Sunday, November 09, 2008


The head of the International Monetary Fund has been cleared of wrongdoing in having had an affair with one of his staffers. The fund's board decided that, because the relationship was consensual, no harm, no foul.

The news reminded me of the first "The Right Thing" column I wrote, a little more than 10 years ago, which was about relationships in the workplace and the havoc they can wreak. At that time some institutions were beginning to introduce "love contracts," in which both parties agree to indemnify the business should the relationship turn sour.

According to a more recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management and, as of 2006 48 percent of companies permitted but discouraged workplace romances, while 31 percent did not permit office romances.

Where such affairs can really run into trouble is when a boss has a relationship with someone further down the employee ranks. But is it a company's place to dictate who can and who cannot fall in love in the workplace? Does a boss cross an ethical line when he or she strikes up an affair with someone at the office?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Only bad things can happen during an office romance. In these days of rampant sexaual harrassment lawsuits, women with ideas of trying to get a man in trouble are waiting for the slightest deviation from strictly platonic relationships and if a male makes the slightest advance in terms of words or actions that anyone can interpret as sexual in nature, you can (and the company can) expect a sexual harrassment lawsuit. This is not right, but it is life in today's relationship with feminists.

Delicious Dishings said...

I think it's a tough call. I don't believe a company should have the right to say who can and can't date/fall in love, but I do think a workplace relationship can make work difficult. When I was in high school and college, I worked weekends and summers as a cashier at a grocery store. I was dating my supervisor and because of this was not allowed to be promoted even though I was fully qualified. The higher-ups did not want it to look like favoritism. I was finally promoted after the relationship ended.

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to agree with Anonymous, but without the absolute. We know some wonderful things might come out of an office romance (for instance, 26 years after an office romance and subsequent marriage, I have a 19-year-old daughter), but both my bosses and I were quick to conclude that something had to give. So I found another job. Furthermore, aren't employers entitled to prohibit such employee relationships? It's sad when trouble arises from the deceit that secretive office couples sometimes engage in.

Anonymous said...


My wife and I met when I was hired for a middle management office job about 40 years ago and became her immediate supervisor. An attraction developed after a while, but we both said that we didn’t believe in office romances. Thirty five years of marriage later, we still recognize the potential pitfalls of romance on the job, but far be it from us to condemn it.

When I told our boss that we were going to get married, I asked him if he suspected that our joint secretary/admin assistant and I had anything more than a professional relationship. He didn’t, and as far as I know, nobody else did either.

So, to answer your question as it was worded, yes, it crosses an ethical line for a boss to “strike up an affair” with someone at the office, but if genuine romance evolves from working together, it’s not the company’s business if the relationship doesn’t affect the company or either party’s future in it in any way. If both parties are honest and discreet in a consensual relationship, Human Resources wouldn’t even know about it, let alone have to make a judgment about whether or not the amorous relationship was out of line.

Fortunately for our situation, the object of my affection moved on to another job well before we tied the knot, so it never became an office issue later.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

Anonymous said...

I bow to Phil Clutts, a fellow Carolinian (I in SC, he in NC!), and admit his romance didn't cross the boundary of workplace danger. However, his romance took place in the "good" old days when "normalcy" reigned and when it was really not necessary to use more than the common sense that Phil displayed by working his situation out with his boss. Today, while I agree office romances can work out, persons in management positions are taking a chance of career suicide and a career-ending sexual harrassment lawsuit if you get on the wrong side of a dyed-in-the wool feminist who will accuse you of harassment quicker than you can blink an eye.

Charlie in Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

We need to stay out of people's personal lives. And if for some reason, one gets mad at the other, then that's for them to deal with not HRD.

Enough already! Going to work is no longer fun, because we are all sitting around scared to compliment a co-worker on anything!