A few weeks ago the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Dr. James Knight had a right to fire his dental assistant Melissa Nelson because Dr. Knight’s spouse (based on his admission of an attraction to Ms. Nelson) viewed the relationship as a threat to their marriage. Ms. Nelson, who had been an excellent employee for 10 years, filed a gender discrimination suit which she lost and then appealed.
Not surprisingly, this case has become a lightning rod for powerful feelings and opinions about a range of issues from workplace discrimination to marital infidelity. It seems manifestly unfair that Ms. Nelson lost her job, which all parties concede she did well, simply because she was attractive to her boss. For his part, Dr. Knight has exposed himself to withering ridicule and notoriety for his management of the matter.
Since 1964 there has been a long history of judicial decisions which attempt to clarify exactly what constitutes a violation of the Civil Rights Act Title VII prohibition against gender discrimination and sexual harassment. However 50 years of legislation, judicial review and company training programs have not changed the fact that the workplace is still the number one spot for married individuals to meet their affair partners.
When married people (or people in other committed relationships) become attracted to one another at work there is often significant confusion and ambivalence about what to do. In the nuanced and sometimes murky world of workplace attraction, coworkers can gradually become emotionally attached, with no thought of sexual involvement, as they spend time over lunch or work assignments.
In her book Not Just Friends, Dr. Shirley Glass says: “the new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love.” Many of the men and women who ultimately find themselves in a workplace romance are happy in their marriages and express strong views against infidelity. Their slide toward infidelity is so gradual that they are not aware of how their behavior is damaging their marriages.
In my work as an EAP counselor I have seen the pain and distress that crossing this line can bring into a family. While many workplace attractions may turn out to be pleasant, trivial and benign diversions, we should also recognize that others have the potential to develop into something unintended and ultimately destructive to a marriage and a family.
Unfortunately, the bright line between the harmless and dangerous is only visible after the fact. However, the self-awareness which helps you know which side of the line you are on may be strengthened by honest and open conversations with your spouse and trusted friends or counselors.