My boss has a secret -- could it get me fired?


(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work at a Fortune 500 company. I recently found a scanned document that indicated that my vice president (female) and a peer (male) were buying a house together. I sent an email to my peer, Dave, telling him I had found the real estate doc and he should get his document off the network to protect their privacy.

I ended up emailing him the doc and deleting it from the company network drive to protect his privacy, and he thanked me in an email. I then later saw him and somewhat joked about him and the boss. He denied [they were having a relationship], said I was getting carried away and that I should not be reading private documents. I explained that all scanned-in docs are not named and you have to open all the docs to find your own doc. He said the real estate deal did not go through and that it proved nothing. I said don't insult my intelligence and walked away.

I am afraid he may have told the VP I found out about them and that she may try to get rid of me. She recently fired my boss and another co-worker. She is a cold, ruthless woman and very capable of finding some reason to get me fired. She's not that fond of me anyway, and I have had some problems at work. While I've met my goals, two clients complained about me, and I've recently made some noticeable mistakes.

Here's my question: Should I go to HR and show them the proof of my coworkers' relationship, since I have the document about them house-hunting together and the email Dave sent thanking me for deleting it? Should I tell HR that I feel that this VP may retaliate against me, or should I wait until she actually does? Would the proof I have of their relationship be enough if she tried to have me fired?

I really think that when my boss (who adored me) is gone in January, the VP will try and get rid of me because I know her secret and it would be embarrassing if it came out. Plus, she does not really like me anyway.

Before we delve deeper into your situation, consider that the VP you mention may want to get rid of you not out of personal dislike or because of what you learned about an alleged relationship with a coworker, but rather because you've angered clients and made mistakes.

So this may well be a situation of you thinking a termination is because you've caught them in their affair and she is doing it because you're not a stellar performer (And if you think your knowledge of this relationship might be your "get out of jail free" card, it's not.)

So, step one, be a better employee. Step two, spiff up your resume and increase your networking. Step three, sit down and ponder where you really want this to go. You don't like the VP, she doesn't like you. And evidence of a real estate transaction, albeit suspicious, doesn't prove any untoward behavior. Real estate, yes. Nooky in the supply closet? No.

There's no clear best course of action here. There are too many variables and, as always, you may have state or local laws that address these types of things. But stop and think: What would be your goal in telling HR? Protecting your job? Protecting the company against a sexual harassment lawsuit? Retaliating against the VP for firing your adoring boss? 

Your company probably has a policy against people dating their subordinates. Even if it doesn't, it's not a good practice. There's too much room for favoritism. And even if there was nothing happening on the romance front, I wouldn't want a VP buying property with one of her employees because that fundamentally changes the the nature of the relationship.

If your goal is to protect your own job, will informing on your colleagues help? You're afraid that the VP will retaliate against you for finding out, but the real retaliation is more likely to come from tattling. First of all, retaliation isn't always illegal. Meanwhile, corporate execs are not required by law to live chastely. You aren't arguing that you are being treated differently because of your gender. No one is posting naughty pictures of these two in your cube. It's doubtful that you are owed any legal protection at all.

I know that if a VP wanted to fire you (either for performance or to eliminate the position) and I knew that she knew that you knew that she was behaving inappropriately, I'd make extra sure every "i" was dotted and "t" was crossed. But you'd still likely get axed. As you conceded, your recent performance isn't stellar, and thinking that evidence of a what might be an inappropriate workplace relationship will protect you amounts to excessive faith in the power of blackmail.

If you're concerned about protecting the company from a sexual harassment lawsuit, telling HR might be the best way to go. Mutual relationships between a boss and a direct report can (like all relationships) disintegrate into the kind mess companies are eager to avoid. The company can become liable for such things, but realistically only if Dave (or the VP) reported the problem, not you. Again, it's not illegal for two people at the same company to jointly buy real estate, but it becomes illegal if there is harassment involved.

If you want to retaliate against the VP for firing your boss, telling HR just might accomplish that. But it might not. Whether or not HR cares about this will depend on how much power HR has, how much power the VP has and if this is causing problems in other areas. HR cannot usually walk into a VP's office and say, "If you don't stop this affair, we'll fire you!"

At most, you might get the HR person to issue a quiet heads-up to the person. If the VP of HR thought it was of concern, she could bring it up to the CEO, who could handle it as he or she saw fit. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the solution was to transfer Dave to another department.

And so here you sit. Nervous that a VP who already is dissatisfied with your performance is now going to fire you for finding out about her personal financial affairs. Afraid that if you say something, it will make your life more miserable. Afraid that if you don't talk, you'll be out on your rear end anyway.

So would I save the email from Dave and the document? Yes. Would I mention it to HR? Only if you feel you are being unfairly targeted or if their behavior is causing problems in the workplace. Otherwise, assume it's a harmless real estate transaction that didn't go through.

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