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I had been promoted to recently and my division at the company where I work is being reorganized.

I had been dating my colleague for slightly less than 1 year in which she was a previously a project manager my team members had a horizontal dashed line reporting relationship to. To mitigate the conflict of interest while my team members were on a project she led, my team members had to move to her direct vertical reporting chain to her. This reporting change was requested by HR for which I pushed back but was unsuccessful.

Now with the reorg, there is an almost certain chance that she (my date) will report to me directly in my new role after the promotion, and be junior to me in rank Prior, we were both considered peers at the manager level. Product and project management is being absorbed into our division, cybersecurity, for all projects that support cybersecurity.

The conflict of interest here is painful for both of us, and our dating relationship is preventing the reorg from being viable. Her projects in the past has always been for cybersecurity and it will be hard for her to be successful as PM in a division outside of cybersecurity. Team members on my current team has already asked what will happen if my date were to move under my vertical reporting chain , and it pains me to have to say I don't know.

My goals:

  • To not have her report directly to me after reorg without sacrificing job stability

  • To mitigate chances that team members will have a dotted reporting structure to her (I can accept status quo, although not optimal as impact on me is negligible even though my team members horizontal and vertical managers are dating)

  • How can I resolve this conflict of interest, if I am reluctant to leave the company and my date is as well?

  • HR has asked to be briefed prior to reorg on how to mitigate the conflict of interest. What should I say to protect myself, role, and team?

  • How should I answer my teammates question about what will happen if she were to directly report to me and how any instability on team (horizontal / vertical reporting chains) will be mitigated? Previously, a team member said to me instability is causing him to consider leaving, but did not leave in the end.

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    I would suggest just rolling with it, European companies do it all the time and I have seen some happy marriages, some breakups with slight awkwardness, but not one scandalous or disrupting thing in my quarter of a century in the workforce. But based on your prior descriptions, your HR doesn't seem to be the rational or sensible kind :(
    – nvoigt
    Commented May 11 at 5:44
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    @nvoigt - Interesting. In the US in my experience its considered highly inappropriate for a person with coercive career power over another to peruse a romantic relationship with them. Not that it doesn't happen, but people get fired for this.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 11 at 17:09
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    @Anthony, what would happen if you just got married? Is it then OK with the corporate structure? (I would be interested to know, I have no idea how that goes.) (could be if you've been dating a year I guess anyway it's time to either get married or end it, perhaps that "helps" so to speak?)
    – Fattie
    Commented May 11 at 19:00
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    @T.E.D. Yes, that would be inappropriate in Europe, too. But this is not a person hitting on their subordinate, this is a previously existing relationship. In Europe, I can see both people having seperate disussions with HR if that is okay with them for one being the others boss, maybe even the peers of the future subordinate, whether they think this will work and they will be treated fairly... but if everyone is just "eh, sure, why not, whatever", they would probably go on with it. Especially if the line is not direct but maybe through another management level.
    – nvoigt
    Commented May 12 at 8:32
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    Obviously, by "Europe" I mean an actual european company, controlled by Europeans. Multi-national mega corporations may have adopted US standards. For better or worse.
    – nvoigt
    Commented May 12 at 8:35

7 Answers 7

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Some of the risks that need to be managed here:

  • Unfair treatment (in either direction; as far as practical, she should neither be advantaged nor disadvantaged by her relationship with you. You have at least made a good start on this by not assuming that it's up to the junior person in the relationship to take the career hit, as many would.) This can be in the big things (who gets to go to that shiny conference/who gets laid off?) and in the smaller things (who gets approved to take leave?)
  • Performance assessment - next time your date is applying for a raise, a promotion, or another job, she might be expected to provide a reference from her manager. If that's you, that assessment might be taken with a large grain of salt.
  • Misconduct - a manager often has a role in preventing, identifying, reporting and/or handling misconduct by their reports, and to a lesser degree that also applies in the other direction. Your ability to do this might be impaired by your relationship, or if other staff are unwilling to talk to you about problems with her/vice versa.
    • This is ESPECIALLY important in a sensitive/high-trust area, which I expect cybersecurity would be.
  • Potential damage to the team if the two of you should break up.

And perhaps most importantly:

  • Perception of any of the above, whether they're actually happening or not.

For instance, suppose the two of you miss some vulnerability and your org gets hit with ransomware. Even if you two had both been doing your jobs with the utmost professionalism, even if the vulnerability wasn't something you could reasonably have been expected to catch, there's a risk that angry unreasonable people looking for a scapegoat will pick on your relationship and accuse you of not exerting proper oversight on her decisions, or even of conspiring with her to deliberately create a vulnerability.

