We Are All Getting Lucky

But we are not all the boss.

How’s that for a saucy invitation for romance? It’s called a love contract, and, OK, the words in brackets are mine, but this is about as sexy as a pig in garters, right? It’s a shortened version of a new kind of agreement, drafted by consultants at Workforce Management. In recent years, American companies have started introducing them for love- or lust-struck colleagues to protect themselves from embarrassing, expensive lawsuits. Walmart, Staples, and Boeing have all sacked employees after affairs with subordinates became public. (Click here to follow Julia Baird)

While we all keep arguing over whether we should care that geeky, gap-toothed comic David Letterman has had sex with women who work for him, this is one question we can’t seem to agree on: is it ever OK to have sex with someone who has power over you? Because Letterman and Stephanie Birkitt are not alone. The more companies have tried to clamp down on, control, and prevent office relationships, the more affairs have been blossoming. In 2006, a survey by career-research company Vault found almost 60 percent of employees in America confessed to having had an office relationship, up from 47 percent in 2003; 9 percent of those who had not had one said they wish they had.

In his book MicroTrends, pollster Mark Penn declared that “the office has become the 21st-century singles bar. Water is the next gin and tonic, and Muzak the new club beat.” Which is a very unsexy way to put it. But given the expanding number of women and singles in the workforce, and the surge in working hours for those ages 25 to 34, the office is going to become a crowded, if unflatteringly fluoro-lit, bar.

All of this is lovely, of course, if things don’t go sour, if subordinates are not exploited, if no one is coerced or harassed, and no favors handed out or penalties incurred. Which brings us to the Worldwide Pants man. We still don’t know what kind of environment his employees worked in, how many affairs he had, or if anyone cared that his bright-eyed assistant was also his lover. We don’t know if anyone resented her being given an on-air role. There have been no complaints. Whispers of a bevy of young lovers remain rumors: we still don’t know exactly what happened, who knew, and who cared. If this is just about infidelity, it’s none of our business.

What we do know is that Letterman described his own behavior as “creepy”: if this is not a throwaway word, it matters. Sexual-harassment claims have shot up alongside romances—by almost 11 percent, to 13,867 in 2008. Almost any working woman will have a tale to tell; crass comments, clumsy come-ons, abusive e-mails, furtive gropes. Most scowl and shrug; others are seriously affected. This is why CBS must investigate: to ensure there is indeed no evidence of harassment.

It is difficult to determine consent in an atmosphere where a charismatic man is revered for his power—without patronizing a younger woman (or man) who has fallen in love. Two critical tests: first, power balance. Your career should never be in the hands of someone you are regularly naked with. The second, frequency. The more colleagues an executive seduces or falls in love with, the more likely it is that the workplace will become snarky and hostile. Too often, when the boss beds the babe, it’s the woman who gets screwed. Letterman’s ratings are up, his advertising is intact, and he is still married—just. Birkitt is on paid leave, is being dogged by photographers, and will now be The Woman Dave Letterman Slept With.

Attempts to stamp out love in the workplace are futile and silly. But Lotharios can be toxic, and destructive. Sometimes a pig in garters is still a pig.