GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH COUPLES IN THE WORKPLACE Is love in the air at your office? A slew of social trends are converging to encourage romance at work as never before. Surprising new research shows that this may be good for productivity.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – LIBIDO 1. The vital impulse or energy motivating human behavior...2. The sexual urge; lust. -- New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language
HERE'S SOMETHING you may not know about your company's CEO. If he's at all like the 200 chief executives surveyed this past August by Clark Martire & Bartolomeo for FORTUNE, he is an unabashed romantic. That is to say, he believes in letting love between employees take its course, even if office amours may occasionally give rise to trouble. And if that is indeed your boss's view, he's onto something. A growing body of academic research suggests that sexual attraction between co-workers, whether or not it is acted upon, may boost people's productivity on the job. If two employees marry, the company where they work often ends up getting a terrific deal, including higher levels of job commitment from both spouses than from folks whose mates toil elsewhere. Most remarkable is that nearly three-quarters of the CEOs in FORTUNE's poll said that romances between workers are "none of the company's business." This even though 86% acknowledged that such goings-on can increase the possibility of favoritism, either real or perceived, and 77% noted that consensual flings that turn sour can expose the company to the threat of sexual harassment lawsuits. Perhaps the willingness of CEOs to smile upon love at work, regardless of the perceived risks, is in part accepting the inevitable: More than half the chief executives surveyed said they have noticed more married couples at the office lately than ten years ago. Muses George P. Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp.: "People meet and get married, and you can't really stop that. It's the way the world goes." Charles A. Sullivan, CEO of Interstate Bakeries Corp., says, "We don't have a problem with couples. In fact, we've found that father-son or mother-daughter employee situations are much more troublesome." Other bosses see a sharp distinction between lovebirds who have settled calmly into a shared nest and those still caught up in the flurry of mating rituals. "It's not marriage between employees that causes trouble," says Orin Smith, chief executive of Engelhard Corp. "It's what leads up to it." Ah. Who, indeed, hasn't had the dubious pleasure of working alongside a twosome in the first flush of passion, when the very air seems charged with fond whispers and meaningful glances? Once in a while the results can be explosive. Anybody who followed the business press in the early Eighties recalls the epic saga of William Agee, then CEO of Bendix Corp., and Mary Cunningham, an MBA in her late 20s who moved with stunning speed into top management. She later married the boss. Bendix employees, to say nothing of Agee's wife at the time, bitterly resented the long hours Agee and Cunningham spent closeted together, supposedly creating a corporate strategy that no one else, including other senior Bendix managers and the board of directors, ever quite understood. In the end, Cunningham was forced out of the company. Agee is now CEO of Morrison Knudsen. A number of social trends are enabling romance at work to flourish as never before. Despite the odd Agee-esque exception, that is probably not a bad thing. In an era when leaner organizations and new ways of working add up to longer hours for many people, work may be the natural place to meet a potential mate. Says a female investment banker who commutes regularly between London and Manhattan: "The social scene is pretty dead now, because AIDS and other worries have made people afraid of meeting strangers. Besides, who has time to go out?" People who work together have, almost by definition, similar backgrounds, talents, and aspirations. And as women move into middle and upper management, they and their male co-workers are more likely than ever to interact as peers. Microsoft, where multibillionaire CEO Bill Gates wed marketing executive Melinda French last January, is in several respects a prototypical Nineties workplace. The company's Seattle headquarters has at least a dozen married couples who met and courted during their 18-hour workdays. Says Stephen Manes, co-author of Gates, a book on Microsoft and its founder: "In that kind of intense work environment, you not only practically live at the office, but you get to use your brains on each other, which is really the most erotic thing there is."
