Letterman's Workplace Romances: No Big Deal?

PHOTO Love in the workplace is not always bad.AP Photos/Getty Images
Like David Letterman, center, CBS Corporation CEO Leslie Moonves, left, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, right, have dated and married their employees.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates did it. CBS president Les Moonves did it. And yes, even first lady Michelle Obama did it.

So should CBS late night talk show host -- and Moonves employee -- David Letterman be getting flak for dating lower-ranking workers? Probably not, some workplace experts say.


"Boss-subordinate relationships happen every day," said workplace relationship author Stephanie Losee. "It only blows up when public people are involved."

Letterman's past relationships with staffers came to light last week when, on his show, he alleged that a CBS News producer tried to extort $2 million by threatening to go public with information on the host's workplace liasons.

The news spurred ribbing from Letterman's late-night comedy peers as well as disaproval from critics who contend that relationships between bosses and employees are wholly inappropriate. Indeed, they can point to a slew of prominent examples of when such relationships -- sometimes in the form of extramarital affairs -- went awry, including those of former Sen. John Edwards, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, former WellPoint CFO David Colby, former Boeing Chief Executive Harry C. Stonecipher and President Bill Clinton.

Losee, the co-author with Helaine Olsen of "Office Mate: Your Employee Handbook for Romance on the Job," said that while she generally recommends against supervisors pursuing romance with their underlings, "at the same time, we are in no position to tell people what to do with their hearts."

Why Some Office Romances Work

Losee said that, the horror stories involving politicians and other famous figures notwithstanding, boss-subordinate romances often end in marriage -- 44 percent, according to a 2003 survey by American Management Association. That's not surprising, given the amount of consideration that often preceeds such relationships, she said.

"The risk is so much greater and people do give it a lot more thought before they get into" such a relationship, she said.

The sparks behind these and other office romances, she said, are similar to those in other relationships: common interests -- in these cases, professional interests -- and close friendships.

"You get to know this person under fire. You see them when they're challenged. You see them deal with colleagues. You see them when they're exhausted on a Monday and (you see) what is the content of their character," she said.

You know a great deal about them "before you ever go on a date," she said. "That's old-fashioned, not skeezy."

Noteable office romances that have resulted in marriage include those of Bill and Melinda Gates, Les Moonves and Julie Chen and President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Melinda Gates, then Melinda Ann French, maried Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 1994, seven years after she started working for Microsoft. The Obamas married in 1992, after Barack Obama worked as an intern for his future wife when she was an associate at a Chicago law firm. CBS Corp. CEO Moonves married CBS "Early Show" anchor Julie Chen in 2004.

Letterman himself can be included in the from-superior-to-spouse club: His wife, Regina Lasko, whom he married earlier this year, was once also a staffer on his show.

Experts say there are also plenty of boss-subordinate relationships that fizzle but avoid major workplace drama in the process.

"There have probably been more success stories than there are times when it went bad," said Sue Murphy, the manager of the National Human Resources Association in New Hampshire.

More Than One Office Romance Can Mean Trouble

Letterman's particular situation, of course, is far from ideal. He reportedly engaged in sexual affairs with staffers while also dating Lasko. On his show last night, the host acknowledged the pain he had caused Lasko, with whom he has a son.

"She has been horribly hurt by my behavior, and when something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it," he said. "And at that point, there's only two things that can happen: either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me."

The fact that Letterman dated more than one staffer also complicates matters, said Lisa J. Banks, a partner with the Washington, D.C., employment law firm Katz Marshall & Banks.

In an office in which a boss makes a habit of dating staff, other employees may "fear (they're) the next target," she said.

Other ways fellow employees may be affected by a boss-subordinate romance include the perceptions that the boss is favoring his or her romantic partner when it comes to work assignments or salary.

Sometimes such perceptions aren't unwarrranted. The National Human Resources Association's Murphy said that, at a previous job, she once had to fire two employees after one, a supervisor, falsified his girlfriend's timecard so she got paid for time she hadn't worked.

To avoid favoritism and the perception of favoritism, Murphy recommends that boss-subordinate couples should work to provide some distance between one another at the office.

Once they've determined that they're in a relationship for the long-haul, she said, it makes sense to disclose the relationship to a higher-ranking supervisor and request that one person be assigned to a different department so that one no longer has power over the other, she said.

Losee noted that some companies even ask dating employees to sign "love contracts" -- contracts where employees agree that their romantic relationships are consensual -- in an effort to shield themselves from sexual harassment complaints down the road.

No Sexual Harassment Complaints for Letterman

Banks said that in at least one sense, at least, Letterman's office romances could be considered successful because they didn't end in sexual harassment complaints.

There's been no suggestion that any of his relationships have been "unwelcome," she aid.

"People can criticize him for many things related to this, but it doesn't appear that sexual harassment is one of them," she said.