A workplace romance could lead a couple down the aisle or could be a career killer.
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Take it from former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was fired from the company on Sunday for breaking its policy of engaging in a relationship with another employee. The misstep cost him his salary of more than $1 million a year, even though it was consensual.
The fast-food giant forbids managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect subordinates and said Easterbrook acted out in the poor judgment. Career coaches agree, explaining violating a workplace policy is always a risk.
“He broke it and acknowledged that he made a mistake and accepted the consequences,” Roy Cohen, a New York City-based executive career coach, said referring to the company policy. “We don’t know what else may have happened, it may be he exchanged confidential information or promoted this individual to a position someone else may have deserved, or it could be she got a big bonus. There may have been an event that has perpetuated this because how else would this have been discovered?”
Like Easterbrook, a slew of other high profile CEOs have conducted workplace relationships with colleagues, some facing backlash and firing for violating workplace policies, while others seem to have made it work.
Take Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. He resigned from the company last year after it was revealed that he had a relationship with a former employee. Krzanich violated Intel’s non-fraternization policy, a code of conduct that applies to all managers.
And former Oracle Co-CEO, Mark Hurd stepped down from his post at Hewlett-Packard in 2010 for filing inaccurate expense reports allegedly designed to hide a “close personal relationship” with a contractor, Jodie Foster. HP denied that Hurd violated its sexual harassment policy at the time.
Still, Oracle founder Larry Ellison hired him and blasted the company. Hurd lost a health battle earlier this month while on a medical leave of absence.
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Despite the risks, office romances are still one of the most popular ways people meet a significant other, even with the rise of dating apps. A 2018 dating survey from technology company ReportLinker surveyed more than 550 respondents aged 18 to 64 and found that 15 percent met their spouse or partner at work, second to meeting a love interest through a friend.
Indeed, pre-Amazon Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Bezos met in 1992 when they were both working at New York City hedge fund D.E. Shaw. Jeff worked his way up to senior vice president at the firm, while MacKenzie worked as a research associate. The duo was married for 25 years before finalizing their divorce in July in a $38 billion settlement and after founding the world's biggest e-commerce retailer.
And before former GE CEO Jack Welch met his now-wife, the former editor of the Harvard Business Review, Suzy Welch, their love interest was a conflict of interest while she profiled him for the publication after meeting him in 2001. Currently, the two are considered authorities on leadership.
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Then there's former CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves — who resigned in 2018 following numerous sexual harassment allegations — who married news anchor and producer Julie Chen Moonves in 2004.
Understand office policies
While some corporate companies like McDonald’s have clear policies against dating colleagues in the workplace, not all offices do, so Cohen advises employees to proceed with caution, particularly if the relationship is with a boss or someone at a higher rank.
If you’re engaging in a romantic relationship with a superior, the employee could get special treatment and other employees could see that as unfair treatment, Cohen said.
“What that suggests is the only way you can advance is to have some romantic liaison,” Cohen said.
And it can cause mistrust among other employees.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has faced backlash from employees for his reported ties to MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who allegedly had been giving the CEO advice on business issues, people familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal in February. Executives told the Journal that Plank took Ruhle’s advice on how to handle consumer backlash over the company’s own management.
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Engaging in a corporate romance could weigh heavy on your reputation, Cohen said. And that could be difficult for some to be taken seriously in the workplace after a scandal breaks, like in Easterbrook's case.
"People remember the salacious, they don’t remember the success," he said.