IN TIMES OF STRESS, love can be great for a couple's morale. Pamela and Louis Schuckman both work for Accountants on Call, an executive recruiting firm with headquarters in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. "We never have to question each other's motives," says Pam. "In an intensely competitive business, how many of your colleagues can you say are behind you 100% and sincerely want you to succeed?" Mike Cawley and his wife, Lois, are part of a management team building an auto parts plant in Mexico for their employer, Parker Hannifin. "Headquarters gives us a lot of support," says Mike. "But the stress of starting a new plant in an unfamiliar culture would be much greater if we didn't have each other to rely on." The spark of attraction between colleagues need not lead to romance. Whether it does or not, it can light a fire under productivity. David Eyler, a senior staff member at the National Center for Higher Education in Washington, D.C., is co-author of a book titled More Than Friends, Less Than Lovers: Managing Sexual Attraction in the Workplace. His consulting experience in scores of companies has led him to believe that most of what people think they know about how men and women interact at work is, quite simply, wrong. Many misconceptions may arise from a lingering, and peculiarly American, strain of Puritanism -- what H.L. Mencken once described as the deep, dark suspicion that somebody somewhere is having fun. One canard is that if work partners are drawn to one another for more than professional reasons, they'll be too distracted to get the job done. Au contraire, according to Eyler: "Sexual energy can drive people into a better working relationship. It doesn't have to be destructive." Rather, by sublimating sexual tension and directing it to the task at hand, men and women can forge dynamic and enduring teams. "Work is fundamentally one of the sexiest things that people can do together," Eyler says, "and it's high time we started taking advantage of all that energy in some constructive way." Recent academic research bears him out. Leola Furman, an associate professor of social work at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, studied the faculty in eight departments at five Midwestern colleges. She compared the work of teams of both male and female members with those made up of all men or all women. She found that, without exception, the mixed-sex teams were faster and more imaginative at problem solving than the single-sex groups. She concluded that sexual tension in the mixed teams made people try harder to understand and help one another -- and maybe to impress one another too. Furman did note differences in attitudes between men and women who admitted they felt sexual attraction toward each other but who had decided, usually because they were married to others, to keep their friendships with co-workers strictly platonic. "Women tend to know in their minds that this is going to remain a platonic relationship," says Furman. "Men are somewhat more inclined to think, 'If we keep getting along this well, it could turn into something physical.'" Still, even the men in Furman's study who entertained such fancies kept them to themselves. Says Furman: "As people get more accustomed to working closely with colleagues of the opposite sex, they realize that they don't have to act on their impulses. It's part of being a professional adult." When unattached professional adults do give their amorous impulses free rein, the impact on the organization is usually slight. James Dillard, director of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has done several detailed studies of how office romances affect both the productivity of the two workers involved and that of the people around them. His conclusion: "The most likely thing that will happen to productivity is nothing -- no change." The second most likely effect, he found, is a positive one. People who are in love with a colleague often begin coming to work earlier and leaving later. They also embrace work with a new fervor and show an unwonted burst of enthusiasm for life in general.
Once co-workers have married, they snuggle into a routine, centered on the company, that allows them to get the most possible work done with the least amount of fuss and bother. Richard Levin, a psychologist who is chairman of Work-Life Enterprises in Brookline, Massachusetts, says that in his consulting practice he sees a growing number of "totally efficient couples." They commute to work together in the morning, drop off a child or two at a company- sponsored day-care center, and go off to their jobs. Often they have lunch together to hash over the details of family chores or to compare notes on what's happening at work, or simply to spend an hour enjoying each other's company. At the end of the day they head home together. A practical advantage to the company is that two heads really are better than one. The Schuckmans, who grew up near each other in New Jersey, first met in San Diego two years ago, at a Superstars junket for Accountants on Call's highest achievers. Pam, now 28, eventually moved to the West Coast to be with Lou, 32, and they've been married for nine months. Lou is a branch manager in San Jose, Pam a supervisor 17 miles away in Palo Alto. They often sit talking until ten or 11 at night about what's going on at work. Says Pam: "We both know all the players and all the issues involved, so we can bounce ideas off each other without having to go through a lot of preliminary explanations." Lou's more extensive experience negotiating compensation packages for his clients has helped Pam make better deals for hers. He seeks out her views too, and says