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The Business of Love

From corporations to the military, policymakers wonder how to react to romance in the ranks. The wrong tack can invite lawsuits--and big jury awards.


WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon rethinks its rules governing military romance, the brass might ponder one California company's experience attempting to regulate love in the workplace.

Citing an infraction of policy, Rohr Inc. of Chula Vista canned its personnel director and a lower-ranking manager after an eight-month office romance. Lots of companies might have objected to such a relationship, but in 1992 a jury found Rohr's action unfair--and awarded $4 million--since the company had 34 other couples in its upper ranks that Rohr acknowledged were carrying on romantically.

Rohr's case is one example of how civilian employers have stumbled trying to control office romance. Just as in the armed forces, civilian employers have been frustrated by the difficulty of enforcing policies that don't violate privacy rules or basic tenets of fairness.

The military, which holds that battle-line discipline requires such restrictions, is now reconsidering its restrictions amid ongoing furor over Air Force 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn. Flinn, 26, the first female B-52 bomber pilot, is scheduled to go to court-martial Tuesday on adultery and other charges, although a settlement could put the matter to rest before then.

As more women have entered the services, the military has felt obliged to step up its policing of romance in the ranks. The military bars anyone in uniform from taking part in an adulterous relationship and prohibits "fraternization"--close relationships, either sexual or platonic--between different ranks.

Civilian employers once tried to do the same but have been in retreat for years.

Many companies have scrapped broad policies against consensual affairs, married couples and adultery. In their place they have often put narrow rules that discourage romance between boss and employee, and try to judge other relationships solely on the lovers' work performance.

Even so, many end up quietly ignoring their rules when occasions arise.

"You can write any rules, make any regulations, but it's not going to be effective--because you're dealing with human beings," says Cliff Palefsky, a San Francisco attorney. "You can't regulate love."

Through much of the 1960s, the consensus among employers was that workplace love was a mistake. A successful romance could breed charges of favoritism, and an unsuccessful romance could rend an office with squabbling and dissension.

No less than Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, called love at work a taboo.

When Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire and two-time presidential contender, ran Electronic Data Systems, he barred office romances and boasted of firing couples for adultery.

These days, EDS, sold by Perot years ago, discourages romances between manager and subordinate, but has nothing that qualifies as rules, says EDS official Diane Coffman. Indeed, about 10% of EDS employees are now married to each other, she pointed out, adding that EDS considers romance to be, in most circumstances, "not any concern of the company's."

Experts say one of the biggest problems is writing a policy that can be applied consistently to all--including those in the executive suite and the big producers that the company believes it can't live without.

Inconsistency is a huge threat to any rules, because it can kill the morale of the rank and file, and can prompt juries to rule against management.

Robertson, Stephens & Co., a San Francisco investment firm, has a policy that strongly discourages office romances and declares that employees may be disciplined if a boss-subordinate relationship brings on a lawsuit.

But some legal experts say the policy may hurt company morale and could be rejected by a jury in a sexual harassment suit, considering that three top executives are married to women they met at the firm.

In an illustration of the weird twists such policies often take, Robertson, Stephens officials say that while they frown on office romances, they are all in favor of ones that succeed. "Clearly, if people have a . . . successful relationship, and they get married, more power to them," says Dana Welch, the firm's general counsel.


ABC, owned by family-oriented Walt Disney Co., has taken a public relations clobbering lately because of an acknowledged adulterous romance between news-division boss David Westin and former subordinate Sherry Rollins, an ABC public relations executive and the wife of GOP consultant Ed Rollins.

Oracle Systems, the software company, had a particular problem with romances because of its billionaire founder's habit of courting subordinates.

Lawrence J. Ellison has acknowledged three office romances, the last of which ended in a long-running sexual harassment suit. (It was finally resolved with the complainant, Adelyn Lee, judged guilty of fraudulently creating an e-mail message to win her suit.)

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