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I'm the owner of a business with about 30-40 employees. Recently, I found out that one of my employees has been having an affair with my wife. The employee has worked for me for 4 years. I felt like I was his mentor, since I recruited straight from university, taught him the ropes, and promoted him to a leadership role for one of our main products.

My wife has since left me. I've spoken to him, and he says he's sorry about what's happened but he's also not leaving. He says his relationship with my wife should not be a work matter and he's put too much work into the company to just get fired just because I'm the boss.

I'm bitter and would like him to leave the company, but I'm also realistic. He has been an important part of the company. He's the oldest employee that's still around, he knows the application inside out, and while I wouldn't say he's indispensable, he's close to it. At the same time, every time I see his face, I feel like that just kills me inside.

As his superior, what can I do in this situation? We're a close knit bunch but nobody knows about these personal issues at work. Right now, I'm acting as professionally as I can.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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I'm voting to reopen in its present state. Sometimes, personal issues can spill into the office. There are 14 other questions with the relationships tag, some of which are about maintaining, ending, or restoring personal and professional relationships. Given some out-of-office actions that affect a relationship, I just don't see how questions about that professional aspect of the relationship are off-topic. –  Thomas Owens Jan 9 '13 at 15:22
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<commentary removed> Please keeps comments to issues of improving the the question. Comments are not designed to answer the question, and try not to turn this into a miniature chat room. Thanks. –  Robert Cartaino Jan 9 '13 at 15:41
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Related meta discussion - please take discussion regarding the on-topic nature of the question there. –  Shog9 Jan 9 '13 at 17:41
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Does the employee know your former wife via you, or has he met independently? I assumed the former, but comments on my answer assume the latter. –  gerrit Jan 10 '13 at 20:25
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Comments removed: Please use The Workplace Chat for extended discussions. Comments are intended to help users improve their posts. –  jmort253 Jan 12 '13 at 4:39

18 Answers 18

In your shoes I would first speak to someone well-versed in employment law and see if their actions constitute a breach of trust. Their actions have clearly affected your working relationship to a point at which it is untenable (and I have to say I am impressed with your level of professionalism thus far - not sure I could manage that!).

I think it's optimistic to assume that your working relationship will improve over time, and I believe that assuming it's not breaking the law you should get him out as soon as possible.

When you say

he's put too much work into the company to just get fired just because I'm the boss.

I would say that any potential firing would not be 'because you're the boss': it would be primarily driven by the lack of trust in your relationship (I cannot see how you could ever trust him again).

His tone seems to be quite arrogant, and this may spill into his working practices (which I would investigate as much as you can). Being the most versed in the company in a given area does not mean that you are necessarily working appropriately, or that no one else could come in and improve performance.

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+1 for you last comment -- if this employee thinks his value to the company is so great he can "get away with" disrupting his boss's personal life, it could easily undermine the boss's authority in a professional context. –  Michael Edenfield Jan 9 '13 at 17:28
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+1: Talk to an employment lawyer –  kevin cline Jan 9 '13 at 17:31
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Adultry is illegal in more than half of the states. It is also considered unbecoming behavior and reflects negatively on the character of the perpetrator. Firing this specific employee for sleeping with your wife is perfectly reasonable and legal -- his actions make it impossible for you to trust him to execute his responsibilities as your employee. –  kingdango Jan 9 '13 at 18:06
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If this guy will screw your wife in bed, you better believe he'll try to screw you in court. +1 for speaking with a lawyer (or two) before taking action against him. –  n00b Jan 9 '13 at 21:58
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Comments removed: Please remember that comments are used to help a poster clarify his or her post and are not intended for extended discussion. Please take discussions to The Workplace Chat. –  jmort253 Jan 12 '13 at 4:49

What concerns me most is the attitude in the statement "he's put too much work into the company to just get fired just because I'm the boss." This is a person who has access to all the source code for your systems and as a team lead is likely to have production server access. This is a very dangerous person. With this attitude, he may very well be using the code to steal from you or have set up a a backdoor to get in from outside or have set up something in the code to blow up your systems if he is fired. This is not the normal attitude of a person who has been caught in an affair. Since he knew he was having an affair and that it was likely he could be fired if found out, I would be very wary of this person. He also could be providing your wife with information that will let her take more of your assets.

