I see women get promoted when they go out with the boss

It bugs the hell out of me, but I'm not sure what to do.

Published September 16, 2005 7:15PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a well-paying, reasonably cushy job in a city I love. One aspect of my job is problematic, however, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

The manager of my part of the company has had numerous affairs with members of his staff.

I don't know if you've ever seen the quirky Australian film "Love Serenade," but there's a character in it called Ken Sherry. Despite being a middle-aged, balding has-been, Ken just can't help himself when he gets an opportunity to truck out his aging 1970s machismo and "get funky" with someone a whole lot younger than he is. The action in my office is so similar to that that I'm going to refer to this manager as "Ken."

The established office pattern regarding these mergers is that the object of Ken's desire usually gets to ride Ken's balls around the office (a phrase I vaguely recall from the book "Hollywood Babylon"). Ken's girlfriend gets selected for travel to conferences with Ken. People who cross her path suddenly find that that because of space constraints, they are being moved into the office next to the bathroom. Her salary increases while her duties tend to involve business lunching.

Questioning the situation is tantamount to resigning, since neither Ken nor his beloved is sappy or unclever enough, generally, to do anything that would constitute a "smoking gun" of evidence that can be taken to human resources.

After a while either Ken or his girlfriend decides to move on, and after a while Ken's ex finds that someone in human resources notices that her "salary is not commensurate with her duties," with the result that she winds up actually doing the work that someone should do to get that salary, which I suspect comes as something of a rude awakening.

Anyway, people of moderate talent have been riding the Ken career escalator in various forms throughout history. Something like this has happened wherever I've worked. What disturbs me about it is my reaction to it. It has no significant effect on my job; it just alternates between being moderately amusing and moderately annoying, like the Republican in the office next to me trying to justify President Bush's performance after Katrina. (Picture a robot melting down, dense black smoke coiling out of its ears, as it jerks out phrases like "There seems ... to be ... this irrational hatred of ... our president.")

Yet I feel bad about whatever approach I take -- if I complain about this, I feel like that other Ken, Ken Starr. I've dated around the office myself -- although, I like to think, on a more genuine level, and I certainly don't have the clout to hurt or help other people's careers -- but who am I to be pious here? But if I just shut up about it, I feel like I'm ignoring a social injustice, since people really do get unfairly hurt from some of the machinations that go on here.

I have real trouble deciding where to set my boundaries on this one. Any thoughts?


Office Onlooker Guy

Dear Office Onlooker Guy,

That must be an alarming sight, a female co-worker riding across the office on the boss's giant, engorged benefits package, pretending not to notice the faces of her shocked and appalled co-workers (who are not so much envious, as the ride appears neither comfortable nor stimulating, as they are surprised that nowhere in the orientation pamphlet was it explained that while loyalty, creativity and excellence are valued qualities at Acme United Tweed Jacket Sleeve Patch Research and Design Inc., what they're really looking for is somebody who'll climb on the boss's rock-hard member and ride it across a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm).

Like you, when contemplating such a parade of presumably willing women, I feel a certain confused something -- feeble outrage, stifled contempt, dull, confounded disbelief that a bald guy in a disco outfit could be dispensing such lubricious career advancement opportunities. It brings to mind, in fact -- though this may be simply my own resentment -- an eternal procession of women, alert as hummingbirds to life's sweet offerings yet conveniently blind to its moral ambiguities, riding down Main Street toward the bank on the laps of varsity football captains, champion diving coaches and preening lead guitarists ... while you and I, my humble companion, rulebound fools that we are, sit on the asphalt sidelines drinking warm beer out of a malfunctioning midget refrigerator. (We stand on tiptoe every now and then in a vain attempt to get a better view, unable to find secure footing, moral, ethical or otherwise.)

Now doesn't that just sound sad?

There is, however, a very real possibility that these women are being exploited and coerced. The fact that none has spoken up does not mean that none has been injured or that everything that passes between the couple is part of a consensual bargain. Moreover, certain forms of workplace exploitation are against the law. If, for instance, a woman refuses his offer of a bareback pony ride across the cubicle farm and he in retaliation refuses to promote her via the more traditional route, he and the company may be legally liable. (You'd have to talk to a lawyer about the specifics.)

Besides, even if he and these women were only making what they consider scrupulously fair and equitable tradeoffs, such tradeoffs would not be fair to the company. He is dispensing resources inappropriately. The company has entrusted him to award promotions to benefit the company, not to satisfy his carnal desires. This practice is a misuse of his power and authority.

Furthermore, regardless of their relationship, if he is promoting the wrong people he should be held accountable. It is very possible, however, life in organizations being what it is, that he will not be. There may not be sufficient oversight. His superiors may not be paying attention. Maybe nobody cares. Maybe you're not actually working at Acme United Tweed Jacket Sleeve Patch Research and Design Inc., but at Kruger Industrial Smoothing.

At any rate, what can you do? For starters, let us ask this: Are these rewards to be dispensed only to willing women? That doesn't seem quite fair. What if you were to offer yourself up to Ken, promising him in whispered tones that all the straight sex he had ever known was but a limp prelude to your proffered combination of moist receptivity and ribald, rock-hard fury? (To seal the deal, you might remind him that hell hath no fury like a subordinate denied his leather monogrammed day planner and three days in Banff.)

OK, well, that's not such a good idea. Frankly, neither is this: Perhaps you have considered the delightful efficacy of the anonymous Internet post? You may have dreamed of what delicious fun it would be to compose a series of letters detailing the many moonlit rides by unclad maidens across the gleaming waxen floor of your research unit, long hair trailing in the moonlight? You may have imagined the delectable discomfort engendered by the posting of tales too detailed to be mistaken and yet too veiled to be traced, heroic tales of prodigious ball-riding, hair-raising ascents up slippery shafts to the pinnacle of the sleeve-patch career path upon which glistens a single dewdrop, globe of desire, sign and symbol of all the American workplace has to offer. Fine. Imagine it. But don't do it.

It wouldn't really be helpful. It might actually harm some innocent people, and maybe get you fired. You're trying to set boundaries for yourself, not complicate things.

If it were your job to evaluate his decisions, that would be one thing. And if you honestly believe that he is exposing the company to potential sexual harassment lawsuits, you have a duty to report that to your superior or to the legal department. But that would be a grave charge. You would need detailed proof and a clear understanding of the law. Your company may also have guidelines that govern workplace relationships, and he may run afoul of those.

But, barring all that, if you're otherwise happy with your job and you like where you're living, I suggest you treat this as private behavior between consenting adults. People are free to screw whomever they like on their own time. People are also free to make terrible business decisions. If there's any justice in the world, eventually this guy will get fired -- if not for the sex, then for the stupid decisions.

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