No Good Deed Dilemma: Deeply Disturbed by Daters

The Dilemma du Jour:

I own and run a mid-sized local PR firm and was vaguely aware that two of my employees have been dating for about a year. We don’t have a formal policy about employees dating, but early in the relationship they told me they were involved and wanted to assure me it would not affect their ability to work together and with others on our team. I appreciated the transparency.

But last week I received a very disturbing email from an obviously upset ex of one of these employees with attachments of highly graphic sexts, emails and nude photos exchanged by my employees. They were not from company email addresses and appear to be sent during non-working hours. Once I got past the shock, I made the couple aware I received this communication. Needless to say, we are all embarrassed.

I know it shouldn’t make any difference to how I view these employees, but somehow I feel discomfort, even distrust seeping into my relationships with them. How can I get past this? Or should I address it somehow? Should our company have had a clear policy on dating in the workplace?

Signed, Deeply Disturbed By Daters

Dear Triple D:

Technically, your employees did nothing wrong. Despite there being no office dating policy and thus no requirement to declare their relationship status, they took the proactive step of informing you they were dating to ensure transparency. In my opinion, that demonstrates a clear intention to behave ethically. Also, that you’ve only been “vaguely aware” of their relationship over the past year -- until a third party with no ties to the company intentionally tried to cause problems for them -- is further testament to your employees’ respect for professional behaviour in the workplace.

Now, let’s talk about your discomfort. Of course you don’t want to witness your employees’ sex lives. Yet, I suspect it’s not so much what you saw that’s driving your discomfort– it’s that those things existed for you to see in the first place. How people behave off the job is becoming as important as how they act at work. Hardly a week goes by without a story about someone being fired or ostracized because of inappropriate remarks or actions that happened on their personal time, sometimes years earlier. You’re in the business of managing reputations, and you need to be comfortable your staff has solid judgment because if they don’t, it reflects poorly on you and can cost you clients. Sexts of your team’s TaTas could result in you saying ‘TaTa’ to income. That’s the real issue here.

While I expect your employees have learned their lesson and curtailed their naughty exchanges, the spurned ex could still send the racy texts off to your clients if they know who they are. I’d suggest advising your employees to contact a lawyer to proactively make that an unattractive option. Next, I’d schedule a lunch n’ learn for all staff on the importance of off-hours behaviour. This shouldn’t be targeted to staff’s behaviour (and certainly not done in a way that would make folks think of your daters). Instead, go for a more general, “we need to help our clients understand this given current expectations.” Finally, develop a dating policy and post it to your intranet. To avoid drawing attention to your daters, I’d post it along with other materials and let people know that these updated policies and info are available. Your PR gut is telling you to do some issues management. Listen to it.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, Principal, KM Strategic Communications

Aww…Isn’t love grand?

Seems to me that four specific issues need to be addressed here:

  • The employees’ extracurricular activities;
  • The firm’s reputation risk;
  • The legal implications; and
  • The company’s social media/ethical conduct policy or lack thereof.

The employees’ situation. Taking a dip in the office dating pool is always risky, given that office relationships are often the focus of intense gossip. On the surface, the employees in question did nothing wrong. It’s an extremely delicate situation and humiliating to those involved. The best thing an employer could do is support his/her employees. Let the employees know the company is aware of the situation and work with them to identify the extent of the exposure (no pun intended). Jointly develop a plan of action and, if necessary, provide time off or support services to the affected parties. If other employees are aware of the incident, consider issuing a warning against further disclosure appealing to their sense of good judgment.

Reputation management. The biggest risk to the company is the potential for the photos landing in the hands of clients or going viral and negatively impacting the firm’s reputation. The first step should involve working with IT to optimize online security; ensuring employees can't gain access to the offensive material. Establish a social listening platform to monitor any untoward social media mentions or conversations related to the incident. In many respects, the same tactics you would employ for a data breach would come into play here. Draft key messages for employees, clients and the media in the event the situation goes public and prepare correspondence/posts for target audiences diplomatically explaining the situation and what you’re doing about it.

