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December 2, 2009

Sleeping with the Boss

Call it the Letterman Effect: Monique El-Faizy explores the darker side of having an affair with the guy in the corner office.
Which late-night talk-show host would you sleep with? Vote here!

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It's not unusual for an ambitious young attorney to curry favor with her law firm's higher-ups by fetching them coffee and plying them with office gossip over happy-hour cocktails. But when Lisa Scarso, a tall, coltish 29-year-old lawyer for a scrappy Bay Area public interest firm, invited her supervising attorney to lunch, she wasn't trying to get in good with the boss — she was trying to bed him. "He had these beautiful eyes" — one bluish-green, the other brown — "and that was kind of it for me," she recalls. Their flirt-filled lunch was soon followed by another, and while walking the long way back to the office, they ducked into a Laundromat, where Scarso hopped up on a dryer to make her case, eye to eye. Her boss was decidedly skittish. Though he was single and only five years older than Scarso, an office romance with an underling was considered taboo by the senior partners — never mind that it would obliterate his credibility with his other charges. Over dinner later that week — "I remember talking him into it," Scarso laughs — he relented, and the pair began to discreetly see each other. For fun, she'd slip into his office, sit on his lap, unbutton her shirt, and put his face between her breasts. All the while, she insists, her colleagues suspected nothing.

As attracted as she was to him, Scarso concedes that the subterfuge, coupled with the sheer ballsiness of their affair, was a major turn-on. "I never felt that there was a power disparity. If anything, I felt more powerful, if only because very often I was the initiator," says Scarso, who eventually left the firm for unrelated reasons. Only then did she make public her relationship with the attorney, whom she ultimately stayed with for five years before they amicably parted ways. Besides, she adds, for a young, attractive woman pulling 12-hour days in the office, the relationship was exceedingly practical. "People sleep with who they have access to. You become attracted to who you see on a daily basis."

True enough, sex in the workplace is rampant. According to a recent survey by careerbuilder.com, more than 40 percent of workers admit to dating someone at work over the course of their careers. Of those who romanced a colleague in the last year, 34 percent said it was with someone in a higher position at the company, typically their boss. (More often than not, it's women hooking up with a male supervisor — 47 percent versus just 38 percent of men.) The workplace has become a sexually charged arena, populated by neatly pressed cadres of driven men and women putting in long hours side by side, often under intense circumstances. They work together, eat together, and, of course, drink together, capping off a grueling day with a few highballs at the nearest watering hole. Is it any wonder this alchemy of ambition, angst, and alcohol produces so much sexual tension, whether it's on a Hollywood soundstage or in a mahogany-paneled executive boardroom? There's just something about working together on a big project one-on-one that forges intimacy. Watercooler liaisons are so common that they've spawned a lengthy and impressive list of power couples: Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Chelsea Handler and Comcast chief exec (and E! Entertainment overseer) Ted Harbert — they all fell in love on the job and, more importantly, one held a clear position of power over the other. (Full disclosure: I met my husband — who was my boss — while covering the collapse of the Soviet Union for a British TV network. He hit on me, I demurred, we ended up marrying and having two kids together.)

Yet despite the countless examples of illustrious couples who have made it work, shagging the boss remains for many employers a serious career taboo, on par with fudging a résumé or posting pics of your Girls Gone Wild Cabo vacation on Facebook — wildly inappropriate at best, a fireable offense at worst. Workplace romances are so fraught with potential problems that 12 percent of American companies have explicit policies regulating them, according to the American Management Association. That's largely to avoid exposure to sexual harassment lawsuits. But there are subtle, less calculable dangers a company courts when a manager gets involved with his subordinate: Nasty rumors begin to circulate; workers spend less time working and more time gossiping; morale invariably suffers.

Case in point: In the wake of the David Letterman scandal, former Late Night scribe Nell Scovell, writing for vanityfair.com, conceded that while she'd never been the target of her boss's advances, Letterman's notorious on-the-clock hanky-panky nonetheless created a generally "hostile" work environment that favored some women over others. This in a workplace where female writers were as scarce as 9/11 punch lines. (Scovell, who wrote for Late Night in the early '80s, points out that in 27 years, Late Night and its successor, the Late Show, hired only seven female writers.) And one need only look at the eye-popping list of perks Letterman's latest paramour, Stephanie Birkitt, an assistant nearly 30 years his junior, reportedly scored to understand what kind of insidious favoritism Scovell is talking about: Birkitt earned an astonishing $200,000 a year, appeared on-air several times (even she looked embarrassed to be there), and reportedly enjoyed vacations with the Letterman clan. A tacit quid pro quo existed for women who had sex with high-level Late Show staffers. "Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely," says Scovell, who writes that sexual politics ultimately drove her to find another job. (She went on to write for Coach and Murphy Brown.)

NEXT PAGE: The dirty little secret of office romances


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