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Loving where you work

As David Letterman, Steve Phillips, and others have learned, it can lead to trouble.

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

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He’s a married, middle-aged media star. She’s two decades his junior and works down the hallway. The two begin a sexually charged “fling’’ that turns into something more complicated. Feelings get hurt, threats get made. In the long run, the only winners are the lawyers.

Sound familiar, ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips? How about you, late-night TV host David Letterman? Hey, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News: This subpoena is for you.

Details differ among these well-publicized instances of workplace romance gone wrong. Phillips, 46, whose affair with a 22-year-old production assistant led to his dismissal by ESPN last month, had been accused of sexual harassment before and admitted to other extramarital affairs. Unlike Phillips, neither Letterman nor O’Reilly got fired, or even suspended, for his indiscretions. Letterman, 62, also claimed his serial affairs with co-workers ended before his marriage in March, whereas O’Reilly, 60, never admitted to any wrongdoing, period, after a 33-year-old Fox producer accused him in 2004 of making sexually explicit phone calls. (O’Reilly reportedly paid a seven-figure sum to settle the case.)

Taken together, though, these cases raise questions about the risks inherent in workplace romance and the probability these liaisons will have negative professional consequences for one party or both. Where there’s a marked power imbalance, one leading to speculation about sexual favoritism in the “Late Show’’ offices, the odds appear even greater that the affair will end badly - for somebody.

“These things almost never turn out well,’’ says Ruth Houston, author of “Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs.’’ “If it doesn’t, as was the case with [Phillips’ paramour] Brooke Hundley, a disgruntled mistress can cause plenty of damage.’’

Because working people spend so much time on the job, says Houston, the office, not the gym or neighborhood bar, is the most likely venue for partners to connect. “Companies try to put precautions in place, given the threat of sexual harassment lawsuits, but that seldom stops it,’’ she says. “People know what’s going on, too, no matter how quiet you keep things. It can be career suicide, because your reputation follows you around.’’

Still, workplace dating remains widespread, notwithstanding two decades of heightened consciousness about sexual harassment and companies rewriting their rule books governing personal conduct on the job.

According to a survey by CareerBuilder.com, 40 percent of office workers polled said they have dated a co-worker, with 18 percent saying they had done so more than once (for 31 percent, the relationship resulted in marriage). Of those, roughly one-third dated a higher-up, nearly half of them getting involved with their own boss. According to University of New Haven psychology professor Amy Nicole Salvaggio, 29 percent say these affairs have resulted in favoritism of some kind. “People don’t like it if they perceive someone achieving success by having an unfair advantage,’’ says Salvaggio, who has studied office romance extensively.

Cases like Letterman’s may drive tabloid headlines, but he’s not the only public figure whose private affairs made waves. John Ensign, a married US Senator from Nevada who called for Bill Clinton’s resignation over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, conducted an eight-month romance with a married campaign operative. Her husband later landed a lobbying job, thanks to Ensign. John Edwards fell from political grace after admitting to an affair with a woman hired to work on his 2008 presidential campaign. (Rielle Hunter alleges that Edwards is the father of her 20-month-old daughter.) World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz’s romance with a bank communications officer - she got a raise and promotion - ultimately forced him to step down. Boeing ousted its chief executive, Harry Stonecipher, 68, after learning of his adulterous affair with a female executive. The list goes on.

In the case of Letterman, the affair led to an alleged blackmail scheme, with a CBS producer accused of demanding $2 million from the talk show host to keep his sexual liaisons with a subordinate quiet. Boston lawyer Jay Shepherd says the big lesson to be learned from Letterman is how risky workplace affairs are, especially those involving a supervisor.

“When equals are involved, there’s always awkwardness, but no decisions are being made that directly affect employees,’’ says Shepherd, who has conducted hundreds of workplace training sessions around sexual harassment. The stakes rise significantly when one party is higher up the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, concerned company officials often overreact by drafting anti-fraternization rules, he says, or even “love contracts’’ stipulating that employees who do hook up cannot sue the company over a bad ending.

These rarely work, says Shepherd. Instead, companies do better educating employees about sexual harassment - and forbidding executives from dating employees under any circumstances. “In most cases, you’re not dealing with predatory behavior,’’ he notes. “But with a high-level executive, there’s nothing the company can do to avoid liability.’’

Journalist Stephanie Losee puts a more positive spin on office romance. Both Losee and Helaine Olen, coauthors of “Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding - and Managing - Romance on the Job,’’ met their spouses at work - Olen at a publishing house and Losee at a magazine. Their thesis? Office romance can be a good thing, provided the affection between both parties is genuine.

“In a boss-subordinate relationship, you have to understand there’s going to be a loss,’’ Losee says. “So it had better be true love. And with Letterman and Phillips, I’m not seeing a lot of that.’’

If all Letterman indulged in was consensual sex between adults, Losee has no real problem with his behavior. Or his partners’. “What’s ironic,’’ she says, “is that if you don’t get involved [with a co-worker], you can take anything you like from him. But if you sleep with this guy, you can’t accept anything.’’

Who wins and loses may depend as much on perception as reality. In an article on VanityFair.com, former “Late Show’’ writer Nell Scovell raised the specter of sexual favoritism. Although the boss never came on to her, wrote Scovell, she was aware of his affairs with co-workers and felt they benefited from being intimate with Dave. “Sexual politics,’’ she admitted, “did play a part’’ in her leaving the show.