SAN DIEGO — Phillip Hunsaker is an expert in organizational psychology, but he had never seen a case like this. For lack of a more lurid label, call it office romance.
Called in to restructure a company, Hunsaker soon found almost-mutinous employees casting aspersions on management. The president of an Orange County insurance firm and a new department head were engaging in office romance. One of those most upset was another department head--the president's former mistress.
"I couldn't figure out why everyone was so unhappy," said Hunsaker, who teaches business at the University of San Diego in between writing books on organizational behavior. "And then it was all crystal clear."
Hunsaker deemed this episode in office romance--which he calls a booming problem in American business--a prime source of plummeting morale. He found productivity dropping sharply, while a growing preoccupation with the boss' love life took its place. Worst of all, many employees felt sabotaged by the rise of an ex-stewardess who in their eyes held an unfair, unethical advantage.
They Were All Married
Adding to the sense of outrage, he said, was the fact that the president and his current mistress, as well as his former lover, were all married. Many employees felt a sense of shame, he said, that the head of the company (in Freudian terms, a kind of father figure) would so cavalierly flaunt an extramarital affair. The shame was made worse, he said, by many who felt exposed for having revealed their own values.
In short, a loathsome situation was worsened, he said, by the paranoia and powerlessness felt by employees.
Intrigued by the whole affair (pun unintended), Hunsaker conducted a study with then-USD graduate student Carolyn Anderson. Their survey culminated in a magazine piece, cogently titled, "Why There's Romancing at the Office and Why It's Everybody's Problem."
Hunsaker and Anderson say it's worse than they feared.
"You could see it was having a tremendous impact on the company," Hunsaker said. "Five years ago no one would have addressed these problems. In the old days, if a woman was involved with the boss and something went wrong, she was fired. How hard was it to fire a secretary? Nowadays, a woman is more likely a vice president or department head. And it's never easy to get rid of the problem."
In "the old days," say, 5 to 10 years ago, a masters class in business administration would net one or two women, Hunsaker said. Now MBA classes are filled with equal numbers of men and women.
The Hunsaker-Anderson questionnaire focused on the role that proximity plays in an office where men and women interact constantly. Their third-party sampling polled 175 white-collar employees in a fleet of companies in Southern California. Each was asked to elaborate on the office romance he or she had most closely observed. Only "observers" were interviewed, since Hunsaker and Anderson were sure that they would never get honest answers from principals, particularly those in extramarital affairs.
Much of what they found was fascinating, even startling. The most unusual finding was that the reality of an office romance didn't matter--it was the illusion that one was happening that lit up a company like a small-town switchboard. Appearances were even more threatening, especially with a boss involved.
In an article published in the magazine of the American Management Assn., the authors concluded that organizations are natural breeding grounds for romantic involvements. Structured settings put people in "close proximity and create the interaction necessary for establishing intimate relationships," they wrote.
"With people committed to working together, there is a desire to like the other person, if only because a pleasant work environment is more rewarding than an unpleasant one."
Unfortunately, the line between friendship and romance in such settings is often lipstick thin, Hunsaker said. However, not all office liaisons are counterproductive--to those involved or to the company.
Despite consequences, office romances are as natural as benign flirtation, the authors found. "When people feel anxious, afraid, lonely or unsure of themselves," they wrote, "the mere presence of another can be rewarding, because camaraderie mitigates negative feelings."
Sixty-two percent of organizational romances were found to involve a man "in a higher position." In only 30% of the cases were the man and woman at the same job level. In 68% of the romances, participants worked in the same vicinity; in 94% of the cases, they shared an office or adjoining suites. In cases where the man held the higher position, 44% shared an office or adjoining work spaces.
Eighty-six percent of those interviewed admitted to being exposed to more than one office romance.
In the 1980s, with new morality and the sexual revolution in full flower, why are such liaisons threatening?