The do’s and don’ts of sex with co-workers

Nicole Williams is the author of
As the “sextortion” plot involving David Letterman continues to unfold, chit-chat about sex and the workplace — always a water-cooler favorite — is getting extra play.

That’s good news for Nicole Williams, a career expert and author of the in-stores-next-week “Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules into Career Success.” The media storm surrounding Letterman, she says, is bringing to the forefront an issue that’s as relevant and pervasive as ever. “Eight million Americans every year enter into at least one romance starting from work,” she said, quoting a statistic from, an online career site. This number doesn’t tell the whole story, she added, estimating that 50 percent of workplace dalliances go unreported — though they’re likely fodder for whispers and speculations. “The chemistry and energy of flirtation and sexuality,” whether people act on it or not, she said, “is a driver in the workplace.” CNN spoke to Williams about this touchy dynamic, the rules that can make this reality less dangerous and the questions she has about what’s happened in the “Late Show” offices. Here are excerpts from that interview.

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CNN: Why should we assume workplace romances and flings are happening as often as ever Haven’t we moved away from that Williams: It is human nature. Sex is on men’s brains; we know this. … To think that — during, in some cases, a 12-hour day — this isn’t going to come up in the workplace is naivet. CNN: If the goal of your new book is to help woman succeed professionally, shouldn’t there be general rules when it comes to sex and the workplace Williams: At the end of the day, it is very dangerous to have sex with your boss. It just is. Your reputation can be hit in a way that’s unrecoverable. Trading sex for promotion is essentially prostitution. But it’s not sexual harassment unless a woman claims discrimination. … The definition of flirting is making people feel good about themselves. We work such long hours and sometimes need to make it more fun. What’s appropriate for one person, though, may not be appropriate for someone else. CNN: When it goes beyond flirtation and someone gets burned, don’t women more often than men pay the price Williams: The majority of managers are still, by and large, men. The person in power wins. It’s hard to go up against a David Letterman. You can get demolished. Even if [a woman] was legitimately taken advantage of, there are those who say, “Did she call it sexual harassment for money’s sake” Men are saying [vis-a-vis the Letterman issue], “So what” And women are saying, “Did she really have a choice” CNN: Given what we know so far about the Letterman story, what is the biggest takeaway at this point Williams: There’s so much that’s left to be revealed. That no one’s complained — he’s never had a complaint of sexual harassment — is interesting. It either means we’re so much more evolved and no one cares or [women haven’t had] the voice with which to complain. CNN: In cases where true love grows and can’t be avoided in the workplace, how should a couple proceed Williams: Companies are trying to institute love policies and love contracts — guidelines on how to act. But that requires that they [couples] come forward. People feel like it’s their business and not their boss’ business. I really do believe it is a responsible, mature thing to do to go to upper management. Go to the CEO, whomever you have a good relationship with, have the conversation. … If you can, you find a way not to work directly with one another. You often have to make a tough choice. Does one of you have to leave … You’re better off putting it out there. CNN: What other practical suggestions do you have for workplace couples Williams: You sit down and say, “What are our rules No necking in the lunchroom. We’re not going to have fights publicly.” The answer isn’t don’t [have the relationship]. Really, it isn’t. It’s how to best manage it. CNN: Given the tough economy and possible backlash, isn’t flirting with a co-worker even more dangerous Williams: [laughs] Yes, but I’ve heard from women who are using that tactic to ensure they still have the job. Maybe I need to start flirting with my boss so he’ll keep me around