Ray Kroc and Robert Noyce were titans of mid-century American business: one turned McDonald’s into a fast food empire, the other founded chipmaker Intel and became known as the “mayor of Silicon Valley”.
Both found love at work. Mr Kroc with Joan Smith, the wife of a South Dakota McDonald’s franchisee, and Mr Noyce with Ann Bowers, his head of personnel at Intel. The relationships in the 1960s and 1970s had little bearing on the men’s careers.
Attitudes have changed. Last year Intel’s chief executive Brian Krzanich left the company after an office relationship. This week McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook was fired after he “violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment” by engaging in a relationship with a colleague.
As boardrooms and human resource departments reckon with the MeToo revolution, the rules of sexual engagements are being rewritten, especially for those at the top.
Last year more chief executives were removed for ethical lapses than poor company performance, according to PwC — for the first time since its survey of the world’s largest 2,500 companies started in 2000. Today, romantic liaisons are often considered to be a firing offence.
Yet there is no uniform standard to romantic relationships at work. While Intel now takes a hard line, its Silicon Valley neighbour Alphabet, parent of Google, has taken a more permissive stance towards the amorous activity of some of its senior staff.
David Drummond, the internet company’s top lawyer for 15 years and an early ally of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, is still employed by Alphabet despite his admission to a relationship with a former co-worker with whom he had a child. He was named on Thursday by Equilar as the best-paid general counsel in the US, with a $47m pay package last year.
Mr Brin left his wife after having an affair with a Google employee. And Eric Schmidt, who was Google’s chairman at the time, also had a close relationship with a fellow worker.
As rank-and-file workers have protested against alleged harassment incidents, Google has made concessions over its handling of future allegations. John Hennessy, a former president of Stanford University, took over from Mr Schmidt as chairman in 2018, and earlier this year — after receiving lawsuits — the board set up a special committee of directors to investigate the harassment claims.
Most companies with explicit policies forbid supervisors from dating those they manage. A relationship with a supervisor opens the possibility of unfair favourable treatment when things are going well, and career sabotage after an acrimonious break-up.
“It’s always a total no-no,” said Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli. “It’s terrible, there’s just no upside to this.”
The consequences can spill over to others. In 2012, Best Buy’s chief executive Brian Dunn, then 51, was fired for a relationship with a 29-year-old employee. An internal review found that his perceived favouritism had undermined her supervisor’s ability to manage her and damaged company morale.
“This is not the sex police, but can you both date and have authority over someone’s career?” said Joan Williams, a University of California law professor. “The employer should bend over backwards to make sure that the woman’s career is not disadvantaged.”
When such relationships are disclosed, however, the often-female junior employee is moved elsewhere in the company to the detriment of her career.
Jennifer Blakely, whom Mr Drummond dated at Google, wrote in a blog post in August that she had been forced to move from the legal department to sales, where she had no experience, and eventually left the company. Mr Drummond responded at the time to say there were “two sides” to the story and he took “a very different view about what happened”.
Moira Weigel, a Harvard researcher, said that the correct approach was to home in on disparities in power. “If my intern makes an inappropriate sexual comment to me, it does not threaten me like when my boss does. It’s tied up in power relations and economic power,” she said.
Even relationships between workplace equals can go awry. Google and Facebook allow employees to ask coworkers out — but only once, to avoid claims of harassment.
There remain plenty of happy outcomes from work romances. Thomas Kessler, a lawyer, met his now-husband five years ago at New York-based law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. “It’s nice to have a partner who understands your work life on a very specific level. You understand the politics of the office. It’s easier to feel supported when they know the job,” he said.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at The Kinsey Institute, said: “These people are on the same schedule, wearing the same clothes, have the same hours, have the same stresses and pressures, have the same goals . . . The office is a Petri dish for romance.”
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