By CARLA HINTON
The boss and your desk mate entered the Christmas party separately, but later she tells you they rode together and plan on leaving that way. The two are dating, she whispers, and admonishes you to keep it to yourself.
All of a sudden, the hors d'oeuvres you've consumed have made you queasy. It's either that, or you are uncomfortable about news of your colleague's office romance.
Office dalliances are a hot topic these days, perhaps because of the very public scandals involving television personalities such as CBS late-night talk-show host David Letterman and ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips.
In October, Letterman confessed to a live audience and his broader "Late Show With David Letterman" television audience of having had sexual relationships with women who work for his television show. Letterman made the pronouncement after a CBS news producer allegedly tried to extort $2 million from him in exchange for keeping secret about Letterman's relationship with former "Late Show" assistant Stephanie Birkitt.
Phillips was fired from ESPN in October after his wife called police to report that she was fearful of a woman who had shown up at the couple's home. Phillips reportedly told police the woman, ESPN production assistant Brooke Hundley, was someone with whom he had had sexual trysts. Police later reported that Hundley is alleged to have initiated conversation with Phillips' son, asking questions about his parents, through a social media network. ESPN fired Phillips and Hundley.
The publicity resulting from reports about Letterman and Phillips may have heightened awareness about office romances.
Though not all office romances are doomed, Kelly Baldrate, an adjunct professor at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, said people should be sure they are not crossing any boundaries that may place them in legal jeopardy. Employment law and employment discrimination are two of Baldrate's specialties.
She said simple flirtation in the office is not likely to get anyone into trouble legally. But the problem is that nothing is simple anymore.
"She's batting her eyes at him. He's batting his eyes at her, and it's welcome, but of course sometimes there's confusion," Baldrate said.
"It's when the lines get blurred, and someone is unsure, or when things go sour" that problems arise.
Baldrate said boss-employee relationships are always risky because the employee may feel he or she has to go along with the relationship or risk losing the job. The subordinate could feel that the relationship causes a hostile work environment, or other employees observing the relationship may feel they are experiencing a hostile work environment.
Baldrate said companies need to make sure they have policies in place regarding office fraternization and ensure the policies are available for all employees to read and consider.
She said many legal cases surrounding office romances hinge on whether romantic attention is welcome.
"From a practical matter, that's why it may be best not to have an office romance," Baldrate said.
However, she said office romances do tend to flourish, sparked perhaps because people spend lots of time at work.
She said the topic of office relationships and sexual harassment was brought to the public spotlight in 1991 during U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas was accused by Anita Hill, then a professor at the University of Oklahoma, of sexual harassment when the two worked for the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
Thomas was eventually confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.
What was and was not acceptable in the office became a matter of public debate, Baldrate said.
"What you say and how someone takes it may be different," she said.
Baldrate emphasized that the essential keys are whether there is behavior that is considered sexual advances and whether there is a question about it being welcome.
"If there is a question whether it is welcome, don't do it," Baldrate said.
Copyright (c) 2009 Scripps Howard News Service