The first thing I would do is make sure you have up-to-date backups of everything! And then I would make sure that they were off-site. This type of person is the kind who is likely to have put something into the code to blow it up if he is fired. You need to protect your data and your applications.

Next, I would hire someone to take his place. I might even, depending on how insecure I felt the data and application was, hire this person and have him work at first with a copy of the application and data somewhere outside the office. Then have his first task be to assess if there is a danger to the code from something this other person put in. I might even look for and hire a security expert as a consultant to do this.

Now once I have protected my data I would take one of two actions. If you are in the US and work in an "At will" state, I would fire him. Then immediately change all passwords to all servers and databases.

If you are elsewhere or don't know for sure that you are in a state where you can fire without cause, I would immediately consult a labor lawyer to find out what actions you can take to protect your company. If it is not legally possible to fire him, you might be able to reassign him to a newly created position that has no duties and remove his access to code, databases and servers. (Change all passwords if you do.)

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+1 for alternative if he can't be fired –  Zenon Jan 9 '13 at 16:14
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It is also possible that he and your wife have made plans to steal the company from you in the divorce (which would explain the attitutude). Whatever action you take concerning him needs to happen as soon as possible to prevent that. And make sure you talk to a divorce lawyer immediately about how to protect your company assets. –  HLGEM Jan 9 '13 at 16:18
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+1 for "Since he knew he was having an affair..." and "reassign him to a newly created position that has no duties" –  bytebuster Jan 9 '13 at 19:04
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Incidentally, it's not always legal to move someone into a role where they are clearly not wanted. In New Zealand, for example, this could be considered "constructive dismissal", where "an employer puts pressure (directly or indirectly) on an employee to resign" –  Hamish Jan 10 '13 at 2:19
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@HLGEM Your comment should really be part of your answer. Since it's very realistic. –  Leri Jan 10 '13 at 10:50

My answer - if the law where you are allows it - is lock the guy out of all his accounts (and the building) and fire him immediately. Let him collect his physical stuff, give him whatever severance pay is required and show him the door. My logic is that you will never be able to trust him again. He's already betrayed you personally, in spite of the personal attention you've given him and connection you felt you had. How do you know he won't betray your company? Better to be safe than sorry.

Even if he never does anything wrong within the workplace, as long as he continues working for you it is possible that you'll eventually lose control and do or say something inappropriate which will expose you to legal ramifications. Thus, even if you believe he'd never do anything to hurt your company, your relationship with him is untenable. Get him out as quickly and cleanly as possible. If you can't fire him, make it clear he's unwelcome and ask him to resign.

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This is not an option in the UK. "Sleeping with the Boss's wife" is not a sackable offence. If you did this, you'd be in an industrial tribunal and on the front pages of the tabloids in an instant. –  ChrisF Jan 9 '13 at 14:16
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@ChrisF: That's why I put "if the law where you are allows it" into my answer. Many states in the U.S. allow "at-will employment", so an employee can be fired at any time for any (or no) reason. –  GreenMatt Jan 9 '13 at 14:30
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@GreenMatt: Just to clarify, any (or no) reason except protected reasons. For instance, you can't fire someone because of their race, gender, sexuality, etc. unless that particular attribute is a necessary aspect of the job (and that's usually a tough case to make) –  Adam Robinson Jan 9 '13 at 18:10
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+1 for the "trust" aspect. Especially if he has contact with clients. –  Izkata Jan 9 '13 at 19:01
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@ChrisF I think I hear the sound of employers everywhere adding "while at all times, not sleeping with boss' wife" to job description right after "other duties as necessary". –  Cade Roux Jan 9 '13 at 23:04

Strictly responding to the "business" aspect: I believe that one way or another the employee should go. We are in the case where we cannot have a proper functional working relationship. In this cases one should go. Because of the company's size (small/middle), a transfer to another department "far-away" from you is not possible, so leaving is the only option. Because the owner cannot leave, the employee should go.

