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Romance (sex) in the workplace – the Letterman case


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Last week, television talk show host David Letterman acknowledged on his program that he had sexual relationships with several female employees and that someone tried to extort money from him under the threat of making the relationships public. Letterman referred the matter to the police and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and after an investigation, another employee of the Letterman’s broadcasting network, CBS, was arrested on attempted grand larceny. I don’t know about you but this is a great example of how romance (sex) in the workplace can go terribly wrong!

Tom Keaney, spokesman for Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, said Letterman is not in violation of the company’s harassment policy and no one has ever raised a complaint against him. CBS would not address questions about whether Letterman faced any disciplinary actions for relationships with subordinates. As reported by Cathal Kelly in the Toronto Star on October 4, Letterman seems to have so far escaped serious scrutiny of his workplace liaisons.

However, the Letterman case raises questions about romance and sex in the workplace.

Office romances are risky propositions for any employee, but more so for managers and people in positions of power. Such actions can have extensive negative and costly ramifications on the employer. Drawbacks include potential human rights discrimination and harassment claims, especially if one of the parties is in a supervisory position. Favouritism and reverse favouritism could come into play, where the employee in the affair is offered a position he doesn’t deserve, or another employee is denied an opportunity she rightfully deserves.

Almost 20 years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada in Janzen v. Platy Enterprises Ltd. recognized sexual harassment as a prohibited form of discrimination under human rights legislation. Stemming from this case, sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences for the victims of harassment.” The court decided that sexual harassment is an abuse of both economic and sexual power, exercised in a manner that offends the dignity of the affected employees. Sexual harassment might include a single incident of a serious nature or a series of incidents of a less serious nature—each alleged act of sexual harassment must be judged in its own context, with attention to the specific circumstances of the case.

In Janzen, Chief Justice Dickson relied on several studies to form the following examples: “that sexual harassment can manifest itself both physically and psychologically. In its milder forms it can involve verbal innuendo and inappropriate affectionate gestures. It can, however, escalate to extreme behaviour amounting to attempted rape and rape. Physically, the recipient may be the victim of pinching, grabbing, hugging, patting, leering, brushing against, and touching. Psychological harassment can involve a relentless proposal of physical intimacy, beginning with subtle hints which may lead to overt requests for dates and sexual favours. However, common to all of these descriptions of sexual harassment is the concept of using a position of power to import sexual requirements into the workplace thereby negatively altering the working conditions of employees who are forced to contend with sexual demands.”

As a result, we all know sexual harassment is illegal, but some consensual relationships may also be against company policies. Some employers spell out clear parameters about what’s acceptable and what’s not, especially between the boss and a direct report.

Nevertheless, and despite the above ruling and any company policy, office romances are going to happen. With all the hours we spend at work, working very closely with each other, with the boss putting emphasis on teams and collaborations—it’s unrealistic to assume that people won’t or don’t become attracted to one another. It happens. Many people meet their significant others at work. Legal considerations do not come into play when hormones run rampant.

Sometimes the relationship works out and the two employees live happily ever after. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. And in the latter cases, there are some very real risks that can cost the company and the employees in questions.

My questions are: is it possible to have an appropriate romance (or sexual relationship) at work? Can a romantic relationship with your boss ever be completely consensual? Is workplace romance ever a good idea? Can a policy really control such behaviours?

Yosie Saint-Cyr

Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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4 thoughts on “Romance (sex) in the workplace – the Letterman case
  • Yosie Saint-Cyr says:

    Very interesting, thanks to all of you for sharing your personal story. Does anyone else have a personal story to share?

  • Kathy says:

    In my previous company, a manager had a romantic relationship with his subordinate. Before long, everyone in the team knew about that and started to watch their manager to see if there was any favoritism or reverse favoritism. That female employee in question was in a junior role and needed quite a bit of help to compete with her peers who were all in a more senior position. Needless to say, the manager tried his best to help her and made a gravely mistake by promoting her to an intermediate role when her skills were not yet mature. One of the team member lodged a complain, an investigation was conducted and proof that favoritism existed, and the fact that the 2 people were not honest during the investigation led to both their termination by the company. We had a non-fraternization policy but that did not stop office romance, it just resulted in employees trying their best to hide their relationship leaving HR no opportunity to intervene on time and provide coaching to avoid costly mistakes later on. I don’t think policy will help prevent or control office romance, but it will certainly help from the legal side to take any necessary actions like transfer/ terminate the affected employee.

  • Lynn says:

    Romance (sex) in the work place, BAD IDEA. Here’s what happened in this office. Both people were already married to others. They thought their \romance\ was a secret. I believe the female partner in the relationship knew what she was doing was wrong and it bothered her so she took her feelings out as anger towards another co-worker.
    One person in the \relationship\ was a manager and one wasn’t. The manager is still an employee. The female partner was \laid off\.
    It should have been the manager who was terminated, but that’s not usually how it goes.

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