of their late-night confabs: "No matter how well you know a particular situation, you can still get a really unexpected answer." It helps that the Schuckmans' union has the endorsement of their employer. Accountants on Call was begun in 1979 by a husband-and-wife team, Stewart and Dory Libes, who still run it. The privately held company, which now has 65 branch offices, including one each in Canada, Australia, and England, is the second largest of its kind in the world. An in-house newsletter item announcing the Schuckmans' nuptials read, "The couple that bills together, thrills together." Or how about the couple that builds auto parts together? In Monterrey, Mexico, about 160 miles south of the Texas border, Mike and Lois Cawley are part of the management team starting a new plant that makes air-conditioner components for customers GM and Chrysler. The Cawleys' employer, Cleveland- based Parker Hannifin Corp., takes marriages between employees so much in stride that the human-resources department has even coined a name for in-house couples: Parker-Parkers. Nobody is quite sure how many there are, but a good guess is 300. Again, marriage is something of a company tradition. The $2.5- billion-a-year manufacturer of motion-control devices was founded by Arthur Parker in 1918. He married his secretary, Helen. Their son Patrick is now chairman of the board. Like the Schuckmans, the Cawleys met at an off-site wingding. At the time, Lois, now 40, lived in Dallas. When she transferred to headquarters in Ohio a couple of years later, she and Mike, 39, started dating. They married four years ago. Her background is in quality control and management training; he's an engineer. "Our skills happen to mesh so well that the company probably would have sent us both to Mexico whether we were married or not," says Lois. "But as it is, they get a 'twofer' -- moving one family down here instead of two."
PSYCHOLOGISTS and consultants who have studied couples like the Schuckmans and the Cawleys say they are typical, in that their unions work to the good of both them and their employers. But before you rush down the aisle with your favorite colleague, be aware that the experts are unanimous on one further point: In cases where someone must pay the price of a conflict between love and work, the couple -- not the company -- is most often the loser. Being part of a twofer can damage a manager's career if higher-ups stop seeing him or her as an individual. In FORTUNE's poll of CEOs, 53% cited this as a potential hazard, particularly since circumstances sometimes dictate it. "We recently had a situation where we promoted and transferred a wife. Her husband accepted a lower position to accommodate the change," reports Kerry Killinger, chief executive of Washington Mutual Savings Bank in Seattle. N. Elizabeth Fried, a consultant and author of the book Sex, Laws & Stereotypes, says such threats to connubial bliss can be hard for corporate couples to avoid: "Once you're half of a pair, it is sometimes an unspoken, unconscious assumption that you really don't have two separate-but-equal careers anymore." Just ask Patricia Alcorn, 46. She and her former husband spent two decades working side by side. They built a Midwest-based trade association from a tiny outfit with ten employees into an influential research organization with $15 million in annual revenues and a staff of 80. The couple divorced in May 1991. In September disaster struck. The association was accused of overbilling the government for staffers' time on some research projects funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. Alcorn's ex-husband, who was then executive director, was fired. Shortly later, he was convicted of fraud and served a six-month prison term. Alcorn, who wasn't involved in any malfeasance and had been completely in the dark about her ex-husband's, spent 18 months with a phalanx of lawyers trying to resolve the government's claims. She also helped the board of directors recruit a new chief. A few months after he took over, he fired her. "The board kept assuring me, through all the legal trouble, that they saw me as an individual," Alcorn says. "But clearly that wasn't true. Employers will see you as a unit when it suits them to do so, and not when it doesn't." Alcorn says, for example, that when she or her former mate approached the board for a raise or a bonus, decisions were made based on their combined household income, even when their individual pay was modest compared with that of other trade association executives. Bill and Linda Moore were both managers at Digital Equipment Corp., where they had met in 1980, before starting their own separate businesses several years ago. They say that being treated as Siamese twins was uncomfortable for them too, although they left DEC for other, unrelated reasons. Both worked in marketing, and at one point reported to the same senior executive. But Linda's star rose more quickly than Bill's, and by the time they quit, she outranked him by several notches. Recalls Bill, 41: "Being married to Linda was like being a rich person. If someone was particularly nice to me, I'd find myself wondering, 'Does this person actually like me, or do I, via Linda, have something they want?' " What Bill had was access to higher-level information that his peers could only guess at. He also felt increasingly discontented with the way DEC was handling a variety of problems, and he worried that his criticisms would hurt Linda's career: "We were both aware that anything either of us did would rub off on the other. When I felt decisions were wrong-headed, I felt I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying so. I didn't want to embarrass her."