Additionally you offer employment to a big number of people and living with extra stress from a single person within your working life might have an effect to the rest of the people working there (if this causes issues to company's performance). For the benefit of the whole versus one person, I believe he should go.

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Ok, someone needs to be a voice of reason here.

You are absolutely right not to react while angry. Very wise decision. Even when you've taken on all the advice you can, calm down as much as you can before making any decisions. It is unlikely that he will do the company harm UNLESS you react angrily.

The thing you need to remember is that he was a good employee before and there's no reason he can't continue to be, nor is there incentive for him not to be.

The only real issue here is your inability to separate the man from the act.

Having said that, it's totally understandable. Most people can't do that. But is it worth risking your business relationship, and indeed your business, over? Think hard about that question before you respond.

Even setting aside the legal aspect, it is going to cost you a lot of money to replace someone who, professionally, has done nothing wrong. Your completely-understandable ill-feeling will abate. But you've worked hard to build that business -- and so, by your account, has he -- and, hopefully, it's going to last.

I'm not suggesting you should just let it go. By all means, make it clear that you cannot trust him as much as you did. Reduce his freedom in business-rational ways. And, most importantly, cut your personal ties with him. Tell him you can't deal with him directly right now, and you certainly don't want to see him outside of work.

But don't do anything you're going to regret later.

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Another option all together:

Were you already considering an exit strategy at some point? You own a 30-40 employee company, which isn't oo small. If you are not married to this company for life, and have started to consider moving on, then this may be a kick in the pants.

You've had some major changes in your life. Having a pause would be a chance to step back, put the pieces back together, and re-establish yourself. It would also give you an opportunity for a clean break with the past.

Selling can take quite a while, so it wouldn't be an instant fix. But your entire life does not have to center around this company.

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Imagine that you had two employees, and one of them slept with the other's wife.

What would you do in that situation? The guy's actions, and the disruption to team dynamics aren't nothing. But you have to be able to understand them in the context of you not being the aggrieved party.

Before this happened to you, could you see yourself getting rid of the guy who had been aggrieved if the other guy was the better worker - "to help team dynamics"?

If you a) are sure you wouldn't do that, and b) the team dynamics have been disrupted, then you should talk to an employment lawyer about the next steps.

But if you would act differently if it wasn't you, then you have a different answer.

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Fire him and deal with the downstream sequalae. Life is too short to work in an unhealthy environment. And I suspect you think you deserve better than how you have been recently treated. NOTHING is worth your health and happiness and you have a long road of recovery ahead of you. So get started....

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Except as a business owner, he is also responsible for the health and happiness of his other employees. If you take your statement to the full conclusion without exception, then the employee and his wife did nothing wrong since they were just trying to be healthy and happy. You have to take in to account how your pursuit of health and happiness impacts others, double so when you are responsible for their well being. –  AJ Henderson Jan 9 '13 at 19:04
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I suppose to clarify it another way, what would happen if the situation was with two employee's rather than the boss? The situation would be resolved based on the impact to the organization, not just to any one person's happiness. If the two people working together is more harm to the business than the benefit of having either party, then one of the parties would be asked to leave. In this case, it would obviously be the employee since the other party is the owner, but the decision on someone leaving should follow the same guidelines. The best thing for the business doesn't just change. –  AJ Henderson Jan 9 '13 at 21:24
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Last I checked, a janitor and a lead developer don't actually work together, so it wouldn't apply. But in the case of a 2 people actually working together at a job requiring close cooperation, yes, I would definitely fire the guilty party. Sleeping with a married woman is just something you don't do and when it the wife of someone you closely work with... it's pretty obvious you don't think with the right brain... out! Anyway, that's just an hypothetical. The current case involves a guy dumb enough to sleep with is boss' wife. Would you keep an idiot on the payroll? –  Sylverdrag Jan 21 '13 at 15:37

I'm not sure anybody can really give you much advice here, I'm sorry that this has happened to you, over the last year I have gone through a marriage break up so on one level I know how difficult it is for you right now.

