What to do when your boss is having an affair with another employee

January 27, 2022, 8:15 PM UTC
A photo illustration of a man and woman walking arm in arm
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Dear Work Space, 

I work at a small nonprofit organization. I have suddenly found myself in the middle of a complicated and uncomfortable situation. Long story short, the executive director and development director are having a very public affair. Being a very small organization, there are only three employees. So, yes, I am the third wheel. 

I’ve known both of my coworkers and their families for years, and this situation is extremely uncomfortable for me personally. We live in a small community, and this situation is the talk of the town. There is a lot of negativity aimed at our organization because of my coworkers.

We lost a significant grant from a local foundation that we have received every year for the past six years. This grant happened to be for a program I run, so I followed up to ask for feedback. The board chair from the foundation confided that they have lost trust in our organization because of the behavior of my coworkers and lack of response from our board. 

For the record, the only board-imposed consequence for my coworkers was that they couldn’t sit next to each other in the office. They moved their desks and moved them back about a month later. 

I’m seeking advice on what I should do, if anything? I enjoy my job and see great potential for a long career there. But my work environment is so uncomfortable, this is a strain on my personal life, and now my programs are losing funding because of my coworkers’ actions. Help!
Third Wheel Hell 

Dear TWH, 

Everything about this situation sounds terrible. You did not sign up for this complicated and uncomfortable situation, and it is clearly impacting you at work and in your small community. You’re not the one who’s engaging in this behavior, yet you’re feeling the impact, both from the funder who’d previously supported your work and through the relationships you’ve established with folks in your town. I can see why you’re feeling stressed out. If I were in a similar situation, I would absolutely be distracted by this drama and worried about all the things you’re worried about. 

Asking your coworkers to stop sleeping with each other isn’t really an option, even if that is what’s bothering you. You also cannot plan an intervention to stop locals from gossiping. While it’s tempting to focus on the affair itself—and plenty of people in your small community seem to be very focused on it—I’m more interested in how your coworkers have been conducting themselves at work. What people do in their private lives is their business. I don’t know what’s going on in their personal lives, and I don’t have any authority to tell them how to manage their relationship (nor do I know of their agreements, or lack thereof, with their romantic partners). But I do know about how leadership and accountability should work at nonprofit organizations. And I think there’s a lot to learn from your situation, even for readers who aren’t working at small nonprofits. 

I’d like to start with the most critical issue: You are dealing with leadership that, from what you’ve told me here, is acting unethically. There’s a real lack of accountability that’s permeating the organization, and if something doesn’t change, things could get worse. 

In your small community, there are still power dynamics at play. The executive director is your boss and the development director’s boss as well. You repeatedly talk about them together, but it’s important to look at their roles in this separately to further unpack what’s going on here. The executive director is having a relationship with a subordinate. There’s clearly a conflict of interest here, further amplified by how small the team is, that impacts decision-making and the workplace atmosphere.

Further, the executive director has openly defied guidance provided by the board of directors, who have oversight over their position. The executive director is not being held accountable for their actions, and they’re setting a precedent where they’re overruling the structure that’s in place to check against malfeasance. 

In my experience, it is the responsibility of executive directors at a small nonprofit to lead the charge on fundraising and strategizing on how to grow organizational revenue. Hearing that you are the one following up on why the organization is losing funding makes me think that the executive director is not taking that part of their job as seriously as they could be. So you’ve got a boss whos acting in ways that don’t line up with your values, in a power position over the person that they’re in a relationship with, who is eroding trust in their capacity to lead. 

Nonprofits are notorious for encouraging workers to step into roles beyond their job descriptions and creating a culture where workers feel a responsibility to overwork, even if they don’t get paid more for additional responsibilities or time. Sarah Jaffe, who wrote about the pressures put on nonprofit workers in her book, Work Won’t Love You Back, told Teen Vogue in an interview, “Our modern nonprofit industrial complex pulls on a lot of those old tropes about how if you don’t work really hard and sacrifice yourself constantly, then you’re doing wrong by the people you serve.”

In your case, the nonprofit culture, combined with your passion for your work, is amplifying your stress and motivating you to find ways to protect the organization from the fallout from other employees’ behavior, even if this task is outside of your responsibility.

Between the terrible dynamic that has been introduced in your small nonprofit and the lack of alignment right now between your values and your colleagues, I think there’s a chance that you’re feeling some moral distress, which is why you’re feeling so uncomfortable. Moral distress can happen when you see something you know is wrong at work but you feel powerless to change it. 