ADDS LINDA: "Our being married to each other, in such a huge company, had no negative effect on DEC whatsoever. It did have a big effect on us, though."And on their two small daughters. In a company-centered family, the company can become far more all important and all consuming than in marriages where husband and wife work for different enterprises. Because the Moores understood each other's jobs so thoroughly, they frequently let the demands of the business -- say, an out-of-town trip on short notice -- take precedence over the quite different imperatives of family life: a Little League game, a piano recital, the untimely death of a gerbil, what the kid said to the moon when he thought you weren't listening. Now, with each of the executive Moores happily working at a different company, their schedules are under their own control. They see more of their children. They even have long conversations that are blessedly unrelated to work. One question you should ask yourself before you wed a company colleague, / especially if both of you are high-profile executives, is, How much do you value your privacy? When Joni Evans, then an associate publisher at Simon & Schuster, married longtime chairman Richard Snyder (recently fired by Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone), it's safe to assume that neither expected to see details of their sex life turn up in the pages of legal journals. Yet that is what happened after the couple split up in 1987. They had married nine years earlier in characteristic workaholic fashion, at City Hall in Manhattan during their lunch hour. So it wasn't without irony that Snyder later blamed the demise of the marriage on Evans's obsession with books, authors, and manuscripts. He complained during the court proceedings that Evans was too busy working even to go with him to a movie. In 1979, Evans began building her own imprint, Linden Press, within S&S. Over the following six years, she made it into a topnotch operation with best- sellers by well-known authors like Helen Gurley Brown, Jeffrey Archer, and John Gregory Dunne. One of her talents as an editor was in coaxing prominent people to write their memoirs -- including erstwhile Bendix whiz kid Mary Cunningham. In 1985, Evans was promoted to president of Simon & Schuster's trade book division. She was legendary for her dedication, and former S&S colleagues say that her marriage to the chairman made no difference in the way the business ran. Recalls an editor: "People didn't defer to her because of Dick. She wouldn't have liked that. They had offices on the same floor, and you'd see her waiting in line outside his door to see him, just like everyone else. They left their personal life at home."
BUT ONCE their divorce made news, little was left to the imagination. At issue in the suit, which divorce attorneys regarded as a landmark case, was money, and lots of it. Evans maintained that she was entitled to a chunk of Snyder's wealth, about $18 million in all, because she had played so large a part in Simon & Schuster's success. Snyder for his part asserted that since he had sponsored her rise to publishing stardom, he should get a piece of all her future earnings. The proceedings became so vitriolic that the pair even fought about visitation rights to their dog, an ailing schnauzer named Calvin. The court eventually denied both spouses' demands and divided the marital assets pretty much down the middle. But to arrive at a determination of whether Evans and Snyder had a real marriage under New York State law or were simply two professionals who shared some high-priced real estate, the judge in the case was obliged to ask for specifics about their, um, conjugal relations. When the judge asked when was the last time she and Snyder had had sex, Evans said matter-of-factly, "July 4, 1986." By the time she testified, Evans had quit Simon & Schuster for rival Random House and so was spared having to look S&Sers in the eye when the tabloids got hold of the story. She has since moved on to the William Morris Agency. Although she gave several reasons for leaving what she called her "family" at Simon & Schuster, Evans did say that working with Snyder had simply become too painful. To hear her former colleagues tell it, that was the publishing house's loss. Says one, wistfully: "She was so terrific. It just hasn't been the same without her." Even far less spectacular split-ups have the potential to send tremors through an organization. For this reason and others, a few companies over the years have attempted to impose rules that prohibit all romantic relationships between employees, usually by requiring one party to seek