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This article first appeared as "Relationships that are lose/lose" in the 3/27/09 issue of Association TRENDS.
By MICHAEL J. NIZANKIEWICZ, PhD, CAE
Did you know there is actually a web site for people who are in committed relationships who are looking to have “discreet” affairs? The owner of this web site said he found that some 30% of people who signed up for the more legitimate web dating services were actually married or in committed relationships, but hid that fact. With this web site (ashleymadison.com for those who have to know), all 3.5-million participants are fully aware that everyone who registers is already in some type of committed relationship.
So what does this have to do with associations?
Having spent more than 38 years as an association professional, I have had to address instances where staff members were either having inappropriate relationships with other staff or, worse, with volunteer leaders (i.e. one or both were already married, but not to each other). If you are the chief staff executive of an association and have such on your staff or volunteer roster, ignoring the issue is never an option. As we all know, rumors of such relationships spread like wildfire among staff and volunteers, regardless of who is involved. If staff are involved, the other staff members will judge in Simon Cowell-like fashion how quickly and how effectively the chief executive handles the situation. And don’t think for a moment that the rumor stays within the confines of the association’s offices. Volunteer leaders, other volunteers, and even members will judge how effectively the situation is handled.
As with any affair, getting conclusive proof of the relationship is unlikely, short of hiring a detective (which, in itself, could create a separate set of legal woes). Typically, the rumors start with more circumstantial incidents: frequently going to lunch together, requesting adjoining rooms at meetings and conferences, taking simultaneous sick days or vacation time, and the list can go on. In a staff-to-staff situation individuals can never be accused of “having an affair” without conclusive proof. That could simply lead to a lawsuit. In a large association the situation should be handled by the human resource director. In smaller associations, the chief executive must play a key role.
In the past, the way I’ve handled such a situation was to set up a meeting with the two individuals. Also present was another senior staff member. I informed the individuals that a rumor was persistent among the other staff (and volunteers) that the two were having an affair (in this case, one was married and the other was not). I emphasized that this was a rumor, that it was persistent, and that the two staff members had to “manage the existing perception.” Such a meeting was repeated before a national conference or meeting. At the very least, such a discussion puts the two staff members on notice that their actions are being observed by others.
The outcomes of such an inappropriate relationship are inevitably lose/lose. In many instances, the innocent spouse gets wind of the affair. In other situations, the affair goes sour, which then creates a very uncomfortable working atmosphere for both individuals. When that occurs, one of the affected parties leaves the association. Incidentally, there are many situations where legitimate relationships develop within an office where both individuals are single. Conventional wisdom dictates that this is not very prudent, but there is really nothing the chief executive can do when this occurs other than ensure that the relationship does not interfere with work-related outcomes. Regardless, when the intra-office relationship ends, it still creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for the two involved, so care must be given to ensure that a “hostile” workplace is not created as a result.
In a situation where the staff member is having an affair with a member of the board, addressing the relationship becomes even more sensitive - especially when the board member happens to be the chief elected officer. The involvement of the chief staff executive is now essential. In this kind of relationship, the staff member can easily develop a sense of entitlement that his or her job is now “protected” by the volunteer leader. The chief staff executive must act quickly, but very carefully. Here I would not recommend a joint meeting, but rather individual meetings with the staff member (again, with a senior staff member in attendance). A separate meeting must be held with the volunteer leader, but first the chief elected officer must be informed of the situation if she is not already aware. The chief elected officer must conduct this meeting (unless she is the one engaged in the affair), perhaps with the chief staff executive in attendance who can convey the repercussions the perception of the rumor is having with the staff. As we all know, a volunteer leader can make the life of the chief staff executive difficult while that person remains in office, so the executive must exercise courage, sound judgment and true diplomacy.
Regardless of the circumstances, it is always advisable to seek and follow legal counsel from a specialist in personnel law.
Nizankiewicz is executive director of Washington Center for Psychoanalysis.