Editor's note: If you have a pressing business-etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.
Miss Conduct loves to cry at weddings, and if most
office romances ended with one, she might be better disposed toward them.
Unfortunately most office romances do not -- they end in operatic melodrama. It's therefore worth touching upon the polite way to exit an office relationship while keeping your grace, dignity and most importantly, your job.
It's even more germane when we recall that the same principles can be applied toward ending any kind of business relationship, whether the link is with a colleague, a client or a supplier.
The Band-Aid Technique
The Buddha said that "life is suffering," and Miss Conduct thinks he may have had a premonition of office romance when he came up with that formula.
Like relationships everywhere else (and of every kind, even those that are patently nonromantic), office romances usually end in misunderstanding. Or too much understanding. Whatever the path, the result is all too often the same: hard feelings.
One method to abbreviate the hard feelings is the Band-Aid technique, in which you get the pain over quickly with a formal declaration of termination, then live up to it with no further contact.
The trouble is, there's very little chance of learning much from the ex-partner going forward (aka no exit interview) and no way to gain anything else from the effort you invested. The good news is it forces everyone back to their own devices quickly.
The Band-Aid technique may not keep the opera from starting, but it will keep the drama short if you're no longer playing along.
The gossip annals and business pages, not to mention iTunes, are full of tales from the dark side where evil characters have done the singer wrong. So just wait it out, applaud at the end and get out of the theater before anyone recognizes you.
Another way to end a relationship is to talk it out -- to nudge the Band-Aid off little by little so that the wound is not exposed before it's scabbed over.
If by grace you and your once-or-twice-beloved can end it by mutual consent and in sync with each other's feelings, then break open the champagne (after office hours, of course) and celebrate your ability to communicate effectively. As long as the champagne doesn't put you right back where you started, that's as good as it gets. You just might stay friends and colleagues. Applause all around.
However, if you've ever ended a relationship where you're out of tune with your ex, then give yourself a break. All it means is that you've joined the human race. It's okay, join the club, have a jacket -- we call it "skin."
And incidentally, having had that skin a while does not necessarily mean it gets any thicker.
Grizzled veterans of the war of the marketplace as well as the war between the sexes have just as hard a time getting over the pain whenever the connections between us are severed. So be kind to yourself -- and your ex-partner, ex-colleague or ex-client -- and try to avoid that pain in your bottom line next time.
The Comfort Zone
Hard feelings result whenever people are uncertain and uncomfortable. Those raw emotions turn into destructive actions whenever someone's worst fears are confirmed. This is how panic attacks and lashing out start.
If etiquette is meant to keep everybody comfortable, then the etiquette of the situation is to do everything one can to make one's ex-partner, employee or colleague feel safe.
How will you know how to do that? You can put yourself in your ex-partner's shoes and try some intuitive guessing, but more than likely, you'll have to ask. And just for business' sake, ask at the beginning of the end, not after the fat lady is already mid-aria. (It's just not polite to speak during a performance.)
What are the consequences of guessing wrong?
Well, one businessman among Miss Conduct's acquaintance arrived at work one morning to discover that his love letters had been read by the director of HR. He'd written to his beloved trying to find out why she'd stopped answering his phone calls at home; this concern for her was used as evidence against him at the sexual harassment hearings.
A two-year probationary period followed, with proximity rules that turned the next 24 months into a protracted game of Twister with an angry porcupine. So, the lesson here is to find out what is needed of you ahead of time.
If your ex-partner is stonewalling, be patient. Wait a week and come back later to ask how you can make things easier.
After three unsuccessful attempts to initiate the termination interview in person, assume that your ex-partner is using the Band-Aid technique and move on yourself. You will have a lot of questions, but let them go. Don't wind up a headline or the title character in another office soap opera.
To forgive is divine, or so Miss Conduct has read. Remember, you may not be the only one who's been stirred, however brief or superficial the relationship might have seemed. You and your ex may have behaved strangely because the depth of feeling stirred by the relationship surprised you both.
So if the fat lady sings off-key, forgive her. That Band-Aid hurts coming off.
Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at
AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.