The cleanest way of avoiding this is to not have the two of you in a direct reporting line. You've mentioned that it's not practical for her to move out of cybersecurity, but is it possible for you to move sideways into another role?

If that is not workable, then I would recommend sitting down with your own manager or whoever else seems appropriate, identifying your responsibilities as manager, and categorising them into something like these groups:

  • Level 1: Minor things where your relationship is not likely to cause any serious conflicts or perception of conflicts.
  • Level 2: Issues where you can continue to be the sole decision-maker, but you may need to pay more than usual attention to things like transparency and consistency to avoid perceptions of unfairness. Something like "deciding who gets to take Thanksgiving leave and who has to stay back" might fall into this category - here you'd want to be clear in advance about how those decisions will be made, and stick to them.
  • Level 3: Issues where you will be primary decision-maker, but keeping others in the loop on what you're deciding and why (e.g. your own manager). This might include things like "who gets that major development opportunity?" when your date is in the running, or signing off on a major security recommendation by your date.
  • Level 4: Issues where you are needed to provide input, but somebody else needs to be primary decision-maker - e.g. promotion decisions in which your date has an interest.
  • Level 5: Issues in which you should be bypassed altogether - e.g. any allegation of serious misconduct by your date, layoff decisions where your date might be in the firing line. These are cases where you simply cannot be at the table without your relationship casting a huge shadow over the decision. In these cases you might still be called on to provide information towards the decision, and you should try to anticipate those information needs and have objective info available ahead of time, but you should have no role in making decisions or recommendations. Expense account sign-off probably falls into this one too.

Ideally most of your managerial workload will fall into the lower-level categories so you're not shifting too much onto your own manager or others. I've given some possible examples but you and colleagues will need to decide what's appropriate for your workplace.

In all of this, aim for transparency with your team - be clear that there is a conflict of interest here, and this is how you're handling it, and perhaps invite them to give anonymous input before finalising it.

(I am assuming from your post that your relationship is not a secret to the team, otherwise there might be a bit more nuance required on just how much goes out in the open vs. need-to-know.)

Whatever strategy you end up with, be sure to get agreement from HR and your manager to all of it, in writing, in a way that makes it clear you've exhausted the options that don't involve being in a direct line of management. The way you've described this situation doesn't fill me with great faith in your HR team's ability in such areas, and it may be wise to be prepared in case somebody down the road tries to walk this one back and claim you didn't disclose the situation to them.

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  • Thinking of accepting. Given team members had raised a concern last summer that team instability due to member shuffling is making them consider working elsewhere, and that I don't know what will happen if she become my direct report, what's your advice here?
    – Anthony
    Commented May 12 at 16:31
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    @Anthony I think the main thing you can do there is be clear to the team about which things are and aren't in your sphere of control, and about how you will handle the things that are, without making promises you might not be able to keep.
    – G_B
    Commented May 13 at 2:06
  • Yes, perception, or perhaps people's ideas about things that may or may not be happening, are the most significant. And, completely outside of the control of you, HR, your colleague, the Man in the Moon, and everyone else. The situation is not savable. Commented May 14 at 11:08
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    @HappyIdiot It's definitely a bad situation, even with the most careful management, but I can't agree that perception is completely outside OP's control. Much of my answer is directed at perception issues e.g. making arrangements to mitigate conflicts and being transparent with the team about what those arrangements are.
    – G_B
    Commented May 15 at 5:40
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I worked at a company where this precise set of circumstances occurred involving a married couple. The relationship was fine when she was a manager and he reported to a different manager. He was then promoted to a (peer-level) management role which was also fine. He was then promoted into a general management role and she became his subordinate. HR asked how they wanted to deal with this and they came to the following solution;

  • She would still report to him operationally.
  • Another senior manager (in their case the Finance Director) would supervise all decisions regarding appraisals/performance, etc.

How he managed his professional relationship with her was then assessed annually to make sure that this situation remained amicable.

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    I think this is the correct answer - someone else in the mix who can make the calls around appraisals/preformance
    – lupe
    Commented May 13 at 13:05
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    @lupe This is indeed a good answer, but there is no "correct" answer in a situation like this. We are not in possession of all the facts. Commented May 13 at 16:33
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Option 5: Talk to management, have them assign you to parts of the business where there is no conflict of interest or power dynamic between the two positions. In a larger company there may be multiple semi-independent management trees on site, or even another site within reasonable commuting distance. That may require one or both of you give up your current project and/or role, but could retain your "job", seniority, history with the company, etc.

