Sex At Work: Right Or Wrong?

Last week late night television comic David Letterman admitted to having sexual affairs with women on the staff of his program. Letterman's indiscretions have stoked an ongoing conversation about just when is it okay to have relationships — sexual or romantic — with a colleague, especially a supervisor. Host Michel Martin talks about the legality and ethics of workplace relationships with Jennifer Kearns, an attorney who specializes in employment law; author Ruth Houston, a self-described "infidelity specialist" and Tracy Quan, a writer for The Daily Beast Web site.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we talk about women, hair and work. But first, it's been a week since CBS "Late Show" host David Letterman dropped the bombshell that he had sexual affairs with women working on the show. Since then, it seems like many people are talking about workplace relationships. When is it OK to have an intimate relationship with the boss, a colleague, an intern? Nobody? Never?

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Jennifer Kearns, an attorney who specializes in employment law. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JENNIFER KEARNS (Attorney, Employment Law): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, Tracy Quan. She writes for the dailybeast.com, among other publications. She recently wrote an article about this. Welcome, Tracy, thank you for joining us.

Ms. TRACY QUAN (Writer, dailybeast.com): Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Ruth Houston. She writes for the online publication examiner.com. Welcome to you also.

Ms. RUTH HOUSTON (Infidelity Expert, writer, examiner.com): My pleasure.

MARTIN: And we want to mention that some of this conversation may be considered a bit explicit for some. So with that being said, Jennifer, I want to start with you. And I will start with a disclosure, during the last 25 years, close to 70 couples employed by NPR have met and married. I am not among them, but what's so terrible?

Ms. KEARNS: Well, there's nothing inherently terrible about couples meeting at work, but I'm going to just come out with my biggest concern. I'm a management-side employment lawyer, so I advise and counsel companies. The biggest problem in the workplace is when a relationship develops between a supervisor and his or her subordinate, because there is a disparity of power. And so even though the relationship may begin consensually, with both parties very interested in having a relationship, there is always the potential that the subordinate may later make a sexual harassment claim against the company, claiming that he or she was pressured into having that relationship.

MARTIN: And what about the people who are also supervised by that same person, who may feel that their work is not receiving the same level of favorable treatment or the same access or - well clearly, they're not receiving the same access - but as the person with whom that person is engaged in a relationship. Is that a concern?

Ms. KEARNS: Absolutely. The bottom line is these types of claims, they're called sexual favoritism claims or paramour claims. And they're exactly what you've described, Michel. They are co-workers who say, I am not getting the same opportunities. I am not getting the same advancement because I am not sleeping with the boss. And so those are viable claims for those other co-workers who are not involved in the relationship.

MARTIN: Tracy, you wrote an interesting piece for the Daily Beast titled "Bedding the Boss," where you kind of trace the change in attitudes about these kinds of relationships. You write that once upon a prefeminist time, it was more common to vilify the woman. In the '60s, she was an ambitious vamp out to destroy her boss's marriage, or she was seen as just being in the workplace in order to get a man, to get her MRS, as it were. And now, you're saying that it's more likely that the woman is seen as kind of the victim - as the victim of a predator boss. Tell me more.

Ms. QUAN: Well, I think we need to get beyond that. If you want to look at it from a more sex-positive point of view, I would ask: What are you going to do if you go to bed with your boss and he looks really great, like the package looks really great, but what if the sex is really terrible? Are you going to feel compelled to pretend that he's better in bed than he really is? I mean, he's your boss. I think that's a legitimate question.

MARTIN: What about the whole power issue that Jennifer was just talking about, the fact that it creates - kind of an aura of favoritism that's just not a healthy thing.

Ms. QUAN: Well, I think it may be OK to have sex with your boss, it may be a lot of fun, but the fact that other people don't approve and don't appreciate the favors that you're getting might affect your situation adversely. You will have enemies gunning for you in the workplace.

MARTIN: Ruth, you wrote a piece for the Examiner titled "David Letterman Broke Two Cardinal Rules Governing Workplace Romance." Rule number one: Never become involved with someone in your direct chain of command. And rule number two: Never get involved with someone if you're married or in a committed relationship. Now, I do have to say, I don't know that we know exactly when these relationships all took place. But even so, go ahead and tell us more about your thinking about this.

Ms. HOUSTON: Well, you know, workplace affairs are very common these days. However, the best advice is not to get involved, but they do. No one listens when we say that. So the best thing to do if you're going to go ahead, against all advice, and have a workplace affair, your best bet is to keep it very low-key. Don't be ostentatious with it. Third cardinal rule, we heard rumors about a love nest atop the studio. If that's true, then he broke a third cardinal rule: Never have sex on company property. And that includes supply closets and copy rooms and stairwells and parking lots and, you know, all these adjacent areas.

MARTIN: Ruth, it seems like you've thought a lot about this. .TEXT: (Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Just enumerating the whole panoply of places. But OK, can I just clarify one point?

Ms. QUAN: Sure.

MARTIN: Are all of you talking about boss and subordinate, because I'm curious also about peer to peer. Are you also saying that peer…

Ms. HOUSTON: Well.

MARTIN: …to peer not such a great idea, Ruth?

