Consensual or not, when it's the boss involved, office romance doesn't look good. Sometimes it's the stuff of watercooler gossip. Other times, it's the end of a career.
Bendix Corp. was rocked by scandal during the 1980s when the company's president and an executive assistant were rumored to be having an affair. A top executive at office supply company Staples resigned in 1997 after a "non-business relationship" with his secretary became public.
Boeing Co. Chief Executive Harry Stonecipher was forced to resign this week after an extramarital affair he had had with a company executive leaked out. Board members said Stonecipher failed to uphold company ethics standards that he had helped develop after his predecessor was forced out in an ethics scandal.
Company leaders decided that the affair showed poor judgment despite Stonecipher's strong managerial and fiscal performance.
"In any organization seeking to establish and build core values, the commitment and day-to-day behavior of the top leaders is vital," said Stephen Paskoff, an attorney and chief executive of Atlanta-based consulting firm Employment Learning Innovation Inc. "To the extent your personal life overlaps with your work life, it can raise serious problems for your employer."
Ruth Houston, author of Is He Cheating on You? - 829 Telltale Signs, said that analyzing personal transgressions is a logical part of vetting players in corporate cultures where loyalty is prized.
"We're talking about dishonesty and disloyalty being the chief traits in a successful affair," she said. "Fraud, deceit, lies, betrayal, all of which are undesirable qualities for a corporate executive. If these qualities are present in his personal life, they're likely to be present to some degree in his professional life."
She cited several Enron executives who'd cheated on their wives, and then their company. Extramarital affairs are a red flag, she said, and companies like Boeing can't afford to gamble.
Amy Oppenheimer, a lawyer and business consultant based in Berkeley, Calif., advises her clients to ban relationships between managers and lower-level employees. She said some go as far as prohibiting any romance between workers, which she believes is unrealistic and difficult to enforce. People spend so a great deal of time together at work, and it's a logical place for them to meet.
"[Office romance] is something that you should never do lightly," she said. In the case of a chief executive, "the safe thing to do is disclose the relationship, build a firewall and have the other person consider finding another job."
That was probably not an option for Stonecipher, who is married.
Staples executives had a policy in place prohibiting workplace romances when President Martin Hanaka was forced to resign after his secretary, Cheryl Gordon, said they had had an extramarital affair.
Even if Stonecipher were not married, he was a senior executive and never should have had an affair with an employee, Paskoff said. In a situation like Stonecipher's, it is easy to say, "he should have known better," and he probably did, said Paskoff, who wrote Teaching Big Shots to Behave and Other Human Resource Challenges, a book about executive behavior.
"Some people don't stop and think about the rules at all; some people think they really don't apply to me, they think the odds of being caught are really low and don't think the impact is going to be big," Paskoff said. "The decision is based on a cost-benefit analysis that says `it's worth it.'"
Office romances are not a novelty, but companies have started handling them differently as concerns about sexual harassment have increased.
One new approach is the "love contract," a legal document that discloses consensual relationships between co-workers. The practice started about five years ago as a way for companies to shield themselves against lawsuits, said Stephen Tedesco, a partner with Littler Mendelson, a law firm based in San Francisco.
"It's a way to confirm, going forward that [employees] will remain professional," he said.
It may seem superfluous for employees to sign contracts agreeing to be professional, but sometimes it helps to state what should be obvious.
"The contract documents common sense," Tedesco said.
Bosses canoodling with secretaries is an old clichM-i, although censure has historically been reserved for subordinates in workplace relationships, according to Carroll Lachnit, executive editor of Workforce Management, a monthly magazine and Web site.
The Stonecipher tryst is unusual, she said, because "the top dog is the one who got sent to the doghouse," she said. "It doesn't usually happen that way. Usually the person in the position of power emerged unscathed."
Mary Cunningham, fresh from Harvard Business School in 1980, rose from executive assistant to vice president in months, and met her future husband, while working for Bendix. She was ousted after rumors spread of her relationship with the company's Chief Executive William Agee.
Boeing's code of ethics prohibited employees from engaging in any behavior that could embarrass the company. That may seem broad, experts said, but many employers use similar language because it would be close to impossible to make a complete list of ethical dos and don'ts.
"When people talk about character ethics, the link between a person's personal life and professional life is the person," said Max Torres, associate professor of law of Ave Maria Law School in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sun staff writer Abigail Tucker contributed to this article.