Dear Margo: Hanky Panky, Esq.

Margo-Howard_tall10Margo Howard’s advice

Hanky Panky, Esq.

Dear Margo: I work for a midsized law firm in a suburb of Boston. A couple of years ago, it came to light that one of the equity partners was having an affair with one of the non-equity partners. Both are married, and he is her supervisor. This situation has caused no end of problems in our office, because this man continues to favor his paramour and has given her more power over others. Morale has deteriorated to the point where long-time loyal employees are leaving in disgust, and the firm is actually splitting into two as a result of the fallout of the affair.

Throughout the turmoil and stress, I have turned to my best friends to vent and to mourn the loss of beloved co-workers who have quit (or were forced out because they knew too much). I have been grateful for my friends’ support, but there is one issue I have not been able to resolve.

Without exception, my friends feel that the boss’s wife deserves to be told. But as painful as this situation has been for all of us in the firm, I just don’t know whether this is the proper thing to do. The wife is a lovely person (also a lawyer) whom we all know and like, and no one wants to see her or their children hurt. I know women who admit to having been the “oblivious wife” and swear they wish someone had been brave enough to tell them.

Are we being kind by keeping quiet or just being enablers and cowards for not letting her know? What is the right thing to do? — Torn

Dear Torn: In the particular case you describe, I would be in favor of telling the wife — though she may already know, because these things often work that way. (While she might’ve chosen to ignore what she knew, it becoming an issue for her husband’s employees would likely change her mind.)

My reason for blowing the whistle is that the romance is having a negative effect on the office — the place where you and several others spend the workday. If Lothario the Lawyer hadn’t favored the non-equity partner and no one had quit, then my advice might have been different. If there is a domestic flare-up, so be it. You all will not have made it happen. That distinction will go to the brazen lawyer, who clearly made the subordinate lawyer the living and breathing object of habeas corpus. — Margo, deliberatively

In Memory Of…  

Dear Margo: Here’s something that has come up before, and it has come up again. My neighbor’s mother passed away. I looked in the obituary to see what charity is listed for those who want to make a donation “in memory of…” I flinched. The “charity” is the family’s endowment fund. I’ve run up against this in the past, and it makes me quite uncomfortable. This says to me that the family will know exactly how much money I’ve given, and this seems completely wrong and not at all what a donation is supposed to be. — ND

Dear N: No offense, but your way out of this discomfort is quite simple: It is not to make a donation to their “endowment fund,” whatever that is. (I don’t know whether it’s a family foundation or a kitty they have created.) If you wish to make a donation as a gesture of sympathy, choose a charity that has to do with the illness of the deceased or one whose work you admire. — Margo, preferably

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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31 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Toni Jean says:

    Margo you are off on advice to LW1. Until she (or he) gets a new job in place she absolutely must not interfere. Btw she should be careful on that office venting (aka GOSSIP!) for the same reason. Even aside from endangering her position, I don’t know that it is her place to interfere one way or another in someone’s marriage… In this case, after getting a new job, perhaps so – not to blow the whistle but so the lawyer wife can prepare herself for a nasty divorce w a nasty lawyer hubby.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      If the equity lawyer has enough support there that nothing ever happens even after he starts a partisan war in the office, you’re better off keeping quiet. You mention the wife is a lawyer, but it didn’t sound like she worked at the same office. If not, I’d let it be none of your business. Someone you “know and like”, is not the same as her being your best friend. Your concern will come off sounding like revenge for the bosses actions, which could have nasty repercussions for your job if they decide to kill the messenger.
      If you have a specific complaint as a result of the affair (e.g. you were passed over for perks, raises, promotions, etc.), then the only one who should be told about the problems is your direct supervisor, or if he’s your boss, then your boss’ boss 🙂

  2. avatar Cindy M says:

    L #1: Sorry to say it, and for all the pain and chaos Lothario the Lawyer has caused but…is it possible for you to find employment elsewhere? You take a huge risk telling his wife; who yes, might already know. And for all you know, they might have an “open marriage” (wife might also have a lover you’re unaware of). Frankly I wouldn’t say a word. I’d try to find employment elsewhere and let the lawyer reap what he’s sewn. He already is, and “the office” is already gone as you knew it … maybe already in a death spiral.
    L #2: Margo’s advice.

