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US Companies Grapple with Romance in the Workplace

  • Brian Purchia

Romance in the workplace is nothing new. But when the CEO of Boeing Corporation, Harry Stonecipher, was recently forced to resign - after a consensual affair with a co-worker - this refocused attention on the social behavior of Americans at work and how some companies are trying to control it.

A January survey by Careerbuilder.com found that 56 percent of the respondents had dated a co-worker and one in four had dated someone in a higher position.

Harry Stonecipher was brought to Boeing to restore the airplane maker's image in the wake of a corporate scandal. So, when the company's board of directors found out he was having an affair with a female co-worker, they fired him.

Pierre-Yves Dugua, a business corespondent for the French paper Le Figaro, says getting dismissed for a consensual relationship with a colleague is a truly American phenomenon.

"My readers have problems understanding what the issue is all about... unless somebody can tell them that sex has become illegal in America, the French don't really understand what all the fuss is about, but the fact that there's not even sexual harassment involved in this makes it totally absurd," he said.

Mr. Stonecipher's firing, however, highlights an increasingly difficult situation facing American companies: how to deal with relationships between employees.

Phil Lockwood and Sarah Walling started as co-workers. Now they are married.

"Young people, we all work more than we ever have before. We're single. You're gonna - inevitably, there will be relationships that happen in the office," says Sarah Walling.

The American workplace has changed dramatically over the last 60 years - today it is almost equally divided between men and women with nearly 70 million female workers.

Mary Still is a sociologist studying the workplace at American University in Washington, D.C.

"Women have been absorbed into the workplace but, the workplace really hasn't adapted very well, at least on a very substantial level to women's presence in the workplace," she said.

Some American companies have resisted keeping track of office romances.

"From a managerial point of view it's very, it's almost hellish to have to monitor and survey your employees on this issue," Ms. Still said.

Other companies are trying to respond. By one estimate, in the last two to three years, 25 percent of U.S. companies have developed polices on consensual relationships between co-workers.

“The one area that is forbidden is relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Because of the myriad of conflicts that can arise in those situations,” said Mellody Hobson, who is the president of Ariel Capital Management.

Douglas McCabe tells his students at Georgetown University's business school to follow company policy - whatever that may be.

"Some companies have a very strict 'no fraternization' policies, other companies have policies in which you can date somebody as long as they're are not in your chain of command," he said.

Xerox, for example, has a policy that says if two co-workers start dating and if one person is in a supervisory role they must tell management and have their positions changed. Executives at Xerox, like other companies are trying to limit their liability and avoid conflicts of interest for their employees. But, most companies realize it is impossible to stop romance in the workplace.

"They're never going to be able to 100 percent get rid of this in the workplace, but they need to be responsible and, pro-active in training employees, training supervisors in how to deal with these situations," said Mary Still.

For Professor McCabe it's pretty simple. "I happen to think as my dear old dad once told me: 'Don't date women in the workplace,'" he says.

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