Many a happy marriage can come out of a workplace romance.
But too often an office tryst involves a boss and a subordinate, and/or an extramarital affair. These can lead to exploitation, expected favors, and broken trust – not to mention tragic emotional or legal consequences.
This week America learned of another workplace affair involving the powerful and the less powerful when "Late Show" host David Letterman admitted that he has had "sex with women who work for me on the show."
He also told of his cooperation with law enforcement officials in revealing a $2 million extortion attempt by someone who knew of his dalliances and worked on the CBS TV show "48 Hours."
Almost monthly, news breaks about an elected official, religious leader, or respected celebrity who violates social norms or the law by having a sexual relationship with someone tied to their work.
There is the heart-breaking and perverse example of the campaign affair of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. And then there is the unethical attempt by Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada to cover up an affair with a campaign aide by arranging a political consulting job for her husband.
The tally of notorious affairs would easily make the nightly list on Mr. Letterman's show: "Top 10 Reasons for Mr. Big-Wig to Resign."
While Letterman fans may show him leniency – the new norm for wayward celebrities – employers like CBS must take any office affair very seriously, especially if there is a potential for harassment, coercion, conflict of interest, or favoritism – or the perception of the same.
Someone with Letterman's clout could have immense influence over the careers of the women who had sexual relations with him.
Employers are struggling to cope with social trends – more divorces, more women working, and less sexual probity – that are pushing more employees to date a co-worker. Most human-resource officials frown on office romance. And a 1998 Supreme Court ruling requires companies to have policies against sexual harassment.
But some employers now accept the idea that the workplace is a prime place for social contacts and are asking dating co-workers to sign an agreement that guards against potential lawsuits in case of a nasty breakup. Protecting employees is the first business of a business, and it is far better to know of an office romance than not.
Even an extramarital affair, while perhaps not a boss-subordinate situation, is something that an employer has an obligation to guard against. A company needs to set a high ethical standard. Often someone who breaks the vow of marriage will also break workplace rules and ethics.
Knowing when a workplace friendship crosses the line isn't always easy for all those involved. Training on the legal and ethical nuances of personal relations at work is now essential.
Perhaps CBS forgot to advise Letterman about the boundaries for an office romance and the dangers of co-workers taking intimacy too far in a professional setting.
Letterman's audience laughed as he told his tale, and then clapped after he finished his explanation.
Might the more appropriate response have been stunned silence?