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Work Ethic

Kissing colleagues

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Q: Two co-workers on our small team are dating. Here's the problem: one is a married man, with kids, who is cheating on his wife. The other is a divorced single mom. While this might not be a violation of HR policy, it's making the rest of us uncomfortable and clouding our view of these two colleagues as professionals. What, if anything, can we do?

A: There is an ethical problem here, but it’s not yours. It’s clearly wrong to cheat on your spouse. However, it’s not your responsibility to report the clandestine couple to Human Resources unless the behaviour impacts you directly. You should only become involved if the affair gets in the way of the team’s productivity.

“The reality of the situation is that, especially with small teams, you need to find a way to look beyond the personal behaviour of your colleagues, to put blinders on, so to speak, and just focus on things you can control,” said Thorn Jenness, an executive coach and HR consultant in Huntington, New York.

Although you may find aspects of your colleagues’ personal lives distasteful, or not up to your own moral standards, you can’t let that have any bearing on how you interact with them in a work context. As long as you can do your job, and they can do theirs, whom they date is their own business.

However, if you think this issue will make it difficult to do your job, ask your manager quietly about switching to another role within the company.

The person with the sticky problem here is your manager, who oversees each of the people in this couple. First, she should determine whether, in fact, this situation violates company policy. If that’s the case, problem solved: the company likely has a process for dealing with policy violations, taking it out of the manager’s hands.  

If no company rules are broken, then it’s time for the manager and the two colleagues to have a behind-closed-doors chat. She should focus on the impact the relationship is having on the rest of the team, while refraining from commenting on whether she approves or disapproves of the affair itself. The manager should also ask the couple to be discreet and warn them that if the relationship keeps getting in the way of others’ work, she  may have to escalate the issue to superiors — or separate the pair.

“As a manager, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to bring attention to your subordinates about how their personal behaviour is unknowingly affecting other members of the team,” Jenness said.

People don’t like to hear that their private lives are an open secret in the office. But that’s the risk they take when they start dating officemates.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.