Corporate America Confused About Workplace Dating

March 8, 2005 — -- The case of former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher is rare: a chief executive fired after having a consensual affair with a female colleague who didn't even report directly to him.

Most companies have tough sexual harassment rules, but they usually tolerate or turn a blind eye to consensual sexual relationships -- such as the one that developed between Phil Lockwood and Sarah Walling, two former co-workers at a Denver technology consulting company.

Lockwood and Walling started dating after spending time together at an office ski outing. The two were laid off following the tech bust and are now married.

"Young people, we all work more than we ever have before," said Walling. "We're single. Inevitably, there will be relationships."

Merrick Rossein, a law professor at City University of New York in Flushing, estimates 25 percent of companies in recent years have developed policies on consensual relationships among colleagues.

"The number one thing that they stipulate is that they don't want supervisors and subordinates dating each other because of the conflicts that can arise," said Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management Inc. and an ABC News financial contributor.

The Xerox corporation, for example, has a policy that prohibits two co-workers from dating if one reports to another. If they are in manger-subordinate roles, they must inform management and have their positions changed.

Confused and Contradictory

Overall, however, workplace experts say, corporate America is confused and contradictory on this issue.

"Some companies just don't manage consensual relations at all," said sexual harassment attorney Kathleen Peratis. "They just freak out and don't know what to do."

Stonecipher was not fired for having an extramarital affair, but for potentially embarrassing Boeing. He reportedly sent his lover graphic e-mails that could potentially have become public.

He is the second Boeing CEO to leave in the past 15 months. Given that Stonecipher was hired to clean up Boeing's image after a series of ethical scandals, he has acknowledged the firing was justified.

In a recent interview, Stonecipher told The Wall Street Journal: "We set -- hell, I set -- a higher standard here. I violated my own standards. In the end, this is not about the affair itself. This is about the judgment of Harry Stonecipher."

Some worry public scrutiny is growing too intense at a time when some CEOs have become embroiled in corporate scandals, and others such as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates have become pop icons. (Gates, incidentally, met his wife, Melinda, while she was a project manager at the company.)

Said W. Michael Hoffman of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College: "We don't want business ethics to degenerate into a sort of ethical McCarthyism."

ABC News' Dan Harris filed this report for "World News Tonight."