Fairness falls as romance rises at work

With people spending more and more of their waking hours at work, office romance has become a fact of life at many companies. And when a manager gets involved with a subordinate, it can lead to favoritism: perks, raises and even promotions for the person who's carrying-on with the boss.

Oddly enough, the courts call this form of bias a "paramour preference." Lately, some have ruled it's illegal sexual harassment: even if the supervisor isn't soliciting sex, the unspoken message is that you have to sleep with the boss to get ahead, they say. Unfortunately, such cases are hard to prove. Fortunately, there are other steps you can take to try to alleviate the problem of favoritism.


Let's take the example of a reader who wrote to me recently about a co-worker who everyone thinks is having an affair with the boss. The co-worker comes in late, leaves early, and spends a lot of time on personal calls. Meanwhile, the boss covers for her and does much of the work she neglects.

Resentful of the fact that the co-worker essentially does a part-time job for full-time pay, the reader is in a tough spot. By confronting either -- or both -- parties directly (usually the best way to deal with office conflicts), she might jeopardize her job.


What can she and others like her do? Much depends on the culture of the company. A growing number of businesses have adopted policies prohibiting sexual harassment, favoritism, or conflicts of interest. Sometimes they're just paying lip service to these principles, hoping it will protect them from lawsuits.

But increasingly, management is cracking down on boss-subordinate affairs, says Kathleen Neville, a New York consultant. These companies usually appoint trained people within the company to investigate complaints.

Rather than saying, "Joe and Mary are having an affair, and we really hate it," it's best for you to lay out the problem in business terms, Ms. Neville advises. Without being emotional, pinpoint the effect this is having on productivity. For instance, has the boss been less accessible to clients, unavailable to field subordinates' questions, or slacking off on sales goals? You'll have strength in numbers if co-workers are willing to step forward with you.

If the company doesn't have a written policy, you'll need to find a supervisor or manager whom you can trust to keep your confidence and discreetly talk to the boss. In this case, don't mention the speculation about romance, advises Freada Klein, a Boston-based consultant who is a leading authority on sexual harassment.

Your main complaint isn't the romance, but the bending of work rules for the boss's lover. So unfair treatment is the strongest argument. You can point out that clear responsibilities, fair work assignments and uniform criteria for perks make everyone more efficient.

A last resort is to send an anonymous note to the boss, says Ellen Bravo, co-author of "The 9to5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment" (John Wiley & Sons, $12.95; [800] CALL-WILEY). (Again, group action is better than going it alone.) To urge the boss to stop the unfair treatment, Ms. Bravo offers this sample wording: "It's difficult for those of us who keep regular hours to see Mary coming in late and leaving early and spending a lot of time on what seem to be personal phone calls. There is a perception that you're involved in an intimate relationship with her and that's why she gets away with this. We urge you to stop it."