Dating within a company is not, by itself, a problem. Gods know that many of us technogeeks don't have much of a social life away from work. The main concern, both for the company and yourselves, is making sure that neither is in a position to inappropriately reward -- or punish -- the other, or to be perceived as doing so.

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You know the answer here already.

How can I resolve this conflict of interest, if I am reluctant to leave the company and my date is as well?

You can't. Sit down with your partner and work out which two of these three you want to keep:

  1. Your job
  2. Her job
  3. Your relationship
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    Option 4 is that both of you quit your company and found a new business together. Jeff Bezos and his then-girlfriend used to work for the same company before they got married and quit their jobs together. What did they do next ? They travelled across the country from New York city to Seattle, and found a company called Amazon.com. The rest is history. There is a famous saying : "Love can conquer all". Is it true ? :-) Commented May 11 at 10:24
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    @Job_September_2020: And clearly that one prominent success story is how it always goes... Commented May 11 at 18:35
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    @Job_September_2020 And then they got divorced in 2019 after he cheated on her, so the saying may not have been entirely accurate...
    – G_B
    Commented May 12 at 6:23
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    @TOOGAM FWIW I'm very sympathetic to Philip's answer. Even with the kind of measures that I outlined in my own answer, having a relationship with somebody in one's direct line of management is a high-risk situation which could turn out very dissatisfying indeed. The fact that HR left it to OP to figure out a solution to this is worrisome in itself and doesn't speak well to their ability to manage the ensuing complications. My answer is given on the basis of "least bad way to handle this if you're stuck with it" but I'd still have serious misgivings.
    – G_B
    Commented May 12 at 12:14
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    Why isn't there option 4, ignore any perceived "conflict of interest" and just do your best professionally? Only one of the four things involved needs to be sacrificed, and sacrificing OP's internal desires for ethical purity of the management chain is likely "cheaper" than sacrificing the relationship or either of the two jobs. It's a company, not a court of law, so there's likely no fundamental reason to be very strict about perceived conflicts of interests, companies are always full of those anyway. If HR doesn't see an issue there, why should OP seek one out?
    – TooTea
    Commented May 13 at 15:35
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Do what's your responsibility and let others do what's theirs.

It seems the re-org itself was neither your decision nor is it under your control. So, it's not your responsibility to ensure the re-org doesn't cause any conflicts of interest. That's for someone else to figure out (it might be HR, it might be upper management).

Your responsibility is merely to inform all relevant parties that their actions (the re-org) may cause a conflict of interest (your date becoming your report). It's then the responsibility of those parties to fix it. (You may propose a fix if you can think of one, but you don't have to.)

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    This is a rather simplistic approach, the fix from HR or whoever is in charge may very well be to fire either OP or his SO or both.
    – user106599
    Commented May 13 at 11:33
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    @Ccm in which case IMO it would mean that this is not a company worth working for anyway (ignoring personal lives of the employees, quickly choosing extreme solutions, not being able to be even slightly flexible towards the employees even in face of objective circumstances etc.)
    – Spook
    Commented May 13 at 11:51
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    @Ccm OP mentioned that it was actually HR who pushed this reporting change through, against OP's objections. So HR is obviously fine with the new setup. Sounds like there's no issue to fix.
    – TooTea
    Commented May 13 at 15:40
  • It reminds me of those signs I've seen on footpaths that say "Bull In Field". Whether you try to sneak through without the bull noticing, or shout and wave your arms to make sure it notices, the bull is still way bigger and faster than you are. Best to avoid the field. Commented May 15 at 11:56
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Define priorities

Maybe you didn't do it because it is obvious, but among your goals there is actually no goal named "Keep dating the colleague", nor it is placed in a proper position on your list. And I'm pointing that out for a reason: I guess that it is really important for you to sit down and set up your priorities: Your relationship with your colleague, your rank in the company and also your job in general. Having such a hierarchy of values will help you define, what is really important to you and - in consequence - what are you ready to sacrifice if such a sacrifice will become a necessity.

For instance, if you wouldn't have any other option than to choose between your relationship and your current position (or even the job itself), what would you choose?

It also struck me that after a year of dating, you still refer to her as a "colleague". A year is a lot of time, I suppose it may be worth considering if it isn't already the time to push your relationship further or else think if it indeed has a future? This will simplify defining priorities a lot (but God forbid, don't do it for the sake of solving the problem you asked about!) That said, you might also used the word "colleague" to stress out your professional relationship, in which case this paragraph might not apply to you :)

Also keep in mind that your decision on how to handle this situation will most likely have an impact on your relationship, depending on which route you will be willing to take (and the impact may be negative, but also positive).

