Blog by John Miller

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An affair at work

Office affairs. They happen. Many are consensual, stay private and hurt no one. Some endure and can lead to marriage; of course, they can also break marriages up. Some simmer for a while and die out without affecting anyone else. Others can turn toxic and infect the entire workplace.
On balance, you can't call them good or bad. When so many of us spend as much time at work as we do at home, they're inevitable.
They're also in the news again because of a tragic situation at the Toronto Star. A much-loved and respected reporter has committed suicide, a senior editor she had been involved with was fired, and the managing editor (with whom the senior editor also had a personal relationship) has been moved to another job outside the newsroom. This has left that workplace in turmoil.
It interests me because 30 years ago, I too had an office affair at the Toronto Star.

What astounds me is that, three decades later, the newspaper still seems to have no commonly understood way of dealing with such situations. The Canadian Press asked a spokesman the other day if the Star had any written policy about office relationships, and he admitted it did not.
When it happened to me, I wished there were company guidelines to tell me what to do. The personal decisions I had to make were clearly mine alone -- what my feelings were about this woman, what this meant for my marriage, for my family, for my friends. Those were incredibly wrenching to make. But it was the workplace implications that I found almost as tough to navigate.
My job was deputy managing editor, the No. 2 job in the newsroom. I was in charge of news and feature planning, I oversaw the editorial budget, and I had overall responsibility for our staffing levels. While I did not directly supervise the woman I was involved with, who was a reporter in one of the feature departments, I could anticipate the potential conflicts of interest. What if we had to cut back the budget and I had to advise the managing editor on who might be let go? What if the reporter wanted to apply for another job in the newsroom and I was part of the screening process? What if our affair went sour and she felt my presence in senior management was an impediment to her career? What if rumours of the affair caused fellow workers to suspect favouritism?
I thought there must be some policy that told me what constituted an improper relationship. There was not.
I knew of other personal involvements in the newsroom at the time. There were undoubtedly many others I was not aware of. In one case, an editor was living with someone she was directly supervising, which I thought was even more problematic than my situation. But that relationship seemed to be condoned. Or perhaps it was just tolerated by an office culture in which sexist, racist and profane outbursts were often heard.
There were many reasons for me to keep our affair secret. I didn't want my wife to find out, for one thing. I wasn't yet sure I was prepared to sacrifice my marriage (I eventually did, and subsequently married the reporter).
When it became clear to me that my affair was going to last, I decided I needed to fess up to my boss. I simply said this has happened, and I can see that it might some day affect a decision I need to make at work and perhaps the way management is perceived in the newsroom. Let's discuss what needs to happen now.
We decided that openness and honesty was the best policy, and that I would have to recuse myself from making any decisions about the working situation of my new partner. I stuck to that the rest of my career there, and so far as I know, it mostly worked.

It worked, that is, until my new partner applied to return to her old job after maternity leave. My boss said she wasn't needed there and would have to go to general assignment. She decided that the unpredictable hours were incompatible with new motherhood and had to leave the paper. I was livid. I thought it was unfair, but there was nothing I could do.

My boss' decision was a factor in me deciding to leave the Star when I was offered the job of chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson. Worse, my inaction may have been a contributing factor in the break-up of my new marriage.

Like I say, these things can be complicated.
I can only guess about the dilemma facing Raveena Aulakh, the Star reporter who fell into a newsroom affair that left her in anguish enough to commit suicide. Did she know where to turn for help? Was there anyone she could turn to that she trusted? How was she going to complain to upper management when upper management was in a personal relationship with the object of her complaint?
The union representing Star employees is calling for an independent outsider to investigate what happened there and how to prevent it, an indication that management has already lost the trust of its newsroom. The union specifically asks that such a study "include workplace health and safety, and harassment issues.”
My old newspaper is clearly far behind the times in how to deal with the problems that workplace romances can cause. A 2013 survey by the U.S.-based Society for Human Resource Management found that policies about romantic involvement with fellow employees were commonplace, and they were becoming more restrictive.
The survey showed that 99 percent of companies that had workplace romance policies did not allow love matches between supervisors and subordinates. That was up from 64 percent in its 2001 survey. Almost half of these policies (45 percent) forbid romances between employees of significantly different rank, a significant jump from 16 percent in 2005.
Typically, these rules are designed to protect the company from sexual harassment lawsuits if the relationship ends and the subordinate claims the supervisor or higher-ranking colleague is making unwanted advances. Supervisor-subordinate romances are also problematic because they can spark complaints of favoritism and damage office morale.
The only thing that should matter in a busy newsroom is the quality of the work you do, not who you're involved with. The newspaper's duty is to make sure everyone understands that.

I hope the Star is wise enough to take the union up on its suggestion. A good fresh look is needed in a newsroom with such a long tradition of social justice and excellence, but also problems with nepotism, inbred attitudes, favouritism and occasional swinish behaviour.

That's the only way I can see some good coming out of this tragedy.