Those Cheatin' Hearts

It's not just the military. Sex and adultery can roll any office--and raise questions about what the rules are.

THE HEADLINES HAVE been hot all spring, Frank Gifford in a tryst caught on video. Michael Kennedy in a potential legal jam with an under-age babysitter. Eddie Murphy in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a transvestite. Behind the scenes, the people in charge of the news were themselves churning out fresh material for the gossip mills. There was the love match between ABC News president David Westin and the network's flack, Sherrie Rollins, the wife of political consultant Ed Rollins. No one in this triangle is talking publicly, and neither is Bill Keller, the newly anointed managing editor of The New York Times, who won that prestigious job after he left his wife for a British journalist reportedly pregnant with his child.

The military, with its shifting lines and uneven treatment, is actually not unlike the rest of institutional America, from executive suites to faculty lounges, The consequences for playing around depend very much on the players, but there's no question that in some cases cheatin' hearts can derail careers. Yes, there is a double standard. It helps to be rich, powerful--and male. Though there are more women than ever in the managementranks, men are still more likely to be higher up on the career ladder and therefore closer to the decision makers who will ultimately determine the lovers' professional fates if an affair is affecting morale or job performance. The old rule about real estate-location, location, location-applies here as well. Sexual behavior that's winked at in New York or L.A. could get you fired in another part of the country. Corporate culture counts, too. Even the biggest talents jeopardize their careers if they're having a workplace affair at a conservative firm.

Public attitudes toward adultery are predictably ambivalent. According to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 78.5 percent of adults polled last year said extramarital sex was "always wrong"-up 10 percent from 1976. But tolerance for adulterers themselves has risen. A 1996 NORC study found that 22 percent of men and 15 percent of women admitted being unfaithful to their spouses at least once. Opposing adultery in principle is not the same as "believing the adulterer is a monster who ought to wear a red letter on his breast," says New York University sociologist Todd Gitlin.

Adultery is a particularly tricky issue in the office because work is the new social center; sexual attraction is inevitable and common. Though a ban on adultery is rarely official policy, most employers say they usually try to discourage extramarital sex because of potential complications. It becomes an issue not only of morality butalso of morale ff a supervisor is involved. "No matter what the truth, the lower-level person gets accused of sleeping their way to the top," says Lisa Mainiero, a management professor at Fairfield University who has studied office romances. Relationships between peers are less difficult, but there can be problems. "The rule of thumb," says M@ero, "is to be professional" and avoid taking four-hour lunches and acting kissy in the halls."

Companies generally prefer to deal with adultery-and any kind of office romance case by case rather than by policy decrees. Arkansas-based Wal-Mart ran into years of court battles vghen two employees challenged an anti-fraternization rule in its employee handbook. Says Gitlin: "Are you going to find a board of directors who, with a clear conscience, will penalize adulterers, when the odds are that some in the room have also been guilty?"

The only other profession that can be as strict as the military is the clergy. In 1996, Episcopal Bishop Edward Chalfant of Maine resigned after admitting that he had cheated on his wife. "When a clergyperson makes ordination vows," says Bishop Harold Hopkins, director of the ehureh's office of pastoral development, "they make certain promises to conduct themselves in a manner in which they're a wholesome example." These days they can only pray their congregations will follow.

Those Cheatin' Hearts | News