People think sleeping with your boss can boost your career…but it’s still a really bad idea

By Neil Patrick

'Unconventional' tactics to win promotion and pay rises in the workplace are as common as ever it seems. So too is sexual harassment.

Unfortunately sometimes the boundaries between the two become blurred, despite the fact that one is consensual (if ill-advised) and the other is obviously non-consensual and hence illegal.

These days, it seems rarely a week goes by without a high profile individual facing accusations of misconduct.

This week, the UK press has been full of the story of how senior Lib Dem, Lord Renard is facing claims of sexual harassment by co-workers. The peer resigned the party whip last year amid allegations he made unwanted sexual advances to several women and touched them inappropriately.

The alleged victims are asking for at least an apology. But Renard and his allies claim the complaints are unfounded and that he is the victim of a witch hunt. Nick Clegg seems to disagree and has said that Renard should issue an apology even though the accusations are presently unproven.

Whatever the truth of the matter, one thing seems clear to me - letting your personal conduct slip in the workplace is almost guaranteed to wreck your career and quite possibly the rest of your life.

The stakes are terrifyingly high

High standards of professional behavior at work seem to me to be as important as any other aspect of our career.

Engaging in sexual relationships with colleagues risks the breakup of your family if you are married, will possibly cost you a small fortune and will wreck all those years of investment in your career.

The risks were highlighted in another high profile case when Mark Hurd, the chief executive of computer giant Hewlett Packard, resigned his job over the alleged sexual harassment of Jodie Fisher, a former reality TV contestant turned marketing consultant.

But it cost him more than just his job. Hurd who was married, settled the matter out of court for a sum which was undisclosed, but I’d wager it was substantial.

Perception is reality

If the risks of family break up and devastating legal and financial penalties are not enough to convince you, what about your reputation and relationships with other colleagues?

I looked for research into the topic of how such actions are perceived by colleagues. And discovered that Vanderbilt University had carried out a study on this topic in 2010.

In this study, having an affair with the boss was perceived as likely to boost your career by respondents, especially if you are a woman.

37% of office workers said that from their experience those who slept with their superiors were rewarded with a career boost.

But is this fact or perception? I don’t know, but perception is reality in its own way - and it seems that at the very least, even suspicions of such behavior will gain you more enemies than friends.

A function of gender inequality?

The study for the U.S. Centre for Work-Life Policy also claimed that, no matter how successful, female executives will not reach the very top of their profession unless they find a 'sponsor' who will speak out on their behalf. More often than not such sponsors are in a position of power and influence, and almost always male and married.

If this conclusion is reliable, it suggests that some women seeking to reach the peak of their careers consciously or unconsciously may be tempted to secure the ‘patronage’ of an influential man.

This is a high risk choice for both parties. The woman risks being seen as given unmerited advancement, the man risks possible legal ramifications in future. Both risk loss of personal credibility.

Your peer group respect level plunges too

In terms of morale, 61% of men and 70% of women lose respect for a leader involved in an affair.

Don’t expect that colleagues will have no idea what is happening - 60% of male executives and 65% of female executives suspect that salary hikes and choice assignments are traded for sexual favours.

And once they find out, don’t expect any sympathy if it all turns sour.

Some 48% of men and 56% of women feel animosity towards the involved couple, and both report a fall off in productivity as the team splinters.

But none of this seems to deter people

Despite all the risks, affairs in the workplace are still a common occurrence. Some 34% of women in executive positions said they knew a female colleague who had slept with their boss.

Even at director level or above, 15% of women admitted to having had an office fling.

Do you really want to play for such high stakes?

For everyone involved, office affairs are a really bad idea. The more senior person already has power - why put that status at risk? For the junior person, once you start the relationship, how do you know your boss is going to fulfill their end of the implied deal?

Even if it happens in the short term, everyone will know what’s going on and you’ll lose their respect.

It also poisons the atmosphere of your team, damaging the performance of the whole group.

And the label you’ll gain is almost as permanent as a tattoo. Especially if you are female, the gossip will likely follow you around your industry for years and years.

You really have to ask yourself, "Am I so committed to this relationship, I’m prepared risk everything for it?"

If the answer is no, then don’t even start it.


  1. A long long time I ago I learned "Don't fish in the company pond." A slightly more... colorful version is "Don't shop for meat where you get your bread."

    I've known a number of people who had relationships at work (one being a boss and secretary). Two turned out well - the rest, well, not so well.

  2. Interesting how many romance novelists use this scenario in their work! As always, the boss is tall,. dark and handsome - and single! The female is always less gorgeous but "finds herself" when the affair is in full bloom. Almost always ends in her taking to her scrapers and him in hot pursuit - or her pregnant and him not knowing he has a child until years later and then sparks fly and they make up. I hasten to mention that my writing is crime and I have not used this ploy! Seems to work though. jugding by the reviews on these books. Fantasyland... lol

    1. Hi Diana,

      Thank you very much for posting here. You have revealed a whole new dimension to me about this topic. I have never read a crime or romantic novel in my life, so your expert insight is most welcome and indeed intriguing...makes me think I should maybe revisit this topic after I have remedied the gap in the scope of my reading!

      I shall make a start with your blog!

      Kind regards


  3. Unfortunately, Neil, my blog is new and consists of reviews of other writer's books. I have just published a new novel, started another and am "tarting up" two short stories for a major competition which closes shortly. I am a rotten blogger because I rarely blog - not having the time. I like to "show myself" in my books :)

    Blessings and good wishes for a safe and wonderful 2015!


    1. I don't think you are a "rotten blogger" at all Diana! I thought the posts I read were beautifully crafted.

      Best wishes to you and yours for a successful 2015! :-)

  4. Upon reading this, I've noticed something missing: the risks of pregnancy and STDs. Although one assumes the participants "play safe", "safe" is a relative term. There is no TRULY safe sexual contact.

    1. Ah David. Thinking outside the box again my friend! This point never even entered my mind, but you just added a whole new dimension in your own inimitable way...
      PS. I'm not going to amend the post - STDs etc are WAY off topic here ;-)