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The boss’s girlfriend, your problem
Q. My boss is newly divorced, he's promoted a very young intern into a responsible role and he's begun dating her. Now he's assigning considerable amounts of other employees' time to her projects, which the rest of us, in our professional opinions, don't think are worth it from a business perspective. What should we do?
A. How awkward for the whole office when people take unflattering stereotypes as a script. Your boss is free to run his private life as he wishes, but bringing this type of behaviour to work is, as you note, a poor choice on his part. (In fact, some companies prohibit senior-junior relationships, so it’s possible he’s breaking the rules and not just violating standards of ethics.)
Plenty of bosses sense great things in a young colleague and promote that person rapidly in a bid to help him or her develop important professional skills. When that happens, others on the team often grumble about how they’ve been passed over. That’s just complaining, unless what the boss sees in the young protégé is something entirely separate from career promise.
The best way to handle this is gently. He may not be aware that the team has guessed his motivations in promoting this intern and prioritising her projects. He may not realise that not everyone thinks she’s as wonderful as he does. Or he might not think his actions are a big deal. But he might be blinded by his affection for this person and truly not realise he’s stepped over a line.
If you’re senior enough on the team and you have a good relationship with your boss, you might propose that you two have coffee outside the office. Keep the tone informal and friendly, said Amy Nicole Salvaggio, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, in the US, who studies workplace romances. (If you are not senior enough for this kind of a chat, consider enlisting a more senior team member.)
She suggests a conversation that goes something like this: “We’re all very happy for you in your new relationship. And we know you are very professional and would never let your personal feelings affect your job. But sometimes people make assumptions, based on appearances. Maybe for [new girlfriend’s] sake, she should switch supervisors?” This language may be more conciliatory than you truly feel. But the point is to let your boss know your team thinks there's a problem without embarrassing him, Salvaggio said by email.
Emphasise that you're concerned for both their careers: his as an impartial manager, and hers as a young person who could see her prospects crumble if she's given too much responsibility too soon. Don't get into how the situation is affecting you or your colleagues. It's best for everyone if your boss comes around to the view that the intern should switch teams.
If this approach doesn't work, Salvaggio said, you may have to head to the HR department. That’s the place to bring up the issue, as well as elaborate on how disruptive these circumstances are to your work and the team’s business.