    • avatar Toni Jean says:

      Bingo!! But sown not sewn

      • avatar JCF4612 says:

        Toni Jean — Some daycare center workers call out “Bingo” whenever a kid drops one in the potty. Keep that in mind with your boring and repetitive use of “bingo”.  

  3. avatar Ariana says:

    LW#2: Margo, if the LW picks a charity she admires instead of taking the feelings of the recipient into consideration, it’s setting her up for the same problem as the one whose family member donated to a charity that went against the recipient’s beliefs.
    The LW can always specify that her donation is anonymous at the charity itself, but in her condolence card she can mention the fact that she admires the good work the endowment fund does, and that she was happy to support the cause, especially in the family’s time of grief.

  4. avatar D C says:

    In lieu of flowers….  If you don’t want them to know the amount of your gift, and you don’t want to run the risk of giving to a charity that might offend the family in some way, then go ahead and send flowers to the funeral home anyway.  Better it be thought that you hadn’t seen the “in lieu of” notice than that you spent any time at all scheming for a way to get around the families’ wishes.  I’ve yet to attend a funeral where there weren’t at least a few floral arrangements standing in the back, even when there was a charity listed. 

  5. avatar mac13 says:

    Letter #1 has to be a fake. Sounds like an episode of The Good Wife. If not, you never tell the wife unless she is your best friend and you know she doesn’t know. If you do, duck when it blows up in your face.
    LW#2. This is more suited for Miss Manners. But, if you don’t want to give to the family fund, don’t. If you can’t figure another donation to make in the deceased’s name you aren’t looking hard enough. In my neighborhood, we all take food and paper supplies to help the family in their time of grief. We consider that to be enough.

    • avatar voiceofreason says:

      I could have sworn that I have read the exact same letter in another column. I read quite a few and this one is very familiar. When I started reading it, I had to make sure that the column had today’s date.

  6. avatar lebucher says:

    Letter #1 was cross posted on another advice site recently.

  7. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) Send an anonymous note. Be sure to include a face-saver like “Perhaps you’ve known all along and have chosen to ignore, but what you may not know is the toll this affair has taken on morale at the firm.” Be sure to mention how much the wronged spouse is liked, but whatever you say, be brief.  
    2)  Send a nice card and/or flowers and be done with it.

    • avatar judgingamy says:

      The problem with that particular wording of the anonymous note is that a shrinks the pool of potential narcs pretty dramatically if she includes in the note that she works with the boss. Especially if half the office already found employment elsewhere.

    • avatar Toni Jean says:

      That’s bingo. What’s the synonym for having some balls? But thanks!! Love the new metaphor! Bingo girl!

  8. avatar fallinginplace says:

    LW#1 should not personally blow the whistle but leave it to one of her former co-workers, who at this point have nothing to lose. I have worked in small law firms and if she thinks the situation is bad now, she should imagine what it would be like if the equity partner found out she had told his wife.

  9. avatar Kathy says:

    LW1-  I am dumbfounded by this advice.  An affair between a supervisor and subordinate subjects the employer to legal liability.  It’s called quid pro quo, and those employees who are denied opportunities, advancement, pay, etc. because a boss favors the person who provides him/her sexual favors – can file a lawsuit.  This is a law firm, for goodness’ sake. Go to HR.  The wife has absolutely nothing to do with it.  (Of course, the fact that these people are working in a law firm and they are more concerned about whether the wife knows than the legal implications tells me the letter is at least partly fake.)

  10. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    I’m living the same situtation as Torn. Our (married with children) boss is having an affair with an attractive much younger single blond woman. She has since become a major power in the office, wielding mean girl power over anyone she doesn’t like, revamping processes to her liking, and making life a misery for everyone at the office with her power grabs. The man’s wife made a joke at the office Christmas party that blondie gets to do the “dirty work” while the wife enjoys the benefits of her husband’s income.

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      Sage wifey. Condolences on your situation, though. What are you going to do about it? Have you updated your resume?

