I’m polyamorous, can this hurt my job?

by Evil HR Lady on December 20, 2012

Dear Evil HR Lady,

My live-in boyfriend of five years and I work for the same company, albeit in different departments. The company is big but our departments are relatively small, so all my immediate coworkers know him as my boyfriend and all his coworkers know me as his girlfriend, etc. The issue is, we are polyamorous; that is to say we have other partners that the other is fully aware of. We do not discuss this aspect of our personal lives with any of our coworkers, the only one who knows is a woman my boyfriend dated a long time ago who works in a different building.

The reason we don’t discuss it (or even keep photos of our other partners on our desks) is that we aren’t sure if it is something either of us can be fired for. We’re not married so we aren’t breaking whatever obscure adultery laws my state might still have on the books. I’ve been with the company for three years now, my reviews have always been very positive and I’ve been commended as a valuable, hard-working employee. However, I’m concerned that sooner or later someone will find out about our relationship. We live very close to some of our coworkers, and I’m really rather surprised that our more nosy-Nellies haven’t stumbled upon either of us having a date night with someone that we don’t live with.

Do I need to be extra discreet about my non-primary relationship, or is this something that can be overlooked given my job performance?

In all my experience, I have never run across this particular problem, but my gut instinct was that there is no law protecting polyamory. My other gut instinct was that, while most people would think it was a novelty, they probably wouldn’t really care.

And since I don’t get paid big bucks (ha!) to just guess about things, I consulted two experts. The first, my very conservative mother. Her response: “With everyone being so promiscuous anyway nowadays, I can’t see what is different here. Just tell people you’ve decided to date others.” Which is not really what I expected from her, but exactly what I expect from your coworkers. Because, let’s face it, nobody is as interesting to other people as they think they are.

The second was employment attorney Bryan Cavanaugh. He responded, “I agree with your view that there is generally no legal protection for this conduct and lifestyle, and so it would be legal for her employer to fire her for this.” Which is not what you wanted to hear. However, Cavanaugh did give a few caveats:

 An exception exists in a few states, like Colorado, that explicitly protect an employee from being discriminated against because of his or her lawful conduct outside the workplace during non-working hours. Engaging in polyamorous activity would presumably not violate any civil or criminal law. Therefore, in these states, there would be protection for polyamorous conduct.

So, in short, move to Colorado. Except that may not even be necessary. Cavanaugh explaned that while things such as sexual orientation and gender identity are protected in about half the states and some local governments, they focus more on identity, rather than action. “Polyamory is not so closely tied to this woman’s status as a heterosexual or identity as a woman that her conduct would be protected by sexual orientation or gender identity laws,” he said, but laws in this area are constantly expanding. He advises companies to stop and think:

Before the employer would discharge her (and/or her boyfriend) for this conduct, the employer should ask itself “so what”? Does the conduct of these two employees genuinely harm (or potentially harm) the workplace or the business? It probably does not since it is hard to see how this conduct would interfere with their abilities to perform their jobs. An employer should be prepared to answer two questions (at least to itself) before terminating someone’s employment because of this. First, why does this lifestyle matter, as far as the job goes? And second, what exactly is it about that lifestyle that makes the person unfit for the job? While it is unreasonable to expect an employer never to consider an employee’s character, past, or outside activities, this situation is another reminder that an employee’s ability to perform his or her job well should be the primary consideration in a company’s personnel decisions.

Polyamory is probably not going to help her in her job, because people may think she is “weird,” so being discreet is not a bad idea.

I fully agree. While it’s not likely to result in a firing, it’s also not likely to garner a promotion. Additionally, unless you are behaving inappropriately with your dates in public, your nosey-Nellie coworkers aren’t likely even to notice if they see you drive by with a man other than your live in boyfriend in the car. If they do, it’s your choice how to respond. “Oh yes, I went out with Steve Friday night,” may elicit a response of, “But I thought Dave was your boyfriend?” to which you can respond, “Of course! That doesn’t mean we don’t have other friends.” That will end all discussion, especially if Dave says something similar.

If you respond with, “I’m polyamorous and enjoy having multiple boyfriends!” it’s more likely to be a topic of discussion.

So, be discreet, but don’t worry about it all that much. It’s unlikely to be an issue at work in a large, non-religiously based company.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sully December 20, 2012 at 11:20 pm

The outside-of-work activity isnt much different from a young bachelor ‘tom-catting,’ so if the OP has seen that go on inside her company, a precedent may have already been set.

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Evil HR Lady December 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Yeah, I don’t think any non-religious companies want to touch that with a 10 foot pole.

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Jeff M December 20, 2012 at 11:21 pm

“Because, let’s face it, nobody is as interesting to other people as they think they are.”

One of the best and truest statements I’ve read in a long time.

You’re mother’s advice rocks too.

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Evil HR Lady December 21, 2012 at 1:19 pm

My mom is awesome.