I've spoken to him. He says he's sorry about what's happened but he's also not leaving. He says his relationship with my wife should not a work matter and he's put too much work into the company to just get fired just because I'm the boss.

It's clearly up to you how you handle things at work, but you need to pull him up on this. If he was to be fired, and I'd question the legal aspect of that, he wouldn't be getting fired because you are the boss, but for a huge breech of trust. What he has done is morally wrong IMO and he cannot take the high ground here. If your wife had left you and he had started a relationship with her it would be very different.

The only advice I can give is things do get better with time. I know if I was in your shoes I'd have 101 things planned for "revenge", I'd keep a cool professional head.

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The problem with his idea of keeping things separated is that you're not the one who mixed business with personal, he is. And when it's something as serious as sleeping with your wife, the two stay mixed up permanently. I think that's about all I'm adding to the discussion that's unique in my answer but it's a hugely critical point. You're not in the wrong here for wanting him out and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Now, it's possible that he's blinded by the fact that likes his work so much and just doesn't want to leave, but IMO, his behavior is somewhere between toddler in a man's body and borderline sociopathic. To not even feel enough shame to leave the company when you're found out in a situation like this suggests to me somebody who is extremely selfish to a level where it would be completely impossible to trust him with anything.

So yes, talk to the lawyers. Watch your back on the divorce/sabotage side of things. Cover your ass. But get him the hell out of your office ASAP. He's clearly completely incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions and has no sense of compassion or empathy whatsoever. You're going to suffer a setback, but that's nothing compared to the psychological drain you must be going through just to see the guy every day.

And if I were you, I wouldn't be afraid of letting the team know exactly why barring danger of libel, etc... There is nothing unreasonable about wanting him out of the office and I'm kind of shocked anybody would see it any other way. If everyone's as closely-knit as you say, it's better for the truth to come out than to just toss a valued team member out without explanation. It might feel uncomfortable letting everyone in on your business but remember that none of this reflects badly on you.

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+1 "you're not the one who mixed business with personal, he is" –  woliveirajr Jan 11 '13 at 12:53

If you had slept with his wife would it be reasonable for him to expect you to leave the company? If not it seems like there might be an argument that if you fired him it might be an abuse of your position.

I'd personally do my best to keep business and home as separate as possible, but on the other hand if you have to look at him every day it could become difficult for you to get work done.

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A better parallel is to remove yourself from the situation. Look at it as two other people who have the issue. If it became an issue that the two of them couldn't deal with and it was causing professional issues that were detracting more than they are adding to the company, then one of the people (likely whoever is least important) would be asked to leave. In the case of an owner, the other party is basically always least important. It is very important that it be a sound business decision rather than a personal decision though. –  AJ Henderson Jan 9 '13 at 21:54
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@BillK remove the positions - I would think twice before shifting analysis that way; this may led too far away from the actual question asked (employer-employee) to keep answer relevant. I rather like your other "change direction", that is changing roles, or better yet going even further and trying to "remove yourself from the situation" as suggested above - that looks like a way to better understanding of the situation –  gnat Jan 10 '13 at 8:17
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@BillK: In this case, employee B who acts like a saint at work is the guilty party. Whether or not he can keep a professional "facade" at work, he is in fact the cause of the upset, and employee A can not be reasonably expected to trust and collaborate with B. Suppose B beats up A outside work. Would you expect A to forgive and forget? Come in to work and not be afraid/angry/hurt... No matter how much of a nice/professional this guy pretends to be, the truth is that he decided to severely damage his work relationship for the sake of a shag with a married woman. How professional is he really? –  Sylverdrag Jan 10 '13 at 17:44

A person can't change his traits a lot. It's about broken trust which is quite personal.