      • avatar Jay Gentile says:

        In fact, I just got a new job and gave notice last week. I run one of the departments. When blond mistress found out that “her” office (that’s what she calls it) would suddenly be short-handed at our busiest time of year, she started bad-mouthing me around the office about being unprofessional (more mean girl stuff).
        With nothing left to lose, I told her to back to watching the ceiling and shut her mouth before I filed slander charges. She slinked into her lover’s office and came out red-eyed and furious later.

        • avatar Toni Jean says:

          Jay you sound VERY smart to have decamped. The Path will lead to better things for you!!!

  11. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Actually, I don’t necessarily believe Letter #1 is fake.  Having worked in a law office and a law department in a corporation, I can tell you that affairs happen between co-workers, even married ones, and somehow the people involved don’t seem to register that they are subjecting the firm or their employer to legal liability.  In equity partner’s mind, non-equity partner is not only his lover but the very best lawyer in the world (after him) and therefore perfectly deserving of the plum assignments and perks she gets.  And the other equity partners at the law firm, who should intervene, are in myob mode or denial.  Plus, as an equity partner, he probably cannot be *fired* for his actions….they would have to buy him out and they don’t want to pay the price or he brings in so much business for them they think they cannot afford to lose him over his *personal* conduct.  Some people know the rules but think that they don’t apply to them or that their situation is an exception to that rule.  If the firm is small enough, it may not have an HR department and even if it does…the person in charge works for the equity partners and is probably powerless to do anything but warn them of the problem they are well aware of.  I agree LW #1 should not be the person who blows the whistle to the wife unless he or she wants to lose the job.  Either an ex-employee should inform the wife or no one should and LW#! should not be the instigator of the informing person because when the stuff hits the fan, she/he will be fingered as the instigator.   If the employees are getting fired or suffering adverse job consequences because of the affair and they believe they have no recourse in the workplace, the place to go is to their local EEOC office and file a complaint there.  That in itself is a major deal that will probably end up in job loss or the informant becoming the office pariah …. but may provide a financial settlement to see the person through until he or she finds another job.  Even though retaliation for filing a complaint is illegal…as a practical matter…its very difficult to continue working for someone after you have sued them. 
    Letter#2, I don’t understand why you are reluctant to have the family know how much money you gave…unless they are the most money-hungry people in the world, the amount of the gifts are not their major concern at this time.  But if you do not want to give to the charity or are offended because you believe it is just a slush fund for the mourners (and I don’t count this possibility out),  send flowers and a nice letter of sympathy.  I would avoid giving to another charity because it seems presumptuous to think that the gift will have any meaning at all to the mourning family…much like the people who recieve a card saying I’ve given to xyz for your Christmas gift.   I often do the groceries and paper goods delivery to grieving families before the services because at that time people just don’t have the time or energy to go to the store for paper plates, cups, coffee, orange juice, toilet paper, milk, bread etc.  Maybe they are lying to me but everyone seems to be very appreciative of that token of sympathy. 

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      The papergoods idea seems great, and I’ll remember that for the appropriate mourning ooccasion.

    • avatar Toni Jean says:

      Wow great answer. if I had the time to read War and Peace again.

      • avatar Katharine Gray says:

        And yet you have time to make gratuitously bitchy comments on forum boards.  Reading War and Peace would be more productive.

      • avatar JCF4612 says:

        Toni Jean — What makes your time so valuable, … and as for your not-so-clever cliche, are you capable of reading Tolstoy with any comprehension?  

        • avatar Toni Jean says:

          English major at ivy league. But not familiar w your vernacular of Bingo. Very familiar w Tolstoy. I try not to take posting too seriously but to still believe. But your ideas of who I am and what you might think of me are less to me than navel lint on a little ant. But blessings on
          The path!!
          O where is Bolton???

  12. avatar Diane Shaw says:

    Ltr #1 – I’m having a hard time believing that for an affair that’s affected employees, clients, and caused a division of the firm that the wife would not know what’s going on. She must be around a bit if everyone seems to know and like her so well. It seems there are too many people who know who could let slip. That’s one heck of a conspiracy! My money is that she already knows but either chooses to look the other way, doesn’t care, or they have some sort of agreement. While I understand your struggle, and would struggle with it myself, I would suggest finding another job and leaving the drama behind if you are that unhappy. It is not your marriage and, again, you don’t know the intimate details of it.

    Ltr. #2 – Send a card expressing your condolences. Problem solved.