When Love and Sex Intrude at Work, Executives May Find It Harder to Get Down to Business

updated 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

When the tide began to turn in the battle between the sexes, and a vanguard of ambitious women breached the for-men-only sanctity of America's corporate power centers, male bosses first looked on bemused, then tried to get back to business as usual. It didn't work, says author Leslie Westoff. By 1985 more than one-third of all U.S. managers, executives and professional people were women, and unexpected tensions deeply troubled some companies. "What business neglected to see," says Westoff, "was that although male and female roles were changing, the sexual attraction men and women inevitably feel was still the same. Nobody prepared for that." The resulting confusion, she maintains in her book Corporate Romance (Times Books, $16.95), has threatened both office morale and the orderly transition of executive power. Westoff, 58, a native New Yorker and author of three previous books on social issues, is the former wife of magazine editor Clay Felker, whom she regards as her professional mentor. She spoke with reporter Lee Powell about the impact of love and sex in the business world.

Hasn't there always been romance in the business world?

Yes, but 30 years ago affairs were between bosses and secretaries. If the secretary embarrassed anyone, she might be asked to leave, or her boss might marry her and she'd stay home to have a family. There was no problem. It's only in the last few years, when women have become executives, that we have had corporate romance between equals.

Why is it a problem?

People don't know how to behave. If they fall in love, should they keep it a secret? Will one or both of them be fired if they don't? Does the relationship represent a conflict of interest in the company? There is a lot of fear and uncertainty about how to deal with the situation. Some companies have fired prized executives, who are in turn suing their former employers—and in some cases winning.

How much sex is going on at work?

In one 1982 survey of 112 executives, 82 percent said they had encountered on-the-job romance, and a large number said the problem had affected their company adversely. I believe affairs are disruptive not because they take place but because they are handled so badly by both companies and individuals.

You have said that what is allowed in any company depends on the organization's "corporate culture."

Yes. That's the sum total of the company's unwritten rules—what is accepted and rewarded, and what is not permitted. Companies differ depending on their size and location, what they produce and how their top officers behave. Larger, older companies are usually more conservative. A small corporation in Silicon Valley is more relaxed than, say, a 100-year-old pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. The spectrum is enormous, from 20th century enlightenment down to a Dark Ages mentality.

What role should a company play when two people with outside marriages become involved with each other at work?

Obviously honesty, productivity and propriety are a company's concern, but I think people should be able to have an affair with whomever they want. A company shouldn't be in the business of protecting the sanctity of marriage.

What are some of the real problems when two executives get involved?

If one executive reports to another and they are having an affair, it may cause jealousy on the part of co-workers. Businesses are structured according to a hierarchy. Each person has a certain amount of power, and when two people get together, they are perceived as taking up more space than they would as individuals. They may share information, give each other special privileges. They make more waves than they would separately.

Is it fair to say that if you report directly to another person, you should either not get involved romantically or you should change jobs?

That's a good rule to follow.

Some women find power sexy. Are men attracted in the same way to powerful women?

I don't think so. The power that a lot of older men have had in business was used to attract women. Now that women are getting this kind of status too, men can't use power as a sexual bargaining ploy anymore, and it makes them uncomfortable. The situation is easier for younger men who have shared coed college dorms and attended business school with women as smart as they are.

Are some women still playing the old sexual roles at the office?

Yes. I've heard of many cases where women have used sex to get ahead, and it often backfires. A man gets promoted and doesn't take the woman with him, or he gets scared and transfers, leaving her behind. And if she has a job the man got her but which she isn't capable of doing, she can fall on her face. Other women have tried to mimic men by coming on strong, but they have to be aware of the pitfalls of playing tough.

Such as?

One psychiatrist told me that when a man is afraid a woman colleague is becoming too powerful or making him look bad, he might try cutting her down to size by getting her in bed—back where she used to be.

Suppose a couple, in spite of all the problems, decides to have an affair. What happens if they break up?

That can affect everyone around them as well as the productivity of the company. But that's one of the many things you should think of before you start a relationship. Romance at work cannot be frivolous. You don't just let it happen; you have to anticipate all the possibilities. If you carry on a romance at work, it becomes part of your career.

Would you recommend keeping an affair secret?

Most of the executives I spoke to said, "For God's sake, yes!" But management consultants suggest you talk to your supervisor and explain the situation. There can be problems either way, but it's terrible to have to keep your affection for somebody else in the office a secret. You can't be doing your best job if you're worried about being found out.

Is it possible for women to reject the advances of high-level executives without jeopardizing their jobs?

It's difficult. Women in business are in an environment that is still predominantly male, and they have to learn to deal with these situations intelligently without hurting people's feelings or jeopardizing work relationships. I think if men and women could sit down and talk about this, they could defuse the problem.

You speak in your book of "sexual friendships." What does that imply?

Sex is with us all the time, and in business there are many instances when men and women are attracted to each other and should do nothing about it. You may feel sexual vibrations, even love for a person, but you can't go to bed with everyone who is attractive to you. In some cases these feelings should be channeled into simply working harder and better together.

Corporations have always trained promising young executives through mentors—older executives who offer guidance and counsel. What happens when mentor and protégé are man and woman?

It's going to be awkward. The case of former Bendix Corporation Chairman William Agee and his assistant, Mary Cunningham, frightened a lot of people. He was a mentor with a female protégé, and he hadn't even thought about the consequences. A lot of men just don't want the problems inherent in playing mentor to a woman. But business needs mentors. Providing your company with a first-rate set of officers depends on teaching them what can only be learned from another person, not from textbooks. Mentors have to work closely with their protégés, often alone, often at night, sharing private information.

How should companies deal with this problem?

Companies spend money on fitness centers and drug and alcohol abuse programs because it saves them time, money and people. They should put just as much thought into how men and women are going to handle relationships like mentoring, or they'll have another Agee-Cunningham debacle. He gave her too much power too quickly and they flaunted the closeness of their relationship. People lost confidence in his ability to lead the company.

Is there really any difference between the favoritism that lovers might be accused of showing each other in a company and the privileges that protégé always have had?

No. There's nothing new going on today except that it's between men and women. Men have always helped other men and told them secrets. There have always been favorites, because you can't bring everybody up to be a top officer. But there's a fear that when men and women have an affair, they'll go crazy and tell each other everything.

What has to happen before companies can solve the problems of man-woman relationships?

The only intelligent solution is for companies to hire professional counselors and let men and women discuss what's going on. Supervisors and managers don't know how to handle the questions even if people come to them for help. If something isn't done, corporations will be facing more lawsuits and losing more employees, and they will be working with people who are hiding, lying and being dishonest about their personal relationships. You can't expect these people to turn around and be open, creative and brilliant on the job.

From Our Partners