Navigating Office Romance Beyond Letterman

For all the extraordinary elements of the David Letterman scandal, so far his situation lands within a wide gray zone for workplace behavior.

Leave aside the fact that he’s a television personality and the alleged victim of a bizarre extortion attempt, and what’s left is a kind of complicated mess that can arise in businesses across the United States. Americans generally say it’s inappropriate for someone to enter sexual relationships with office subordinates, as Mr. Letterman did. But such actions aren’t necessarily grounds for discipline, although they can cause deep concern within organizations.

Often, workers aren’t disciplined because the situation includes no formal complaint of sexual harassment or of a “hostile work environment,” in legal jargon. If an employee files such a complaint in the Letterman affair – or in any other workplace – the game changes.

Short of that, the gray zone exists.

According to experts on human-resource policies, companies might sometimes take action – including the possible step of asking an executive to leave his or her job.

At the same time, though, romance can’t be totally ruled out of workplaces, these experts acknowledge. And many companies that have long had policies on harassment are more or less at Square 1 when it comes to defining the parameters of office romance.

“Every company should have an office romance policy,” says Rania V. Sedhom, a principal at Buck Consultants, a human-resources consulting firm based in New York. “What companies should not do is ban relationships altogether.”

On Monday, Letterman apologized on air to his wife and staff. The alleged $2 million extortion attempt, involving a threat to make details of his relationships public, came from a male CBS employee now facing trial.

A further twist in the Letterman case is that, although his show airs on CBS, he’s employed by his own company, with the odd name (still odder in light of the scandal) of Worldwide Pants. The firm has stated that it has a policy on harassment and that Letterman is not in violation of that policy.

But what if Letterman were a typical executive in some other building in Manhattan?

Here’s some context: About 40 percent of American workers have had a workplace romance, according to the Los Angeles-area law firm Shegerian & Associates, citing a 2008 study by Spherion, a recruiting firm.

But in another study, 84 percent of workers say it would not be acceptable to date their boss, while 16 percent say it’s OK. That finding comes within a larger survey on workplace issues, to be released soon by the Ethics Resource Center in Arlington, Va.

“The largest concern for many companies is making sure that they have productive workplaces,” says Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center. For workers, “what’s at stake is their feeling that they [are] rewarded for a job well done and not for any other reasons.”

With boss-subordinate relationships, the perception of favoritism can emerge. There’s also the potential that an employer could be held liable for a hostile work environment.

Concerns about the firm’s reputation, its ability to retain top talent, and the risk of legal judgments against it – all those motivations could come into play. And the overall ethical culture of a firm can be at risk, Ms. Harned says. If employees perceive slip-ups in one area, they may feel it’s OK to cut corners in other areas.

At the same time, companies need to guard against overreacting.

Certain “best practices” can help firms navigate the risks posed by office romance, Ms. Sedhom says. First, companies should have a policy and provide training so people are aware of it. That in itself may discourage office relationships and prompt people to disclose them when they occur.

While the vast majority of firms have harassment policies, fewer have policies on relationships, and only a small fraction provide training, Sedhom says.

Some company policies provide for “love contracts” or “office relationship agreements.” These include voluntary statements by two individuals that their relationship is consensual and that they don’t want one to supervise the other directly.

These policies, Sedhom says, convey the message: “You should let us know so we can help both of you stay on the right track for your careers.”