Significant research has examined how moral distress can be an occupational hazard for nurses since the profession is guided by ethical standards that are sometimes put in conflict with the realities of how care can be administered in overburdened and under-resourced medical facilities. To be clear: I am not comparing your situation to that of a nurse providing lifesaving care. That said, the guidance the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) has put together on understanding moral distress is useful and translatable, as long as you’re willing to adapt the recommendations to your situation and your industry. 

The first step in AACN’s Moral Distress Guide is to identify that you’re experiencing moral distress, which the guide differentiates from compassion fatigue and burnout. Moral distress is rooted in knowing what the right thing to do is but being paralyzed by “constraints, conflict, dilemmas, or uncertainty” that prohibit you from taking action. In comparison, burnout is deep physical and mental exhaustion from work stress that causes people to disconnect, and the weariness of compassion fatigue is directly connected to providing care for others who are suffering. After confirming that you’re experiencing moral distress, you chart your level of distress on a scale of 1 to 10 and think about how its symptoms are showing up for you, emotionally, physically, and mentally. 

After that, it’s time to think about the specific situations at work that trigger your distress. Is it when you’re talking to funders? Is it when you witness your coworkers acting unprofessionally in the office? When you hear a neighbor talking about your colleagues’ relationship? In those situations, identify what typically stops you from taking action or speaking up, either from yourself, your team, or your organization overall. Once you’ve mapped out those specific situations, you can then better prepare for those scenarios. As you tap into your moral courage, you can find ways to speak up when you feel people are crossing a boundary. 

Unless you’re afraid of repercussions, I’d start by talking with your boss about how the relationship that they’re in has changed the dynamic at work. In a small work environment, a conversation might reset the chemistry, help the executive director see things from a new perspective, and give you a better sense of their perspective. Again, I wouldn’t focus on how the relationship itself is a problem. That’s out of your control and it’s likely that your boss will tune you out. 

While it might be a difficult conversation (which this previous Work Space column can also help you prepare for), the impact will hopefully ripple out beyond just your relationship with your boss. We’re hoping that they start being more accountable for their actions and make an effort to repair the culture within your organization.

“Low-accountability cultures are fertile ground for major problems,” writes researcher Joseph Grenny in “We Should Speak Up More About Ethical Violations.” “Conversely, when leaders intentionally create a norm in which employees address daily accountability concerns with bosses, peers, direct reports, and other departments, the organization wins twice. Not only is present performance dramatically improved, but the organization inoculates itself against creeping corruption.”

Grenny’s research emphasizes how important it is to gather data before your talk and share your good intentions with the conversation. I’d focus on helping your boss understand how the team dynamic has changed for you and your concerns about funding. You might also express that you value professionalism and want to see them make more of an effort to take the board and the concerns of funders more seriously. 

With the development director, who seems to be more of a peer, you can share how the dynamic has changed for you in the office and ask them to be more mindful of holding the executive director accountable. 

Since you work somewhere so small that you don’t have HR, your next option is to take it up with the board of directors. Having an employee bring a concern to the board is serious, and best practices typically say that boards should encourage staff to work things out with their supervisors. But ethical issues with the executive director are the exception to this rule and firmly under the scope of a nonprofit board’s responsibilities. Keep in mind that they’re less involved in the day-to-day and that if you speak to someone on the board, they may share information with other board members and the executive director, given the seriousness of your complaint. I’d craft your communications to the board with that in mind and again, keep your message professional and solutions-oriented. 

While speaking up to your coworkers or escalating it to the board might be difficult, the situation you’re in now is one that you’re already unhappy in. You’re the one who will decide who you talk with and what you say, but from where I’m sitting, it seems like not speaking up might damage your career and that “the offender” is already hard to work with now. 

You get to choose how you navigate this situation and your community. Working where you work isn’t endorsing your colleagues’ behavior, even if busybodies around town might make you feel that way sometimes. 

Step back, take stock about what kind of behavior you can tolerate and what you need to be vocal about to be more comfortable at work. Anchoring into your own values will give you more agency and help you work through this with your colleagues. With time and some difficult conversations, I really believe the situation can improve. I see that most likely happening as your colleagues better understand how they’ve been impacting you. In the worst-case scenario, you might need to work with the board longer term to turn some things around. Either way, tapping into your moral courage will give you more clarity and agency as you navigate this difficult situation. 

You’re in a difficult situation and I think the only way you may fix it or come out of it unscathed—or less scathed—is by confronting the problem and raising the stakes. If your colleagues or the board don’t take you seriously, that gives you powerful information about how their values are not in line with your own. 

Sending you lots of good vibes, 

Work Space is a monthly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com.