Ms. HOUSTON: Yes, I'm also saying - well, peer to peer is good if you observe the rules of engagement, because it could be career suicide if you don't handle it properly.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. HOUSTON: Well, you know, if you've got a reputation for sleeping your way to the top, even though that may not be the case, it's going to follow you. People do gossip. Elephants aren't the only ones that never forget. Some people have very long memories, and some industries are very close-knit. And that reputation could follow you if you're a woman. Or if you're a man, you could get a reputation as a predator or as someone who preys on, you know, other employees.

MARTIN: Well, can I ask about - I want to ask the other guests about this, too. Tracy, what about that? I mean, on the one hand, it seems - I can see that, certainly. On the other hand, you know, the people spend most of their time at work, if they are lucky enough to be employed. And it just - I mean, isn't the practical reality is that people are going to have relationships at work?

Ms. QUAN: There is something that happens in every workplace. There's a sexual tension that keeps everything going. People get up in the morning. They get dressed a certain way, they do their hair, etc., and it's partly because they're looking forward to sitting next to that person in the cubicle, the peer - maybe more than the boss who they wish to impress. People also initiate projects. They try to work together. They try to learn from each other or teach things to each other, because they're sexually attracted to each other, and it's profitable.

MARTIN: Is it sexuality or friendship, though? You think it's sexuality…

Ms. QUAN: It's the libido.

MARTIN: …the sexual tension.

Ms. QUAN: Yeah, it's the human libido which, you know, Freud thought, you know, drove everything. And I kind of agree with the guy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about relationships in the workplace. Is it wrong? Is it just human nature? How do you manage such a thing? We're joined in a roundtable discussion with attorney Jennifer Kearns, and writers Tracy Quan and Ruth Houston.

So Jennifer, what's your take on that? We were talking a lot about the - kind of the boss-subordinate scenario, but what about peer to peer? I mean, Tracy's making the argument that that, you know, sexual tension is just a part of life and people. It in fact, can kind of make the office environment more electric, more productive, more enjoyable in some ways. Obviously, there's a downside if things don't go well. What is your take on the peer to peer situation?

Ms. KEARNS: Well, Michel, from the purely legal perspective, it's still not desirable. I guess I would say that notwithstanding any energizing effect that these relationships may have on people, they also can have, in a peer to peer situation, they can still also be very distracting. I think that they can lower productivity, particularly in the electronic age. You know, in the older times, you know, there might be conversation between the involved couple in the lunch room, at the coffee machine - and that might be about it. Now, people can spend hours a day on email and really not be visibly doing anything other than work. So, I do think there's the potential for a loss of productivity.

MARTIN: Tracy, I think this is a good point - to point out that you are a former sex worker and a number of your novels have written about, you know, some of these dynamics. So, what's your take on how these attitudes about workplace relationships are evolving?

Ms. QUAN: I think that when we're in a boom and jobs are very plentiful, a lot of young workers might feel more relaxed about something like sex with the boss or with a peer. If they to leave an uncomfortable workplace to find another job, it's not that big a deal. But I think right now, we're going to feel a little different about this. So, you know, it's legitimate to question the wisdom of pursuing these relationships.

However, you mentioned that a lot of people at NPR are married. And at some point, I mean, we don't just go from being celibate to be married. There's a stage in between these days, and we do have to acknowledge that. And also, the idea that we would only ever marry our peers and never pursue relationships with somebody who has something to teach us, who's a little ahead of us, who's a mentor, that's also unrealistic.

MARTIN: Tracy, if you feel comfortable…

Ms QUAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Do you have any advice about dealing with workplace attraction?

Ms. QUAN: Well, I think, actually, you may want to avoid all those sticky diplomatic issues and simply nurture a really, really good, intense flirtation with your boss. That might be the best use of the sexual energy that does exist in the workplace.

MARTIN: Ruth, what about you?

Ms. HOUSTON: If you're going to enter into one of these workplace relationships, whether it's with a peer or whether it's someone in your chain of command, you need to think about the repercussions, and this is something that you need to discuss before you get involved. Well, if this doesn't work out, can we still conduct ourselves in a professional manner? If the person is known to be vindictive, you have to consider the fact that if it doesn't work out, will this person try to undermine your career? Will there be some sabotage going on? You do have to consider all these factors.

MARTIN: Jennifer, what about you?

Ms. KEARNS: I recognize that these relationships do happen. And part of my job when a company calls me is not to just say, you have to drop the hammer and you have got to fire these people. I mean, there are a lot of mechanisms that could be considered; some will work, some won't. If a company is large enough, you might consider changing the reporting relationship so that the subordinate no longer directly reports to the person with whom he or she is sleeping.

MARTIN: Ruth Houston is a writer and, she tells us, an infidelity expert. She is the author most recently of "Is He Cheating On You? 829 Telltale Signs." She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau along with Tracy Quan. She is a writer for many publications and author of the best-selling "Diary of A Manhattan Call Girl." Her latest novel is "Diary Of A Jetsetting Call Girl," set in Provence. And we were also joined by Jennifer Kearns, she's a partner with the law firm Duane Morris, and she specializes in employment law. She joined us from San Diego. Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KEARNS: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. HOUSTON: Thank you.

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