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A teachable moment for workplace lovers

Like many companies, talk show host David Letterman's network, CBS, has a strict policy on workplace romances. In some cases, violations can be career killers.

When talk show host David Letterman went public last week with the revelation that he had affairs with women who worked for him, he pointedly said he hopes “to protect my job.”

For the late-night comedian, that is no joke.

Many companies have policies that restrict or prohibit relationships between a boss and his or her subordinates, and violations can be career killers.

In 2005, to take one high-profile example, Harry Stonecipher was asked to resign from his post as chief executive officer of Boeing Co. when his extramarital affair with another executive at the company was exposed.

In the case of Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., the damage is still unfolding from an affair he had with a member of his campaign staff (who also was the wife of a close aide) that was disclosed in June. In another case Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly settled a harassment lawsuit brought by a producer who said the two had phone-sex conversations.

In the O'Reilly case, the producer claimed she allowed the conversations to continue because he was her boss. "I'm not used to saying no to this man on any level," she said in one interview.

That is exactly why such relationships are frowned on in the workplace and why organizations establish guidelines for such liaisons, especially when they involve a head honcho and subordinates. Such relationships can lead to sexual favoritism, a hostile work environment and straight out sexual harassment.

“When you have a boss and subordinate relationship, one person has power over the other,” said Linda Henman, the author of “The Magnetic Boss.” “Whether that person abuses the power is irrelevant, the perception is there.”

Letterman technically is an employee of his Worldwide Pants production company, but CBS has a clear policy on the situation, and CBS suppliers are supposed to follow the broadcaster's policies.

Here’s a section of CBS’ 2008 Business Conduct Statement: “If a consenting romantic or sexual relationship between a supervisor and a direct or indirect subordinate should develop, CBS requires the supervisor to disclose this information to his or her Company’s Human Resources Department to ensure that there are no issues of actual or apparent favoritism, conflict of interest, sexual harassment, or any other negative impact on others in the work environment.”

It is not known whether Letterman informed anyone at the company about his affairs. CBS Television spokesman Chris Ender would not comment on the issue beyond this: “Mr. Letterman addressed the issue during the show’s broadcast (Thursday) evening, and we believe his comments speak for themselves.”

Romantic relationships in the workplace are nothing new. About 40 percent of workers have  had a workplace romance, according to a study by recruiting firm Spherion Corp. last year.

Such affairs can cause messy situations in the workplace, especially when they involve a boss and a subordinate, because they are seldom kept under wraps, said Henman. “People think they are cleverly hiding it but don’t recognize they a lot of people probably know,” she said.

There are a variety of legal claims that can arise out of relationships between a subordinate and superior, said Jennifer Kearns, a partner with the law firm Duane Morris who specializes in employment law.

Kearns offered three types of claims:

  • A subordinate can say they never wanted to be in the relationship in the first place and that their boss pressured them into it. “These harassment claims can arise years later,” she said.
  • Even if the relationship was consensual, claims sometimes arise afterward that a boss retaliated against the underling because she didn’t want the affair to continue.
  • And there’s the paramour claim. “People who say, ‘Gee, look at her sleeping with the boss and she’s getting all the best accounts, but I’m not getting those because I’m not sleeping with the boss,’” she said..

Kearns pointed to a case involving a prison warden and consensual relationships he had with several of his subordinates. In a lawsuit, two former employees who did not have such affairs claimed the warden favored his lovers, creating a hostile work environment.

Such favoritism is not necessarily enough for a discrimination claim, said Ray Peeler, senior attorney advisor for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “But if you have somebody who’s serially doing this with employees where it becomes an issue to get ahead with this supervisor then that’s clearly illegal," he said.

Widespread sexual favoritism, he explained, can create a hostile work environment, and if a jilted lover demotes a subordinate or otherwise adversely impacts their job, that’s considered retaliation. Both are illegal.

The cases the EEOC is more likely to see involve situations where a relationship has gone sour and the manager continue to pursue a person who is not interested. That is considered sexual harassment.

Aside from the legal issues, there is also social and emotional fallout to consider.

“Once the work intensity subsides, you might feel embarrassed that the excitement propelled you toward intimacy with a co-worker,” said LeslieBeth Wish, a psychologist who writes about relationships at

“You might have to work with this person on another project, and now your emotional and intellectual energies for work are compromised. You must now deal with your discomfort, disappointment and embarrassment.”

No matter how Letterman’s situation plays out, it does open up the question of whether such relationships are ever a good idea in the workplace, especially after the talk show host was ensnared in a $2 million extortion plot. A CBS News producer has been arrested and charged with the scheme.

I did an informal poll on Twitter following Letterman’s mea culpa, asking how an employee on this famous man’s show could say no to advances from the big cheese?

Here’s a sampling of the answers I got:

  • From @ hopefully letterman's ladies made the move on him, otherwise, very uncool. dangerous moves either way!
  • From @: the big question is ... if they denied him, would he provide them a reference down the road or not!!!!????
  • From @by crossing her legs?

Henman believes these types of relationships involving successful men and women and their underlings often come down to a power trip.

“Look at Clinton and Monica Lewinsky,” she said, referring to the former president, a frequent butt of Letterman's jokes. “You have a naïve young woman, and the leader of the free world is interested in her. That’s pretty much an aphrodisiac.”

“I’m not saying,” she added, “that that’s what happened in Letterman’s case. But he’s rich and famous and that’s attractive, and he can use his position to get women in bed.”