatting in one of their cars, and one of our coworkers saw them in the next town at a movie. We feel we should tell the owner dentist but don’t know how.

ANSWER FROM TIM TWIGG, president of Bent Erickson & Associates:
The question is difficult to answer without knowing more about the situation. It comes down to the type of business relationship that is present between the associate dentist (AD) and the married team member (MTM).

If the AD and MTM are merely coworkers, then no, you should not tell the owner dentist what’s going on as it is no one’s business at this point. A relationship between coworkers in which there is no conflict of interest (i.e., supervisor dating a subordinate) means that it doesn’t rise to the level of being work-related. Employers do not have any control over what employees do or don’t do in their off time as long the workplace isn’t affected by that activity.

If the AD and MTM are in a supervisor and subordinate relationship, then yes, the owner dentist has a right to know. Now the situation becomes work-related because there is a direct conflict of interest. In other words, the dating relationship outside of work could influence the AD’s decisions regarding his/her employees, particularly the MTM, inside the workplace. While the employer may not be able to control this dating relationship outside of work, even in this type of situation, the owner dentist can certainly take steps to remove the conflict of interest inside the workplace. This might mean a change in position for either the AD or MTM, or it could mean a loss of employment by one of the parties.

In either case, the employer should take steps to ensure the workplace is free of discrimination and/or harassment, and can hold employees accountable for actions that may make other employees feel discriminated against or harassed. Therefore, in either case, if you or your coworkers think that the relationship between the AD and MTM is creating a situation in which you or others feel harassed or discriminated against, or if you feel that the practice is being harmed (reputation, morale, success) in any way, then it should be reported to the owner dentist.

Furthermore, if you or your coworkers experience unprofessional behavior at the office or at any time during work events, then you should report this to the owner dentist. Again, this is because it has now become work-related, and the owner dentist can and should do something about behavior that is not upholding the standards of the practice.

ANSWER FROM LINDA MILES, founder of Speaking Consulting Network:
In my opinion, all employee dating should be off limits by dentists and other team members. This creates problems beyond belief, especially if one party is married to someone else. When coworkers discover an affair, it creates a sense of betrayal that can wreck office morale. If patients or others in the community discover the affair, it can bring scandal and disgrace to the office. At the worst, it manifests into broken marriages.

While sitting in one’s car in the parking lot or being seen at a movie in the next town certainly looks suspicious, rather than accuse others of an affair, it must be verified before the senior dentist is notified. A subtle way of approaching the situation when it is an assumption and not a fact is to ask the owner dentist what the office policy is on dating others on staff. Since the owner dentist has a lot to lose if in fact the assumption is correct, he or she should know. Asking the question about office policy will alert the owner that someone suspects an affair. If the owner dentist asks, without accusing anyone of an affair, I would tell him or her why someone in the practice suspects something is more than coworker friendship. Then the owner can approach the guilty parties. This typically ends with one or more people leaving the practice.

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