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Home No. 75: Married staffer spending too much time with single undergrad — Do I say anything?

May 09

No. 75: Married staffer spending too much time with single undergrad — Do I say anything?

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Married staffer spending too much time with single undergrad — Do I say anything?

Reader question: We have a young male post-doc in our lab who got married a year ago, and many of us attended. He is spending a lot of time with a young single female undergrad who works nearby, but has no real reason to work with her. They’re having lunch every day, chatting here and there, taking breaks. They’re both doing fine jobs, and there’s nothing technically work-related. The only exception — people are making side remarks about it, and it’s hurting their reputations. People are questioning their judgment — his in particular. I don’t think there’s anything going on, but I think that could change. He reports directly to me. I'm thinking of having a heart-to-heart with him after work and gently suggest that he focus his attentions elsewhere. Is that the right approach, and any suggestions on what to say?

Expert Comments:

This is tough judgment call. If things have gotten to the point where it’s crossed the boss’ desk, then a personal issue has spilled over into work-related things. And the boss should act in the best interests of the organization.

The operative phrase is “damaging his reputation.” This behavior is harming the team or at least distracting, and that’s the only reason a boss would intervene — if it’s impacting the team in a negative way. Only then should you skillfully bring it to the person’s attention. The key is to have a friendly chat — more of a “word to the wise” conversation between trusted friends than that of a boss/subordinate.

First, the person in this case is doing a good job, so tell him just that — he’s doing a great job. Then say something like: “You’re spending a lot of time with X (the undergrad). What you do on your own time is none of my business. I’m not accusing you of anything. People are talking, and yes, people can be busybodies, and maybe shame on them. I’m not telling you not to see her. I’m just making you aware that this sort of thing can be damaging to your reputation and damaging to the reputation of the team. You may want to consider reflecting on this.”

Then, as the dialogue proceeds, focus that this is simply a friendly chat and that you’re not telling him what to do or accusing him of anything. This is about how things appear, and the post-doc should be aware of it and that it is distracting to the team.

Be sure to clearly state that you’re only interested in how it impacts the workplace.

In addition, there is always the risk that something can go wrong between them and there could be a sexual harassment issue. The warning signs you should look for include the following:

  • complaints by co-workers that someone is being harassed
  • one party appears uncomfortable
  • if there’s a supervisor/subordinate relationship, any unusual rise in discipline for either the worker or supervisor, which might suggest punishment for not granting sexual favors
  • increased absences or medical leave by the undergrad, indicating a desire to avoid the post-doc
  • most obviously, any sexual harassment complaints by the victim.

If you see any of these signs, you should start to ask questions. The employer can be delicate about determining if someone is unhappy without violating anyone’s privacy. Also, look for any signs of hostility because that could suggest sexual or other kinds of harassment.

If you feel the situation rises to a level that requires more in-depth investigation based upon your observations, then you should get HR involved.

Expert comments by John Baldoni, executive coach, Ann Arbor, Mich., and author of Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results; and employment-law attorney David Spivak of The Spivak Law Firm in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Note: The above comments are intended as general information only, and not as legal advice for any particular case. Consult professional counsel for any individual situation you face.

Comments (8)
written by RJ, May 03, 2011
First off, you should be more worried about the people who are taking the time to gossip - it is creating undercurrent. This may be an old friend, a relative, someone he's agreed to mentor, who knows - and as long as it's not interferring with his work performance - nobody should care. It's basically behavior that is occuring on personal time and should be left as a personal matter. You could mention the gossiping to him "unofficially", but nothing more.
Not your business
written by Victor, May 03, 2011
Not your business. This is not a paternalistic society. You are the one who is prying and gossiping, in effect.

Even if there is no benign explanation, and the guy who just married now realizes that he made a mistake - so what? Or, maybe his wife doesn't mind either? Or maybe even she started cheating on him first? Or, nothing of the above? Still, MYOB! This is not a kindergarten, and you are not a school counselor. The supervisors (friends, neighbors, etc) who are more "sensitive" and "read between the lines" than absolutely necessary only create unneeded fuss and strain ("hostile environment", in legalese) for everybody around. Don't bully people in high morality if this is not a part of your job description.
Research Administrator
written by TK, May 03, 2011
Gotta disagree respectfully with the first two commenters. That's the easy way out. "It's none of my business." "I didn't want to get involved." "Am I my brother's keeper?"

I mean, we're all perfectly autonomous human beings, and none of us ever has lapses in judgment that our friends and colleagues can see coming a mile away. And if something appears to heading into a car wreck, hey, don't look -- and it's the gossip's fault!

After all, the highest morality is tolerance; the highest virtue in being non-judgmental; the greatest act of love is to look the other way when someone is about to screw up. Am I my brother's keeper?
written by Victor, May 09, 2011
"That's the easy way out. "It's none of my business."" Respect your opinion, but gotta reiterate: yes, not only the easy way, but also the only correct way. Public life is not your church.
written by Glass ceiling victim, May 09, 2011
Look, if the guy messes up his maried life, i guess that's his biz, because his wife is not part of your scene. But why no concern for the undergrad female. Obviously at a more immature and formative part of her carer. She's in university not just for science, but for life guidance. So by all means take her aside, warn her the "crush" on the guy is getting noticed, and before anythng worse happens she should make clear to him her brain is OK but her body is off limits.
written by Greybeard, May 09, 2011
I hope none of the many "hands off" posts are masking suppressed Freudian desires from some older codgers who, were they 23 again, might in these times take more liberties with "sweet young things" in the lab--and would not wish any meddlesome prof to spoil the party.
Director of Laboratory
written by Curie, May 09, 2011
If the only interfereence with the work place is gossip, the corrective action should be directed to the gossipers, who are creating the disruptive environment, not to the victims of gossip. For the employer or designee to speak to the subjects of gossip could be haressment if the only work place impact is a subject of gossip.
written by Costa, May 09, 2011
Imagine just for a moment that the man spent his time with his undergraduate brother. Any objection? So, have you ever heart the word friendship? Why do you suppose that there is sexual underground involved? They just like each other. If you intervene and make a note to the boy then most likely the boy will change its behavior. The undergraduate girl will understand and she will start to feel shame and will feel really uncomfortable with everybody. The effect of this conversation will make more harm than good.

Even if they love each other -- well it happens. Do you think the boy do not understand the situation? If you talk with the boy it will be even worse. For both of them -- the boy and the girl.

They work fine. They have no working relationship. It is only a coincidence that he is post-doc and she is a student. Don't be cruel to them.

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