How Sex Hurts the Workplace, Especially Women

Sex in the workplace doesn't just hurt those parties involved. Sure, Mark Hurd's recent scandal produced three obvious casualties: Mark Hurd, Hewlett Packard and its shareholders, and even, to an extent, Jodie Fisher. But in the barrage of press attention since the news broke, little mention has been made of a large group of other casualties: high-achieving female executives.

Women's careers tend to stall out in upper-middle management and female executives need the support and sponsorship of C-suite men if they are to stand a chance of climbing the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. Sad to say, in the wake of the Hurd ouster, sponsorship is going to be in even shorter supply. However tangled the Hurd/Fisher narrative becomes, a large proportion of male leaders who read the story will have one and only one takeaway: "Poor guy was fired for dining alone with a junior woman. No one is even alleging a sexual relationship. How crazy is that! It makes me want to avoid ever being alone with a younger female colleague." So said one C-suite male I talked to.

All of which puts a crimp on sponsorship, a relationship which requires a senior executive to "use up chips" to help a high potential mid-level executive gain visibility, win plum assignments, and eventually get promoted. To take on a protégée — a serious commitment — a sponsor needs to get to know the candidate well and spend a significant time one-on-one (possibly even having dinner!) in order to assess his or her potential and decide whether he or she is worth backing.

Research out this fall from the Center for Work-Life Policy shows sponsorship to be the critical promotional lever for women in the marzipan layer, the layer just below the top layer of management. No matter how high achieving, an upper middle-level female executive will fail to find career traction unless she is sponsored by a powerful senior executive — who, more often than not, is male and married.

Which is where sex enters the picture. Consider some data from the CWLP study: Thirty-four percent of executive women who participated in the survey that underlies the new study claim that they know a female colleague who has had an affair with the boss. (Indeed 15% of women at the director level or above admitted to having had such an affair themselves!) They also perceive that these liaisons sometimes yield a payoff: of those who know of an illicit affair, 37% claim that the woman involved received a career boost as a consequence.

Despite this apparent upside for individual women, illicit sexual liaisons often backfire and wreak serious damage in the workplace. For example, they are hugely demoralizing for teams. The CWLP data show that 61% of men and 70% of women lose respect for a leader involved in an affair. Most poisonous of all, when a junior woman is having a sexual dalliance with the boss, 60% of male executives and 65% of female executives suspect that salary hikes and plum assignments are being traded for sexual favors. This can have a disastrous effect on morale and productivity. Forty-eight percent of men and 56% of women feel animosity towards the involved couple, and 39% of men and 37% of women see a fall off in productivity as the team splinters. Talk about collateral damage!

So what to do?

Corporations should play a much more proactive role. Companies have largely gotten out of the business of regulating office romances. According to the new CWLP data 70% of respondents either believe that their company has no policy regarding consensual office affairs or have no idea whether there is a policy in place or not. The time has come for rigorous, high-profile policies that punish offenders.

Our legal system could also use some fine tuning. Capping the size of settlements in sexual harassment cases and creating penalties for frivolous suits would go some distance. But individuals have a role to play too. C-suite men — particularly the married ones — need to finally knock it into their heads that leadership comes with responsibility and restraint. "Hitting on" a female colleague is never OK. And up-and-coming executive women need to exercise similar restraint. While the short term gains can be alluring, a sexual dalliance with a married boss is dangerous. Not only will such a relationship come back to bite you, it will wreak havoc far and wide.

It's not just about the parties involved anymore. Looking at the larger picture can show some dark times ahead for women in the workplace — something that should be stopped sooner rather than later.

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