Sleeping with the Boss
Scovell's assessment of the Late Night milieu during her tenure there
reveals another dirty little secret about office romances: They are rarely ever
secret. When then-20-something British newspaper editor Danielle Janson was
introduced to her boss, a married man with kids, the mutual attraction was
palpable. "It was one of those things that just seemed inevitable," she recalls
now, some 20 years later. The grinding deadlines and late nights fueled the
relationship, which quickly became intimate. "I was just at the beginning of my
career, and it was all so exciting," Janson says. Both went to great lengths to
maintain discretion, always careful never to leave the office at the same time.
Yet both were oblivious to the fact that their newsroom cronies were in on the
secret — they intuited it — and routinely placed bets on how long it would take
for the other to leave once one had packed up for the night. At the time,
Janson says she didn't think the affair had any negative impact on her standing
in the office. But years later, it still comes up in conversation with former
colleagues. "Looking back, I suppose some people in the office took me less
seriously because of it," she concedes.
At the time, Janson was in her 20s and five years younger than her lover.
That's worth noting because, let's face it, it's usually the young ones who are
especially receptive to the charms of a powerful boss and who often
underestimate the professional and emotional fallout when these hush-hush
romances go south. Jessica Wakeman, a 25-year-old Manhattan-based blogger, says
that while she interned at a prominent magazine, she struck up a friendship
with one of its editors. For over a year, she was his special project. He pored
over her writing, spent precious time giving her detailed feedback. "When
you're young, you don't know that many successful people in your field, so when
someone older starts paying attention to you, it makes you feel special,"
Wakeman says. She knew he liked her, and she enjoyed the bragging rights. "It
felt great to name-drop with my friends that I was hanging out with this editor
at a big magazine." One night, after her internship had ended, he invited her
over to watch movies. By the end of the night, they were in bed. Pretty soon,
she was smitten and regularly sleeping at his place.
When she scored a full-time gig working in a different department at the
magazine, Wakeman says she was ecstatic. But her mentor-turned-lover chafed at
the idea. Usually warm and friendly, he barely acknowledged her presence during
the day. When she confessed that she was in love with him, he promptly broke
things off. Wakeman was devastated. "I thought I was adult enough to handle it,
but all he saw in me was a younger woman who graduated from NYU a year
earlier," she says. "If I was delusional about anything, it was that we were
peers." Wakeman took a job at another publication a short time later.
Did her editor take advantage of Wakeman's naïveté? Perhaps, but officially it
doesn't count as sexual harassment. Current law bans sex-for-favors and
behavior that creates an "intimidating" workplace. (In other words, you can't
promise your assistant a raise for a little boardroom nookie or plaster your
cube walls with naked pictures of Robert Pattinson.) But the law is decidedly
murky when it comes to likelier scenarios these days, like the
fresh-out-of-college office naïf who welcomes the advances of an older, horny
boss. Take 23-year-old Ava Smith, who began working at a small New York
nonprofit shortly after graduation. At first, she was grateful for the
attention lavished upon her by her boss. Though he was 20 years older, they
clicked instantly. Smith wasn't troubled by his frequent invitations to grab
beers after work, nor was she suspicious when he invited her out for the
occasional dinner. It was on one of these outings that he confessed to being
infatuated with her. "I guess I was flattered," she recalls. "But I was also
really scared because I didn't know how to respond." Though she had
reservations, she nonetheless went along with an affair. He was a big shot at
work, smart and worldly, and he was interested in her.
But things quickly got weird. Soon, he was furtively grabbing her ass in the
office. Sometimes he'd pull her into the back room and coax her into having sex
with him. Then he began taking her to hotels in the middle of the day. She knew
their relationship had become unhealthy — a distraction for her, a
near-obsession for him — but says she didn't want to compromise her job by
putting an end to things. "I just felt that I couldn't get out of it because he
was my boss. He was like a puppeteer and I was the puppet, and he was just
pulling the strings. I felt like I didn't have a say in anything," Smith says.
Beset by anxiety, she began seeing a therapist who helped her realize she was
being sexually harassed. Though she never filed a complaint, she left the job
soon after and now works at a different nonprofit.
Still, despite the outcome — her former boss still texts and e-mails her —
Smith accepts some responsibility for the role she played in the relationship.
She relished the attention and enjoyed an "adrenaline rush" from their secret
outings, she admits. "I'm not going to act like I was a helpless victim,
although a part of me thinks I was," she explains, then pauses for a bit. "It
didn't hurt me professionally. But I guess I was lucky."