Blow the whistle on office affair?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 9, 2013

I was chatting with a friend last month when he mentioned a problem he was having in the office. At first I thought it was about work, but it turned out to be much more interesting.

"One of my colleagues is having an affair with his subordinate," he confided. "Should I report it to my boss?"

In general, my friend is not one to poke his nose into other people's, well, affairs. But in this case, he was concerned that his married colleague was giving his office paramour - also married - preferential treatment at the expense of other workers.

Little things, such as letting her leave work early or allowing her to work on more high-profile projects, were adding up to create an atmosphere of tension and unhappiness in the office.

Just as my friend was about to step in, his quandary was resolved: The rumours going around the office had prompted my friend's colleague to own up to the relationship and ask for a transfer.

The episode, however, throws up a larger question. We are often told that blowing the whistle to report corruption or fraud is commendable, but telling tales or spreading salacious office gossip is not.

For an issue such as an office romance, which possibly straddles both aspects, what is the right thing to do?

Whistle-blowing is the official term for employees or third parties reporting a lapse of ethics or governance in an organisation to a higher authority. The idea is that people working for or dealing with the organisation are better placed to observe such possible acts of corruption or fraud.

Most people associate whistle-blowing with major illegal infractions that often involve outside parties such as suppliers, customers or potential clients.

But many companies and organisations have whistle-blowing guidelines which encompass other practices that may not be illegal but are possibly unethical, such as conflicts of interest and improper behaviour.

Whether one should blow the whistle on an office romance depends, therefore, on whether the relationship could infringe one of these guidelines or has already done so.

"The crux of the issue hinges on each company's policies," says Mr Paul Heng, founder and managing director of human resources firm Next Career Consulting.

"I know of companies that strictly prohibit office romance, especially if one party is a direct report or subordinate," he notes.

"Still, there are firms that see themselves playing Cupid, subscribing to the value that an office romance is fine, so long as it does not encroach on situations involving pay rises, promotions, bonus payouts, and the like."

My friend's company, like many other organisations, has a detailed whistle-blowing policy. It made no mention of office relationships, but it did highlight that conflicts of interest and employee misconduct would be legitimate avenues for complaint.

Since it may not be practical for organisations to have an exhaustive list of situations that qualify for whistle-blowing, having a defined set of corporate values can be useful as a framework for employees, notes Mr Heng.

"These could be used by employees as the determinant to make that decision whether to blow the whistle," he says.

Broadly speaking, a romantic relationship in the office where one party reports to another is typically a green light for blowing the whistle. Even if both parties endeavour to keep each other at arm's length and no unfair treatment has yet occurred, the potential for conflicts of interest is omnipresent.

Some organisations are also chary of relationships where the parties involved do not have a boss-subordinate relationship but are working in the same division. This is more of a grey area in terms of whistle-blowing, but if there is a clear breach of company policy, making a report could be justifiable.

But before you decide to blow the whistle, take a deep breath - and not just so you can exhale with more strength.

Instead of immediately telling your boss or human resources, try to approach the colleague in question and raise the issue tactfully. It will be a difficult conversation, but it is only fair to let your colleague know that there are concerns about the relationship and give him a chance to either end it or report it himself.

If that does not succeed or if speaking with your colleague is not an option, start gathering evidence or like-minded co-workers to support your case. Find out your organisation's whistle-blowing procedures and clearly state why you think the office romance could be detrimental.

One factor to consider is what you hope to achieve by reporting the relationship. In a worst-case scenario, one or both parties may lose their jobs - a not inconsequential outcome for what is essentially a love affair.

Finally, it is best to be prepared for any fallout that might come your way. While most organisations allow anonymous informants, secrets are often hard to keep and the reputation that ends up suffering the most from the incident may well be yours.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 9, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to