The consequences of adultery are on a lot of people’s minds these days, including employers.
The continued fallout from the Ashley Madison hack and data leak has raised questions about what kind of repercussions the leaked information can have on the jobs of the site’s members.
In many workplaces (such as government jobs), viewing pornography is grounds for dismissal. There are questions about whether using work time to visit a website aimed at affairs is also a reason to be reprimanded or fired.
I want to focus on when a person’s extramarital behavior should matter for others in the workplace. This isn’t about the legality of firing someone, or whether or not a company should have an explicit policy about it. It’s not even about the ethics of adultery in general. Instead, I focus on the circumstances under which discovering that a person had an affair should be grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal at work.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to assume that the person’s work performance is acceptable. Obviously, poor performance at work is likely to have negative consequences for a person’s job regardless of its source.
The fundamental principle for addressing this issue is whether the affair affects the person’s ability to get work done in the future or affects other people’s ability to work with that person.
One place where an affair is a problem is when it happens within the workplace in a way that violates the dual relationship principle. A central ethical principle in clinical psychology is that clinicians should never have more than one relationship with a patient. That is, a clinician should avoid being friends, colleagues, co-investors, or lovers with a patient. Whenever there is more than one relationship, there are bound to be conflicts between these relationships in ways that can harm the clinician-patient relationship.
The same thing should hold true for power relationships in the workplace. Supervisors should not have dual relationships with subordinates. Teachers should not have dual relationships with students. These dual relationships create the potential for workplace goals to be subordinated to the romantic relationship.
An affair is also a problem if a person’s job carries a presumption of marital fidelity. Religious leaders undermine their position in a community if they are discovered having an affair, because their position assumes that they will be seen as an authority on moral issues. Similarly, marriage counselors advising clients on their relationships would shake the trust of those clients if they were discovered having an affair.
One might argue that anyone caught having an affair is a liability in the workplace, because that person may also cheat in the workplace in other ways. However, there is no evidence that a person who disregards rules in one case will necessarily do so in another. Certainly, there are psychopaths who have a general disregard for the rules and norms of society. But most people are not psychopaths. For these people, the decision to have an affair does not predict that they will behave unethically in the workplace.
Thus, while the Ashley Madison hack creates a lot of interesting watercooler conversation, it has few implications for most workplaces. Most of the time, the choices people make related to their marriages do not tell us much about the choices they will make at work.