Mostly human mind won't follow the corporate and government rules when these kind of too personal things happens. Get real with these people rather fooling yourself.

The impact on your business will be huge. What if you're upset with this guy and if that affects your business? That's also equally important (as long as you're make sense to your business)

A business should have alternative plans. You can't fire this guy because he's important. There are two important things

  • You have to seek out for the best talents outside.
  • Consider that he's not the last in the smart category. You can find plenty if you really invest time and effort.

Also his professional ethics can't be counted against the given incident. The bonding and trust and is important to run a business.

What if he quits his job, in which you've no control. So my opinion is that don't rely on these people to run your business. It's important to have smart people around but we can't take it for granted. They're human beings and free to move around, express and change their opinions over time.

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Sorry to hear about that, but these things do happen. Hopefully this helps but I recommend that first you find someone you can trust to talk to about it. My suggestions are as follows:

  1. Get someone else up-to-speed (or yourself up-to-speed) with the application. No one should be indispensable
  2. Speak to lawyer and find out what you can do legally
  3. After getting someone up-to-speed, let him know - based on what your lawyer says - you need to let him go

Your personal life affects your work both in the positive and negative realm. Whilst trust may or may not be an issue, peace of mind is. Do you have the peace of mind knowing this person has access to your clients, knows your product inside out, and has the best handle of your business? Think about that. Only you can answer.

I hope this helps.

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I think it is really a question of a) would it be legal to fire him and b) would it be a larger negative impact to the company to have him there or not. That's really a decision only you can make.

As long as it is legal to fire him, I'd say separate yourself from the personal issue as much as you can while trying to evaluate the overall impact of the situation. Part of that evaluation is taking a meaningful look at how it has impacted your working relationship, but also looking at what it would cost the company to lose him vs the problems the interpersonal trouble would cause. Only you can really be the judge of that equation.

Another thought is that if there is someone else you trust in your company that is familiar with this individual, it might be worth talking to them as an independent third party about what they feel the impact is on the workplace. They may have a better perspective on the real workplace issues that are being seen due to the personal issues.

One last additional thought, the best option may not be to keep him or to fire him, but rather if you feel that he hasn't done anything professionally that merits his firing, you could ask him to leave due to the trouble it is causing you, give him time to find a position and even possibly give him a recommendation based on his professional merits to help get him out the door. If you are able to make it a goal you are both working towards, it will likely ensure the best outcome for your company overall.

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This is a big question, and first off I applaud you for being so professional about it. I'm sure there are plenty of people who wouldn't be, not in the least illustrated by all the comments (and answers) along the lines of "just fire him".

I think @NimChimpsky has a point: one issue you need to address is this particular employee being "close to indispensible". But that's a completely separate question and one you need to deal with generally, not only with regards to this particular employee. As much as anyone likes to feel needed, nobody should be indispensible. What if someone like that simply becomes seriously ill and is out of the office for a week or two?

If it was me (which it obviously isn't), I'd probably start off with telling him to take 1-2 weeks vacation. Make it paid vacation in addition to his regular vacation time, if you need to. The point isn't to reward him in any way, it is simply to get him off the premises without being too confrontational about it and certainly without doing something permanent, like firing him or risking a breach of contract from your side. Use that time to get a proper breather, consult with a lawyer or two specializing in employment law, see how you manage without him at the office (maybe the other employees deserve more credit than you are readily giving them with regards to their knowledge about your products?), and lay out a strategy. Then, when he comes back, you will be in a much better situation to handle the necessary tasks professionally and in a legally correct manner.