employment elsewhere. Such policies now are rare, largely because of privacy laws in many states. Wal-Mart used to fire anybody who committed adultery with a fellow worker. Last year it sacked a New York woman, who had a legal separation, and her boyfriend, who was single. Although every state technically prohibits adultery, the stricture usually doesn't apply to people with legal separations. New York State attorney general Robert Abrams successfully sued Wal-Mart on the grounds that an employer is prohibited by New York law from sticking its nose into employees' private lives, as long as what they are doing is not illegal outside the workplace. Now Wal-Mart, like some other companies, including Parker Hannifin, turns a blind eye to anybody dating anybody with just one exception: To prevent either the appearance or the reality of favoritism between sweethearts, one of the two may not be in a direct supervisory position over the other. Beyond that, most human-resource departments make no attempt to stay the hand of Cupid. (They do, of course, strictly prohibit the kind of unwelcome, one-sided pursuit that is sexual harassment.) In a survey of its membership three years ago, the Society for Human Resource Management (formerly known as the American Society for Personnel Administration) found that 92% had no policy at all regarding love at work. Over 70% said that indeed they "permit , and accept" it, while only a tiny 1.5% minority were bent on banning romance. Such tolerance is partly because nobody wants a Wal-Martstyle suit. But human-resource managers also recognize that, as researcher James Dillard points out, "Human beings are each unique, and their relationships are infinitely various. It would be a mistake to try and prevent a few isolated problems by making restrictions that cover everybody." Or, as Garrison Keillor implored the National Press Club in a speech last spring in Washington, D.C.: "Let us be careful not to make a world so fine and good that none of us can enjoy living in it." Telling people with whom they may fall in love is, well, futile. It's like explaining golf to your dog. He will gaze respectfully at you and then, as soon as you have stopped talking, grab the ball and run gleefully into the woods with it. Corporations are evolving. As the old lifetime-employment guarantee fades into history, employees -- particularly the best and brightest ones -- are less willing to let a company dictate the terms of their private lives. Even with the divorce rate at decidedly postOzzie-and-Harr iet levels, a marriage these days is likely to last longer than a job. It may be more satisfying too, a bulwark of comfort in a swelling sea of economic uncertainty. The 1.5% of employers still struggling to wrestle Eros to the ground will find, if they haven't already, that they can no more stamp out sex than they can enforce rules against gossip, day-dreaming, or wine with lunch. Life on the job is full of such glorious distractions. Would we really want it any other way?
Do you think that having married couples working at the same company is good or bad for productivity? GOOD 8% BAD 16% DOESN'T MATTER 63% NOT SURE 13%
Which of the following pairs of statements comes closest to your own view? If an unmarried couple is discreet, an 79% office romance is not a company concern Since an office romance has the 19% potential to affect productivity, morale, and even sexual harassment suits, it is the company's business Not sure / no answer 2%
Couples working together, whether married 39% or unmarried, can undermine productivity Couples working together can 29% increase productivity Either / both 22% Not sure / no answer 10%
Do you approve or disapprove of office romances between unmarried employees -- or would you say it is none of the company's business?
APPROVE 3% DISAPPROVE 12% NONE OF COMPANY'S BUSINESS 70% NOT SURE 15%
Do you agree or disagree with each of the following?
AGREE DISAGREE NOT SURE Office romances increase the 86% 13% 1% possibility of favoritism or the appearance of favoritism
Office romances can create an 78% 21% 1% unbusinesslike appearance
Office romances expose the company 77% 20% 3% to the danger of sexual harassment suits
Given the number of hours managers 51% 46% 3% spend in the office nowadays, office romances are inevitable
The incidence of office romance has 35% 39% 26% increased in the past ten years
In the long run, office romances 21% 75% 4% inevitably result in problems for the company
When an office romance develops, 17% 78% 5% one of the parties should leave the company voluntarily
Can marriage to a colleague damage a manager's career?
YES 53% NO 46% NOT SURE 1%