Talk to her

Given that your relationship is high on your priority list, talk to her a lot and ask, how would she feel if you had to - because of some objective reasons - e.g. deny her request for a rise. I'd personally pick an extreme case (because it is likely that such case might happen), but also I would stress out really strongly that this is a purely theoretical case and you simply want to discuss it before it happens. Ask her to be sincere. If she tells you that (even if there were objective reasons) it would strongly affect her feelings towards you, you have to take it into account. Feelings do not necessarily subject to logic, but definitely do shape relationships.

Report the situation to HR clearly

As Dreamer mentioned, the reorganization was not conducted from your initiative - moreover you actively opposed it. So it is not your responsibility to handle the situation now: don't let HRs enforce you to solve their problems (you said that HR has asked to be briefed prior to reorg on how to mitigate the conflict of interest.)

Tell the HRs that you put a lot of effort to be fair and just for your co-workers and subordinates, but you are simply unable to guarantee the same for your colleague due to obvious (and dare I say, serious) personal reasons. Explain calmly that your decisions related to your colleague will also have an impact on your relationship and you will be taking that into account, because that relationship is of real value to you.

It is also worth mentioning that even if you two manage to be honestly 100% professional towards each other, other co-workers still may consider you favoring her and that will undermine morale of the team.

To be completely honest, if my company in such situation ignored the conflict of interests and tried to enforce me to manage my wife (given that I wouldn't feel comfortable with such an arrangement), then I'd probably started searching for a new job, because this would tell me that the company doesn't care about my private life and I don't want to sacrifice my life for the job position or even that job in general.

Consider hacking the vertical/horizontal hierarchy

You may ask HRs to make an exception in the vertical or horizontal hierarchy (depending on what is possible) to minimize your impact on your colleague. For instance she could be (exceptionally) managed vertically by a manager of a different (hopefully similar) department.

It may just work

I had a relatively similar situation in one of my previous companies. I was assigned to be the tech leader in the project in which my wife was a QA. I didn't really have too much power over her, but even though there was - let's call it this way - a power dynamic before both of us, we were both perfectly fine with that.

Interestingly, even though I strongly believe that we both managed to handle the situation professionally (I actually put even more effort to be professional towards my wife than other employees), some people had problems with the situation. For instance, I was asked explicitly by the PM to rely a request to prepare a demo for the customer to my wife and her colleague working in the same office. Afterwards, the 3rd QA accused me of favoring my wife over her.

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  • @HappyIdiot, I completely do not follow your comment. Why would they say that?
    – Spook
    Commented May 15 at 15:25
  • Sorry, I thought I had read in your answer that you could tell coworkers that the relationship had ended. I must have read that on another Answer. Commented May 15 at 17:45
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A possibly solution would be to prefer a more sane solution, i.e. where your unrelated activities are not threatened by a corporate HR who has nothing to do with it. For example, you might consider emmigration to a country where the important is, how things are, and not how things look.

Here the most important thing would be the girlfriend. That is because the HR has already a "case", and to close this "case", they want to see a for them acceptable result. And, you know, they are not your friend.

How does she see this whole thing? A "dating relationship" does not worth too much, but is there your future family among the options? If yes, I think do not allow this crap farisee HR to stay between you.

If no, then ignore the whole thing and do what is the most pleasant to you, on the long-term.

It is unlikely that you can save both your job and your girlfriend, but you can always try to. Decide which is more important, preserve that on any cost, and try to do your best to preserve also the other (but sacrifice if there is no other choice).

I think you have made a deadly mistake as you did not kept your workplace relation in absolute secret.

A possible way would be to say that you do not have dating relation any more. The HR has no way to make it sure, they must trust your saying. It depends on them, if they believe it. Unfortunately, the only sure way for them to close this "case", if you are not in a vertical relation any more, i.e. you lose your job. But you might have luck and try to risk.

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    Lying and hiding things from your employer. Don't know what words to put after those... Commented May 14 at 11:00
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    "The girl"/"your girl" is a very old-fashioned — and potentially demeaning/belittling — way of saying "your girlfriend"/"your partner". In fact the poster refers to her as "my date", so probably best to use the term that he uses.
    – andrewf
    Commented May 14 at 11:27
  • @HappyIdiot Employer has no word about your personal relations. 1:1
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented May 14 at 11:29
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    @HappyIdiot You know, if we overplay something, we create with it also its antithesis. OP overplays the appearance of the very independent and engaged company employee, sacrificing his possibly future family. So, he got an antithesis...
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented May 14 at 12:10
  • @andrewf Ok, I edited the post.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented May 14 at 13:48

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