Firing someone for the wrong reasons, or even for what is perceived as the wrong reasons, can cost you (and/or the company) dearly. Make sure you have all your legal bases very well covered before you even think of firing this employee, no matter how betrayed you feel.

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It's your wife who has betrayed you. Perhaps one could say the employee has betrayed you. But surely the employee has not betrayed the company. If he is doing good work, firing him is an abuse of power. Both options are detrimental to the company:

  • Firing him is detrimental because it shows you are abusing power to fire someone for reasons not related to the company
  • Not firing him is detrimental because you still need to work with him.

In my personal opinion, the second option is still the lesser of two evils, considering that it's the two of you among dozens of people in the company. What about creating structures in such a way so you won't have to deal with him so directly?

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I think the reasons are related to the company and the employee has in fact betrayed the company. The relationship formed between the owner and subordinate existed only due to work on behalf of the company. They never would have interacted professionally otherwise. An individuals moral character is defined greater than what happens while on the clock. This employee abused the relationship and trust of the owner and should be considered untrustworthy. –  ckoerner Jan 10 '13 at 17:15

The first question to consider, is can it truly remain an issue outside of work? By that I mean, does it affect either your, or your employee's ability to do their job, to work with their co-workers and will it affect employee behaviour at work?

The second question to consider, is what are the likely outcomes of this affair and its link to your marriage breaking up on the office relationships if it becomes public? Will it have a wider affect on other staff?

The third question to consider, is can you continue to do your job whilst working with this individual?


Based on what you have said in the question, I believe it quite likely that your ability to manage this employee has been subtly compromised. You have an emotional response to him, and probably do not trust him either. The fact that he expects that this would not have any effect on his ability to work with you shows a lack of understanding of how people work.

You could terminate his employment contract for his conduct. The employee has acted in a way that it is reasonable to expect that you would be uncomfortable to continue to work with him, he has also undermined the trust you had in him. Both are arguable grounds for immediate termination with no compensation. The cost here is both the internal shock in the company that this person has left with no explanation, the loss of internal knowledge, and the risk that they attempt to claim compensation and the distraction on the business that can cause.

You could continue to employ him, and see how it plays out. You will be operating sub optimally, that over time this employee will not be able to carry out their duties properly - his loyalties are bound to be divided between his work and his home, and the overall cost on lost opportunity in terms of your focus and delivery, and this employee holding back on idea generation for personal reasons will have a significant cost to the business.

You could try to pay him to leave. Based on that he believes he could continue to work with you, I suspect that this would be an expensive option. But it's worth finding out what the cost would be.


In your situation, I would sack him, with a months pay, and a glowing reference. If he does go to court - and wins, take solace that every 2 pennies you pay in lawyers fees is one less penny that your wife will get in the divorce settlement.

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Being in a company for a long time doesn't prove anything, if he deserves to be fired for performance then so it is.

However I believe you should look at the big picture and see how much you were invested in those relationships. Is what you're putting yourself through worth it?

You should be glad you saw their true identities! Accept reality for what is, forget the past, move on and enjoy life for what it is :) !

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... yeah, because you can totally just ignore your wife leaving you for someone you employ and move on with life as if nothing happened ???? –  enderland Jan 9 '13 at 17:10
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That would depend at least partly on how much time he put into the business and how much time he put into maintaining his relationship with his wife... If the business has been coming before the wife for many years, then yes, perhaps he can just ignore it. –  Xav Jan 9 '13 at 20:52
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What I'm trying to say, is that what happened happened. The best thing he can do is move on. Moving on in his life is much better than feeling like crap all the time for someone who is not even worth it. And what does it help if he didn't ignore it? he can go on and on in the same pattern and think of the story over and over again, but at the exepnse of his peace of mind and his health. –  Cal Jan 10 '13 at 9:13

protected by NickC Jan 9 '13 at 16:57

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