Private Sector: Dealing with Office Romances


May 8, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 8, 2007.

Wolfowitz controversy sheds light on need for disclosure, guidelines

The uncomfortable topic of office romances is again in the spotlight, as World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz faces calls to resign because of his involvement in a personnel decision concerning a fellow World Bank employee with whom he is romantically involved.

When Mr. Wolfowitz assumed the presidency of the World Bank in 2005, he was confronted with a narrow anti-nepotism policy that barred spouses and other romantic partners — such as him and World Bank employee Shaha Riza — from working together.

Responding to the policy, Mr. Wolfowitz arranged a promotion and big pay raise that sent Ms. Riza from the World Bank to the State Department. Mr. Wolfowitz later said he made a mistake and apologized, but refused to resign. The World Bank's 24-member board will decide whether to take any action to force Mr. Wolfowitz out.

The World Bank's explicit policy against romantic partners working together is designed to avoid allegations of favoritism. The policy is rare. For example, surveys indicate that only 12 to 15 percent of American companies have written guidelines on employee dating.

This general lack of corporate policy reflects a widespread belief that organizations can simply sidestep office romances because if consensual relationships go sour, they're covered by existing policies that prohibit sexual harassment and retaliation.

But this reasoning ignores the fact that problems can arise out of close personal relationships that don't sour, as exemplified by Mr. Wolfowitz's union with Ms. Riza. Nor do they address the problems that may be caused by close personal relationships that are not romantic, such as with close friends, siblings, parents and children, and other relatives.

Even in the absence of policies specifying that one person must leave or transfer, good judgment dictates that the one with seniority should recuse himself or herself from decisions involving the subordinate's job assignments, evaluations and promotions.

Policies against romantic partners working together were put in place to protect affected workers and the morale of their colleagues. Such policies are based on the premise that getting a job or promotion based on who you know rather than what you know is wrong and demoralizing, and can hurt everyone by placing unqualified people in critical positions.

Typically being in more subordinate positions in organizations, women are more likely than men to be the beneficiaries of nepotism based on romantic involvement, as well as its victims. Indeed, all working women pay a price for the abuse of power of a few men with seniority.

In a survey we conducted for Elle/, four in 10 of all respondents said women who were promoted quickly were subject to gossip that they had slept their way to the top. Four in 10 of the respondents who asserted that such gossip occurs believed these rumors were often true.

But romantic relationships are not the only ones that need to be addressed in corporate policies, because love and sex are not the only things that cloud people's judgments. We encourage firms to develop a broad "personal relationship policy" that includes, but goes beyond, sexual relationships and mandates disclosure of all personal relationships that are close enough to potentially cause morale and work problems.

The need to address nonsexual relationships was clear to the 31,207 respondents to the Elle/ "Office Sex and Romance Survey" we conducted in 2002. They reported that "old boy" buddies — and "old girls," too — get job perks far more often than "lovers." That is why a policy should cover marital, extended family and close friendship ties as well as romantic ones.

We recognize that disclosure of intimate relationships is more problematic for married employees engaging in extramarital affairs, but organizations have a right to know if an employee's off-duty ties could adversely affect the performance of his or her responsibilities. Of course, employees need to feel assured that their disclosures will be revealed to only the few with a need to know, who will hold them in strict confidence.

More organizations need to pay attention and develop personal relationship policies, but policies alone are not enough. A carefully designed policy implemented with attention to letter and spirit assures everyone that the organization sets and plays by fair rules, and that those at the top are subject to the rules as much as anyone else.

Janet Lever is a professor of sociology at California State University at Los Angeles. Gail Zellman is a senior research psychologist at the nonprofit research organization Rand Corp. They have published studies on office romance.

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