Workplace etiquette after Ashley Madison: 8 tips for dealing with embarrassed colleagues

Shh, indeed.
Shh, indeed.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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So you’ve just found out that a work colleague (or their partner) is among the 32 million users of Ashley Madison, the dating site for people seeking extramarital affairs, whose details were just leaked online. How to navigate this potentially explosive privacy issue? Here’s Quartz’s guide to handling it with sensitivity, tact, and grace.

1. Wait, how do you know your colleague was on Ashley Madison?

Did you search the database for him or her? We hope not. Seriously, if you’re tempted to search, ask yourself why. “Just curious” is not an answer.

2. Just because it’s public doesn’t mean it’s your business.

If you found something out because your colleague’s angry spouse/jilted lover/kids/whoever posted about it on social media, that doesn’t make the revelations OK to talk about. (Not even if it went viral. Especially not if it went viral.)

You wouldn’t say, in a work meeting, “Hey, I just came across an old Facebook picture of you stoned out of your mind!” or “Hey, I just learned that you lost your virginity to my old high-school friend!” Likewise, you do not joke, “Hey, talldarkhandsome37, nice Ashley Madison profile!” In an internet world, designations like “public” and “private” apply less and less to what you know, and more and more to what you talk about. 

3. Even with the best intentions, it’s still not your business. 

If you found out, via social media or any other way, that your colleague was cheating/cheated on, resist the temptation to offer sympathy. See your colleague looking distraught or holding hushed phone conversations in the bathroom?  Feel the earnest words “Hey, I guess things must be tough in your marriage right now with the cheating and all, can I do anything” about spill out? No. You may think you’re being supportive, but no.

4. While we’re at it, let’s not call it ”cheating.” 

You have no idea what the rules of someone else’s relationship are.

5. It’ll be awkward; deal with it. 

Every single idle watercooler conversation about marriage, relationships, kids, where people went on vacation, old friends you haven’t seen in years, etc., is henceforth and for the immediate future going to have, like, 15 layers of subtext. You will find yourself furiously re-interpreting what everyone else is saying for hints as to whether they have had an affair, what they think of people who have affairs, and whether they think you were having an affair. And they will be doing the same to you.

This is just going to add another twist to the already socially complicated practice of spending many hours each day in close proximity with people who aren’t your friends. We predict that in a couple of years, plastic surgeons will see a mini-boom in people wanting to remove the wrinkles created by tight little smiles.

6. Don’t judge.

Even president Jimmy Carter said that he had “committed adultery in [his] heart many times.” If you think extramarital affairs are wrong, keep it to yourself. Actually, even if you think extramarital affairs are great and everyone should have one, probably best to keep that to yourself too.

7. If you were on Ashley Madison…

…or found out that your partner was, and it’s turning your life upside down right now, wait five minutes before you send out the all-staff email that says “Subject: Ashley Madison support group.” Do some deep breathing. Go for a walk.

Going (even more) public may not be a bad idea. It may be a heroic idea. Years afterwards, people may thank you for the way it transformed their lives and gave them the courage to be honest with their partner(s) about commitment issues/sexual tastes/shoe fetishes. You may get your HR department’s annual award for Most Willing To Act in the Spirit of Generosity Towards Colleagues. Or you may spend the next six months being the person to whom everyone in the office gives the side-eye. Weigh the consequences, is all we’re saying.

8. Do some reading. 

If this has blown your relationship wide open and you’re trying to repair the damage, there are several good books on the subject of marriage and (non-)monogamy. Read Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity, for starters. Just don’t order it for delivery at the office.