The perils of hooking up with your boss

Brian Dunn is the former CEO of Best Buy because of an affair he had with an employee.
Brian Dunn is the former CEO of Best Buy because of an affair he had with an employee.Reuters / Today

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By Eve Tahmincioglu

There’s been a lot of romance going on in the corner office lately.

CEOs of two major companies -- Best Buy Co. andStryker Corp. -- have resigned amid allegations of affairs with employees, and the focus has been on the top dogs who enter improper relationships despite the risk to their careers. But what about the subordinates who hook up with the boss?

In most cases the employees involved tend to remain anonymous, at least beyond company walls; although there has been some chatter about the identity of the woman involved with former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn.

Clearly such affairs can impact the careers and lives of employees, not just their managers. Despite this, a surprisingly large percentage of workers seem willing to risk their job for love.

Nearly 40 percent of employees say they’ve dated someone at work, and of those almost 30 percent say they’ve hooked up with someone above them in company rank, according to a CareerBuilder online survey of about 7,800 workers polled late last year.

Women were more likely to date someone higher ranking, at 35 percent, while only 23 percent of men saying they had.

And it seems younger workers are much more open to the worker-boss relationship than their older counterparts.

A poll conducted by Workplace Options, an employee benefits firm, found that 40 percent of "millennials," ages 18 to 29, were willing to have a relationship with a manager, compared with about 12 percent for workers 30 and over.

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“One of the most interesting pieces of information that came from this survey was that 34 percent of workers said they didn’t know if their company had policies governing romantic relationships in the workplace,” said Dean Debnam, chief executive officer of Workplace Options, about the poll released earlier this year.

“Human beings are going to interact, and these relationships are going to happen, but it is essential that companies have clear policies in place that outline what is acceptable and what is not so that there are no perceptions of inequality, favoritism or an imbalance of power.”

Surprisingly, the vast majority of companies have no official policy on office romance. According to the Society for Human Resource Management only 18 percent of organizations have a written policy, 7 percent have a verbal policy, and 72 percent have nothing at all.

While a lack of any company guidance may make some workers think a workplace love fest is OK, office affairs, especially those with someone who’s above you, can be a dumb idea.

"Hooking up with the boss is always a bad career move if you plan on staying at your company,” said Nancy Shenker, author of “Don’t Hook Up with the Dude in the Next Cube.”

She offers a rundown of how things can go wrong for all involved: 

  • Your co-workers will eventually find out and resent you, believing you are getting preferential treatment. (Just watch "Mad Men.")
  • You will never be able to get a true read on your performance at work. 
  • If one of you believes it "just a one-night thing" and the other is looking for something more, the awkwardness will be a distraction at work, if not worse.
  • A boss who hooks up with an employee probably doesn't have a good grasp of sexual harassment law. Such bosses open them up to lawsuits, which may indicate a lack of common sense.

Indeed, employees who change their mind about the allure of the boss could face harassment or retaliation by the spurned manager.

“Suddenly a relationship that was consensual is, ‘I was sleeping with the boss because he wanted me to,’” said Helene Wasserman, an employment attorney with Littler Mendelson.

So why does it happen?

“Many people make choices to engage in sexual relationships that they ultimately regret,” said Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center.  “One factor at work may be the amount of time spent working together.”

“While not always the case,” he continued, “many people become attracted to the people in their lives that they see the most frequently. Greater time spent allows for depth in relationships to be created.”

In some situations, junior employees may feel pressured by advances from their managers, while others may think the sleep-your-way-to-the-top mentality is the best approach. And let's not rule out the real chance you actually fall for the boss.

In the end, Shenker acknowledged, “people are human, sexual beings and hook-ups happen.  If it does, get your resume together and start packing.  Transfer to another department if your company is big enough, or look for another opportunity.”