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Savvy Working Gal December 20, 2012 at 11:31 pm

I used to work with a woman who had three different boyfriends. One of them worked at our company, but in a different department. They each had one day a week as their “date night.” On her birthday and Valentine’s Day she would get three separate flower deliveries. Some co-workers/management thought her situation was humorous, some didn’t care and others down right despised her. I think those who were in the dislike camp were around when she started dating the guy from our company who had been married to someone else at the time. Eventually (after 10 years) she left the company because her career wasn’t going anywhere. Apparently, management who were mostly in the amused camp weren’t amused enough to promote her. If she wouldn’t have told us about her other boyfriends and if they wouldn’t have all sent her flowers on the same day we would never have known or cared. Oh and most annoying of all they called her every day, usually at the same time, and we had to take messages or track her down.

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Evil HR Lady December 21, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Yeah, it’s not a career enhancing activity. Plus, she sounds like she was incapable of keeping her private life out of the office.

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Patty December 21, 2012 at 12:56 am

I’d say being discreet is the best way to go, in particular since your main relationship also works for the company and may have “friends” who seek to “protect” him from you — because they don’t understand your relationship..

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Evil HR Lady December 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Good point.

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Melissa December 21, 2012 at 5:39 pm

I would say be discreet and especially in this situation. I have learned to keep everything to a minimun in a working environment. There are too many different types of people in the workplace to possibly cause some kind of conflict because of different beliefs and interests. This particular situation is a huge red flag for someone to come and knock down, one way or the other. No reason to get other people involved in your lifestyle!

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Another Evil HR Director December 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm

The intimate details of one’s personal life, especially one’s sex life, do not belong in the workplace. So many people simply don’t understand this. The three “taboo” subjects? Sex, religion and politics. If you don’t discuss them, you won’t encounter conflict revolving around those topics. Pretty simple.

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Nicholas MOSES January 3, 2013 at 3:29 pm

“While it’s not likely to result in a firing, it’s also not likely to garner a promotion.”

There is something of which everyone should be acutely aware regarding ANY so-called “alternative lifestyle,” be it polyamory, homosexuality, bestiality or WHATEVER. Here it is:

Your personal conduct ANYWHERE ultimately spills onto your social image, regardless of how “private” you think your affairs are. (One incident may or may not make much of a difference, but a lifestyle choice will.) Your social image WILL affect whom you are able to network with. And in a time and economy in which the average lifespan of a corporation is something like 15 years, people change companies every few years and layoffs are rampant, networking is an absolute must in all but the most specialized professions in the work force.

One can whine about “sexism,” “homophobia” or general “bigotry” until the cows come home, but tough luck. The fact is that there are still – and are likely to remain for a long time – powerful industries in which the power players are nearly all married men who look down on singles or on adulterous spouses. You might chalk that up to chauvinism, but from their point of view, such people would not fit into the company culture. If their first contact with you is in a job interview, that is one thing, sure, but if you are never called in for an interview it will be almost impossible to prove the reason for which your CV was tossed out.

The point is this: when you are not the one holding the cards, you need to understand the people who are. You may do what you like on your own time – it is your life, after all – but EVEN IF your proclivities and behavior fall under some sort of protected category, you should never assume that your personal and professional images and lives can be so cleanly divided as not to affect one another.

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Aggie Sez June 13, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m polyamorous and out about it to everyone — have been for over a decade. I’m also been self-employed for a long time and am very established in my career, so I don’t need to worry about getting fired for being poly. And as far as I know, I haven’t lost any clients over it. I certainly have not had any problem finding enough interesting and well-paying work, so being out as poly doesn’t seem to have hurt me professionally. And anyone who wouldn’t work with me because it’s pretty easy to find out I’m poly, and because I don’t lie about it when asked, well I wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.

I was sad to read your advice about being “discreet” — that is, trying to be closeted. I understand in many cases that may be a realistic approach if you have specific concerns about losing a job or sacrificing career advancement. But it’s important to realize that the closet — including the poly closet — is a very stressful and vulnerable place to live.

Poly people who are closeted at work or elsewhere have to pretend that all or some of their lovers and partners either don’t exist, or “demote” them to “just friend” status in conversations and social settings. That means: You have to treat the people you claim to love, and may be quite committed to, like you’re ashamed of them. This is poisonous to any relationship.

Meanwhile, people who are in socially-conforming ostensibly monogamous relationships are free to mention their partner, have their photos on their desk, bring them to work-related social occasions, and even be celebrated by coworkers on occasions such as engagements or wedding anniversaries.

Which is just salt in the wounds of closeted people in polyamorous or otherwise honest, ethical nonmonogamous relationships.

Even worse is knowing that many of those ostensibly monogamous coworkers are in fact nonmonogamous, and dishonest about it (cheating) — but that rarely affects their employment status or career opportunities. In other words, dishonesty to the people who trust you the most is tolerated (or at least usually not punished) in the workplace — but honest, ethical behavior in nontraditional relationships is punishable.

And then there’s the issue that whenever more people in a marginalized community/identity are “out” — that is, they do not conceal who they are — that tends to shift social norms to the point that those groups face less risk of discrimination or ostracizing. In other words, when more people are out, everyone in that marginalized group becomes a little safer in society and at work. But so many people choose the closet because they don’t feel safe — even though that hurts them, the people they love, and their community.

Worst of all, when you’re attempting to be closeted, you can still be outed against your will. That’s the failure point in your advice to be discreet. One of the best ways to protect yourself against being outed is to out yourself and take control of the situation. But your advice puts poly people in a vulnerable position and leaves them there.

Isn’t there a better solution?

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