Legal implications. Unfortunately, this type of “revenge porn” is becoming increasingly common, but it’s also illegal. Amendments to the Criminal Code in March 2015 made distributing intimate images of a person without their consent an indictable offense. Adding lawyers or law enforcement into the mix has the potential to complicate the PR process. I would leave it up to the affected employees how hard they want to play the legal card in this instance. But a strongly worded lawyer letter to the ex-boyfriend or an unannounced visit from police could bring this matter to an abrupt close.

Social media/ethical conduct policy. If your company doesn’t have a social media or harassment policy in place or at the very least ethical standards outlined in all employment contracts, you should get those nailed down and share them with all employees. Some companies have pretty strict policies when it comes to workplace dating, particularly dating between direct reports. Policies that prohibit dating may be viewed as overreaching or intrusive, so any new policy should be geared towards creating a professional, supportive and harmonious work environment, with a friendly reminder that employees’ personal conduct does ultimately reflect on the reputation of their employer.

~ Martin Livingston, Principal, Living Communications Inc.

It’s a drag that you ended up being collaterally damaged as an outcome of your employees’ love triangle. Many years ago, I lived through something similar – though not as graphic – so I can, to an extent, feel your pain. To riff on truisms penned by playwrights in the late 16th century: ‘hell hath no fury like a lover scorned.’ The malicious distribution of private texts, emails and digital images is clearly a very 21st century response from scorned lovers.

So, now that you are personally and professionally faced with this new reality, let’s break down the situation. Firstly: the employees came clean to you earlier about their ongoing relationship, so you knew they were involved. No harm here. Secondly, it doesn’t appear that they have abused any resources provided by or related to the company. (This would have been a different story if their ‘correspondence’ had been via corporate channels, or if pictures you saw had indicated the wild thing was happening on your desk!) Thirdly, you also noted that their ongoing – ah – encounters were taking place outside of office or working hours. Good! All three are very important factors, when put in the balance. In addition to the above, I’m going to assume the relationship has not drastically changed the ability of the two employees to work together, and has not impaired the way they function with others in the firm. I will also assume the work they are contributing, day to day, has continued to be of high value, and that – even in their ardour – they haven’t dropped the ball on client- or team-related commitments. My final assumption, since you did not indicate it was the case, is that the images have not been any more widely distributed. If they had, as an active PR practitioner, I shouldn’t need to tell you to forget about yourself and begin to mount an immediate reputation protection campaign for your firm!

If all the above facts and assumptions are correct, you may need to pick up the mirror, my dear. Currently, the ‘issues’ seem to be all yours. I totally get that you feel uncomfortable around these employees – and I can’t even imagine how they are feeling when they interact with you! But rather than dwelling on the negative, here are the questions I think you should be asking yourself. Are they capable, productive team members, who give good client service and counsel? Are they continuing to be discreet about the relationship, and not letting their feelings for each other interfere? Is your discomfort worth chucking the investment that you’ve made in these two hires, and the cost of ‘starting over,’ if you come to a point where you feel they need to be replaced? And, if you allow yourself to devolve to that dark space – where your distrust can’t be overcome – what is your pretext for taking any next steps? “I don’t like the fact that I saw you naked, so I’m letting you go?” I’m pretty sure that’s a fast track to a Human Rights Tribunal and, rightfully so. Would a company policy on where, with whom and when employees can fall in love have helped? Maybe a little, but it’s more likely your daters would have simply kept their mouths shut, and I’ve never been sure how enforceable a policy like that would be, even if one existed at your firm.

So, come on! You’re running a company, which, in my books, officially makes you An Adult. As such, you’ve probably seen porn before. Over time, your memory of the images will fade and one day all of you (possibly together, but more probably separately) are going to laugh about this. But in the here and now, you need to keep your eye on the prize. If these two employees remain the intelligent, committed and valuable team members they were before you saw them naked, then don’t let the malicious actions of a scorned lover cloud your judgment. In my opinion, your far greater concern should be around how you may need to replace one or both of these employees if the relationship fails, and they decide not to continue to ‘see’ each other at the office.

~ Jackie Asante, Senior Vice President, FleishmanHillard HighRoad (Vancouver)

About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.