Dangerous liaisons

16 August, 2017

The mild office romance that affects nothing and no-one bar the two happy people involved, both otherwise unattached, is a lovely thing—and rare.

Far more likely is the stuff of HR nightmares: affairs that break up marriages, jealousy-fuelled revenge acts, boardroom sex interrupted by traumatised cleaners, admirers that become stalkers and the increasingly common sexual harassment claim—the kind that can bring a small business to its knees.

‘Part of me was appalled and part of me amazed’

Colin* is a national sales manager with four state managers reporting to him. He shared with Business Pulse a recent experience that made all the previous ‘people issues’ he’s dealt with pale into insignificance.

“One of the state offices was recording poor figures month on month, without really any economic justification.

"If anything, that state should have been going gangbusters and so I started to focus on it as a bit of a problem child that needed attention.

“When I tried to talk to the state manager about various issues and strategies, he simply didn’t return my calls. When I did manage to catch him, he’d be very defensive, sometimes angry, and in the next breath would promise the world.

"He started to seem a little manic—you never knew which personality you were going to get. Certainly, he seemed very stressed. I was concerned.

“I started to receive complaints from people in that office, who all wanted to keep it off the record, that morale was very low and that this manager would sometimes have shouting tirades in the office but also that he had his favourites—one woman in particular. I wondered if this favouritism was part of the problem. That’s what a couple of people had suggested to me.

“I tried to ask him about it but again he wouldn’t answer my calls. His responses to my emails were passive-aggressive, and he always cc’d HR on them as if I was doing something unacceptable.

"All the while the sales figures kept tanking. It got to the point where I went to the head of HR and said, ‘There’s something going on here. Can I look at a couple of months of his email and phone records?’

“I’ve never done that before. It was a hunch and I probably would have felt bad if it yielded nothing.

"But it turns out that not only was this manager, who was very married, having a wild affair with the woman he was showing favouritism to in the office, but he was also having an affair with one of the operations team and the wife of one of our biggest clients.

"Most of it, especially all the sexual banter, was done on work email accounts and work phones. Some of the sex apparently happened in the office on weekends. In the little staff kitchen, in the tray of a delivery ute, at the receptionist’s desk.

“Part of me was appalled and part of me was amazed—who has the time? Of course, all that time, though, was time he wasn’t spending on our business, on his job, and so on the advice of HR, I let him go.

"I flew there and showed him the email print-outs and said you’re no longer employed by us. He was indignant and pleading—I mean, you wouldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe it, but I guess if you get very good at lying, you get good at lying to yourself as well.

“The whole thing has been a HR nightmare. We thought our policies were robust, but this really tested them. Talking to the female employees involved meant I had to walk a very fine line between disciplining them about company policy and showing support in case they felt they’d been victims of workplace harassment.

"Given that he was their boss, that was always the risk—that they’d say they had no choice but to give in to his advances. And that would probably be a fair call. That could still happen—we probably haven’t heard the end of this.

“I’d never encountered a situation like this—a deplorable man pleading for his job and young women crying their eyes out in front of me. Bloody hell. I usually just make decisions about costs and prices and spreadsheets. It was six months of hell. I had good advice from HR but sometimes I felt like even they were in uncharted territory.

“And what I find really amazing is that this bloke is still married. How I’d love to show some emails to his wife.”

* Names changed by request.

Salacious stories

“I was manager at a well-known pizza franchise when I was younger. Staff were always hard to find, so I agreed to employ the girlfriend of my assistant manager. I popped into work one evening to sort out some paperwork, opened my office door and was faced with what can only be described as a very compromising situation involving my swivel chair. Silly kids—both ended up with no job.  And I tossed the chair.”

 “I work with disadvantaged youth. I had a young female staff member (married with kids) who worked in our 24-hour crisis program. I discovered she was having liaisons at our work premises with a student worker on paid work time. She was supposed to be supervising six young people experiencing homelessness! She left before she could be fired but still works in our sector, supposedly helping young people.”

“I knew a guy who shagged five different girls at the same office during the same short period: two one-night stands, one friend-with-benefits and one relationship that later became his wife. She’s a very trusting woman.”

“My old boss thought it was ok to speak about all his employees in sexual terms, especially the young women who came to work for the sales company. He’d refer to their bust size to another similar aged man in his 50s, threaten the girls he’d wear a mankini to the staff Christmas party and encourage everyone to sit on Santa’s knee when he handed out the secret Santa Christmas presents. I was always amazed there were no sexual harassment cases against him.”

►This article first appeared in CCI’s special investigation into sex in the workplace. To download the complete investigation, visit here.