Q: I worked at a department stores in Manhattan until my mom got cancer. Now that Mom is in remission, I am going back to work, but I have a problem. One of the Assistant Store Managers was really great about letting me ask questions, learn about what he does, helping me when I needed it, and even just joke around. He always treated me and my coworkers with respect. However, before I left, some of my coworkers, supervisors, and department managers mentioned a belief that I may be personally attracted to this ASM. While he is a nice guy, he is my manager and I try to keep things professional between us. I don't know how to handle this, especially since I will be looking for a promotion in the near future, and I don't want these rumors to hurt my chances at getting it. Would you please help?
A: First, I'm very happy to hear that your mother is doing better and that you were able to take the time off from work to care for her. Now to your question. Workplace romances or even the illusion of a workplace romance can carry many ramifications and consequences. Thankfully though for your situation, it doesn't seem as if people believe that something torrid actually happened between the two of you -- just that you may have liked him in a romantic way. You also mention that your co-workers believed that you had feelings for him -- not that they believed that he had feelings for you. So my first piece of advice to you is to be honest about your feelings. Were you the only one he gave extra attention to? And if so, what was your response? Even if your intentions were innocent, it's natural to respond in a more flirtatious way when you believe you are being pursued. What was different about the dynamic of the relationship between the two of you that would be a cause for water cooler gossip? Have you ever asked any of your coworkers why they thought you had romantic feelings for this man? Asking this question may help you see the issue from their perspective and may clear up future misunderstandings. You also said that you "try" to keep things professional between you and your superior. What does that mean, exactly? You might want to examine if you truly are, in fact, harboring feelings for this man, and if so, decide what you want to do about it. Whether or not you have feelings for someone shouldn't impact your promotion, it's whether or not you act on them. Now that you know that gossip travels fast in your workplace, you can be more aware of how your actions and behaviors are interpreted as well as be more aware of if -- and how -- he acts differently toward you.
The next thing that stood out to me was the fact that you said you would be on a probationary period after returning to work and looking for a promotion after it ended. Assuming that these events with the assistant store manager took place awhile ago-- before your leave of absence -- what makes you think that people are still focused on these rumors to the extent that it would cost you a promotion? I think you are being very smart by realizing how rumors and gossip can affect you negatively, but I hate to think you may be obsessing over something that no one else is putting much thought into. Often times, rumors burn white hot only to fizzle as fast as they ignited. When you return to work, play it cool and don't make an issue out of something that no one else is focusing on anymore. If, however, your coworkers can't think up anything more to talk about and are only interested in dredging up old gossip, then they are the ones with the issues. If this is the case, then I would confront your coworkers -- privately -- and tell them that you would appreciate if they didn't bring it up anymore because it puts you in a very uncomfortable position and the rumors are creating what you feel to be an unflattering and (if, in fact, you do not have feelings for him) unfair image of you around the office. If need be, I would also go to those supervisors who confronted you and respectfully set the record straight and explain your concerns. Again though, You should only address the issue if you have encounters with your coworkers and supervisors that lead you to believe that there is, in fact, still an issue.
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