Lessons from Letterman: Interoffice Romance

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Even if you're not a David Letterman fan, you've probably heard about the "office romance" gone awry involving the late night talk show host and married father. In case you missed it, here's a recap. In early October 2009, there was an alleged attempt at extortion by CBS news producer Robert Halderman regarding several of Letterman's previous alleged romantic trysts at the office. To head off the extortion attempt, Letterman confessed on-air that he had previously had affairs with some of his office staff, and the following evening he also apologized to his wife and staffers at the show for his behavior.

While extortion by an individual is an extreme example of what can happen when an office romance goes south, the Letterman debacle clearly illustrates why many businesses these days have human resources (HR) policies that address some of the issues surrounding office romance. But what constitutes an office romance and are these HR policies actually effective? Is it illegal to have an office romance? Let's take a closer look.

The Liability of Love

Generally speaking, romances or "consensual relationships in the workplace" are not illegal, nor are they prohibited by most HR policies. Further, romances between peers, particularly those working in different departments, are usually not viewed by HR departments as being problematic. Where it gets tricky however, is when romance develops between people at different management levels, say, a male boss and a female subordinate. If the romance sours, a consensual relationship can quickly morph into a sexual harassment case.

"While sexual harassment is of course a concern, having people dating in the workplace also lends itself to favoritism. Complexity is an issue for the employer too. Gossip, turf wars, and breakups all have the potential to disrupt the workplace," says Jean Kelley, author of Dear Jean: What They Don't Teach You at the Watercooler.

Your Rising Career or Romantic Interest?

But, one might argue, is it really any of the company's business whether their employees have an office romance or not? Kelley says that the answer to that question lies in the wording of the company's HR policies. "It can be a cloudy issue," she explains, adding, "What I will say however, [is that] it's not the company's business or anyone's business what people do after 5:00." Kelley's position, however, may not be the same as your company's. Be sure to review the Human Resources policies at your company.

For romantic types wondering whether it really matters if a company has an office romance policy or not, Kelley has this to say. "Having a policy in place is like a having a stop sign at an intersection. Some people observe the sign and some don't. I suspect that having a policy in place (that's enforced) will slow many people down and make them think twice but people do fall in love."

To anyone contemplating an office romance, Kelley offers this advice. "Check to see if there is a policy in place and read it. If you are highly employable and can get a job anywhere, and you have met the love of your life, the risk might be worth it."

For more information visit:

Human Resource Executive "Lessons from the Letterman Saga"

Courtship among the cubicles: Proceed with caution (AP Archive)

Jean Kelley Leadership Consulting