Question: I visited your website and have a question for you. Is it appropriate for a married male doctor who is the employer of a much younger, single female doctor, to engage in non-work related athletic activities with her and have cell phone/text contact on weekends, nights, etc.?

My husband is a partner in a successful practice, and they hired a new female doctor last year. She loves to ride bikes and ski, and he thinks it is fine for them to do these activities together, sometimes alone and sometimes with others.

I do not think that is acceptable, regardless of whether he would ever find her attractive if we weren’t married.

She called his cell phone this Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. while we were in bed in a hotel out of town, and asked if wanted to come skiing (“come play”) at our local ski area with a group of friends.

“I’m sorry – did I wake you up?” I heard her say. I was furious and felt very violated. My husband says I’m paranoid and insecure. He says she’s just a super social organizer type girl, and wants to include people in the fun.

He says, we’ve been married 25 years, and I need to mellow out!  I’m fine with them doing work things together, lunches, dinners, etc. But I think they should not do social activities together unrelated to work without me involved – that just leads to trouble.  I know that I would never do this with male colleagues of mine.

I worked in a professional firm for 9 years and I NEVER called my boss at home on weekends to go do things!

My husband is the super-friendly sweet guy, but I trust that he isn’t being unfaithful.  He did have a relationship with a patient a few years ago, where they went bike riding several times unbeknownst to me.  He quit doing that after I found out.

What’s your take on this situation?  Should he make changes?  Or am I crazy?

Thanks for any advice!

Answer: Your question involves work place and personal dilemmas. I am going to approach it from what the affect of the relationship has in the workplace and how it relates to personal decision making.

Small businesses, family owned business and professional firms face unique challenges that larger organizations tend to handle better – simply because they understand the risks of their actions and generally have some guidelines or conduct training to avoid negative consequences.

It is common for small businesses to err on the side of focusing solely on building their business or practice and delivering services, often forgetting to hone their skills on managing their staffs. After all, if we are busy, everything will run smoothly. WRONG. Some of the biggest mistakes companies make are when they are growing – they ignore the internal systems and things get out of control.

Partners have fiduciary and leadership responsibilities to each other and their staff. It means being a “boss”. Every employee in the organization is watching what the partners do or do not do – what kind of decisions they make, who gets more training, who has their ear and who spends time with them outside of work etc. The dynamics will magnify in small businesses or office environments because everyone is on stage, all the time.

I would bet the partners have never discussed how they want to manage the office as a team. This is not because they are negligent; talking about the human resources kind of things is not something they like to do. It may involve compromising with each other. It is much easier to focus on what they do well – practice their area of expertise.

There is a reason leaders spend time on vision, mission, values and behavior statements. The process helps to gain agreement on what is acceptable and what is not. When surprises occur (and they will), leaders and partners know how to handle it and can support each other.

One question would be what are the values and behaviors that set the foundation for a great workplace. Given the openness of his friendship with the employee, the topic of relationships between partners and employees is an obvious agenda item.

If the topic is the “elephant at work”, then it is up to him to tee it up. Why? Because relationships can be a major financial and credibility blow to a business or practice, especially if someone feels scorned and believes there is a hostile work environment or an issue of sexual harassment.

It is easy to say this is not going to happen, we are friends. The fact is, situations can change quickly. The employee may have performance issues and his responsibility as the boss is to give feedback and possibly some type of discipline. If he fails to do it, another employee could file a complaint, which would lead to defending the practice and himself. It could put his family at risk too. The allegations may not be true. It really does not matter; it is a sign of poor judgment for a boss to be that vulnerable.

I realize this is a worst-case scenario; if there is perceived or real favoritism in the office, it is affecting productivity. It may not be obvious to the partners immediately, but it will rear its ugly head in eroding profit margins and poor employee morale.

Ultimately, it is up to your spouse to set the boundaries in and outside of the workplace. That is what being a partner and boss means – being accountable for actions beyond an employee level. Business owners and partners do not get to leave work at the office. Personal actions can affect their work environment too. It means looking beyond living in the moment.

Taking this approach moves the focus off the tug a war about who trusts who to accepting responsibility for making sound decisions and owning the consequences. Trust is important – it is the byproduct of doing everything right. I realize your situation is complicated. Good luck.