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For Love or Pink Slips: Why On-The-Job Nookie With The Boss Is A No-No

The Vault's 2007 survey on workplace romance found that 20 percent of workers admitted to dating a boss or other superior. Common sense says this is a bad idea. When at least one of the parties is married, it's a bad idea times ten.
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The American Red Cross announced yesterday it was letting go of Mark Everson, its president of a mere six months, after allegations that the married head of the charity had engaged in a "personal relationship" with a junior employee.

We all know what that means.

On the one hand, we don't want corporations to be the morals police. Extramarital stuff happens. If every person committing adultery with someone they met on the job got fired, no doubt the nation's unemployment rate would jump a few percentage points. After all, the Vault's 2007 survey on workplace romance found that one third of respondents knew of a married co-worker who had had extracurricular relations with a fellow employee.

On the other hand, what was Everson thinking?

When we researched our new book Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding - and Managing - Romance on the Job, we found that the vast majority of companies have no rules about dating in the workplace. Of the roughly one-quarter that do offer guidelines on office couplings, most of the verbiage is devoted to regulating boss/subordinate relationships. The phrase "conflict of interest" applies.

Regardless of the fact that The Vault also found that almost 20 percent of workers admitted to dating a boss or other superior, common sense says this is a bad idea. When at least one of the parties is married, it's a bad idea times ten. And when one of the participants is actually the head of the whole shebang...you get the picture.

In our book we write that there is only one reason--corny or not--to risk an affair with the boss: True Love. Why? Allegations of favoritism often surface in offices as a result of these relationships. Moreover, even the best, most well-behaved couple in this position is bound to make fellow employees uncomfortable. After all, would you want to be the supervisor who has to give a bad evaluation to the boss' main squeeze? We didn't think so.

People--even powerful people--can and do get fired for fooling around with the help. Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher was given his walking papers in 2005 after having an affair with a subordinate. Microsoft unloaded CIO Stuart Scott under similar circumstances earlier this month. Marketing whiz Julie Roehm lost her position at Wal-Mart late last year after an alleged romantic relationship with a junior employee.

The American Red Cross has been a troubled organization in recent years, and more turmoil at the top is the last thing this worthy charity needs. Its last two heads left amidst controversy over the organization's response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina respectively. Ironically Everson, who had only been on the job for six months, had won raves for the agency's handling of this fall's California wildfires.

We don't yet know who the employee is. It's not clear whether she reported directly to Everson or if the situation simply made colleagues uncomfortable. As of now there are no accusations of favoritism or harassment, although the latter seems unlikely, as a Red Cross spokeswoman told The New York Times there was no threat of a lawsuit.

No doubt more will be revealed in the next few days. But if Everson was fired expressly for committing adultery with a co-worker in spite of his objective success in his position, we'll be rather disappointed with the Red Cross. People do stupid things at the behest of their hearts. We don't need headline-making firings to serve as the modern-day version of The Scarlet A.