By D.R. Eyler, A.P. Baridon, published on May 1, 1992 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004
THE NEW RULES FOR RECKONING WITH SEXUAL ATTRACTION IN THE
Today men and women are thrust together on the job, sharing the
workplace in equal numbers and, increasingly often, as professional
peers. Work is becoming a major source of intimate interaction between
them as they daily share the physical proximity of working side by side,
the stimulation of professional challenge, and the powerful passions of
accomplishment and failure.
Like every other kind of intimacy, the workplace variety brings
with it the likelihood of sexual attraction. It is natural. It is
inevitable, hard-wired as we are to respond to certain kinds of stimuli,
although it sometimes comes as a surprise to those it strikes. But sexual
attraction in the office is virtually inevitable for other reasons as
well: The workplace is an ideal pre-screener, likely to throw us together
with others our own age having similar socioeconomic and educational
backgrounds, similar sets of values, and similar aspirations.
It also offers countless opportunities for working friendships to
develop. As teams come to dominate the structure of the business world,
the other half of a business team is increasingly likely to be not only a
colleague with complementary skills and interests, but an attractive
member of the opposite sex. As close as the collaboration between men and
women workers can get at the office, it may be even more so outside it,
as workers today function in an extended workplace of irregular hours and
non-office settings. We are now more likely than ever, for example, to
share the intimate isolation of business travel.
Such opportunity for interaction between the sexes is, in the grand
scheme of things, really rather new. Traditionally, society limits the
opportunities for relationships between the sexes--how it does so is
typically one of the distinguishing features of a culture. Until
recently, unmarried men and women who were attracted to each other could
date, court, or marry without raising eyebrows. For attracted couples who
were already committed to others, the only option was to avoid each other
or give in to an affair that consumed great energy just to be kept
secret. So new is our sharing of the workplace that we have not yet
created rules or social structures for dealing with today's unfamiliar
intermixture of men and women working together.
The problem is not that sexual attraction inhabits the workplace,
but that the options we traditionally give ourselves for recognizing that
passion are far too limited. Conventional thinking tells us there is only
one place to take our sexual feelings--to bed together. The modern
American mind equates sexual attraction with sexual intercourse--the word
"sex" serves as a synonym for physical contact. But intercourse is only
one possible outcome among many.
Sexual attraction can be managed. It is not only possible to
acknowledge sexual attraction, but also to enjoy the energy generated by
it--and without acting on it sexually. The positive energy of sexual
attraction is instead focused on work as it pulls men and women into a
process of discovery, creativity and productivity. This thinking is part
of a broader ethic emerging in this country: It's possible to have a lot
without having it all.
We propose a new, psychologically unique relationship for which no
models currently exist in American culture. It is a positive way for men
and women to share intimate feelings outside of marriage or an illicit
affair. It rejects altogether the saint-or-sinner model of colleague
relations as too simplistic for modern life. In our own work as
management consultants, we see the new relationship slowly unfolding in
the American workplace. Confused coworkers, lacking guidance of any kind
but responding to today's workplace realities, are stumbling toward new
ways of relating to each other as they find the old alternatives too
confining or otherwise unacceptable. The relationship they are inventing
is not quite romantic--but it's not Platonic, either. It adds a dimension
of increased intimacy to friendship and removes the sexual aspect from
love. We call this relationship More than Friends, Less than
The new sexually energized but strictly working relationship has
already been officially documented. In a study conducted by researchers
at the University of Michigan, 22 percent of managers reported
involvement in such a relationship. Moreover, the relationship,
unleashing as it does a great deal of creative energy, was shown to
benefit both "couple" and company. And a study at the University of North
Dakota found that work teams composed of men and women were more
productive than those of same-sex colleagues.
Whatever else, of this we are sure: The new nonsexual love lacks a
place among people's traditional expectations. We find that women seem to
intuitively understand this new relationship when they learn of it. They
are often the ones who move to forge it, often out of the wreckage of a
colleague's awkward attempts at something sexual. But men often have a
hard time with the idea...at first. The conventional models for sexual
behavior prescribe a course of sexual conquest for men (seduction for
women) and, moreover, they have a large ego-investment in it. Men find it
harder to give up the deeply ingrained macho model. They deny that they
can be anything other than a successful lover. Nevertheless, we have
often observed two people approach this new relationship with unmatched
expectations and move to mutually acceptable middle ground--and both
benefit. To men we say: Count to 10 and hear us through.
We believe that sexual attraction among certain coworkers is
inevitable. The laws of probability alone guarantee that the new gender
parity will create a lot of sexual attraction at work that will need an
outlet. The new commonplace of shared assignments provides natural
opportunities for intimate communication between men and women and
nurtures attractions that might have languished for lack of proximity or
initiative. As always, some people will pursue sexual attraction to love
and/or marriage. Others will become involved in affairs that have
potential costs to careers and to other, established relationships
outside. But the vast majority wild not want or need a romantic
relationship at work. We think it is time to bring sexual attraction out
of the office closet and let it find its motivational and creative
application in people's professional lives.
Left with the old thinking alone. however, in which the only outlet
for sexual attraction is physical sex. frustrated attraction has an
unwelcome way of turning up as sexual harassment. We all need a way of
thinking about sexual attraction that offers us more of a choice than
consummation or harassment.
There is another incentive for welcoming this new, intimate
relationship. Traditional thinking assumes there is only one appropriate
place for sexual attraction--between lovers or spouses. But that leads to
an untenable burden on our primary relationships--the spouses or lovers
with whom we share it all romantically and sexually. As seasoned
observers, we believe that it is naive to assume that a single intimate
relationship will fulfill us in every way. As busy people leading complex
lives outside the home, we cannot expect our primary relationships to
also bear the burden of providing total personal and professional
satisfaction. We need to grow comfortable loving one person romantically
and deeply valuing another intellectually, artistically. or in any of a
variety of ways that do not diminish our commitment to a primary
The term "consenting adults" needs broadening to include not just
those who willingly share physical sex, but those who are open to the
possibility of acknowledging their sexual attraction, communicating
openly about their feelings, and enjoying their sexuality within mutually
agreed-upon boundaries. Above all, the new relationship is a limited
relationship. You may share moments of great personal revelation and
intimacy, but you do not expect to share your bodies and souls. That
leaves only one question: How do you get there?
Don and Alicia are attorneys with complementary specialties who
work for the same firm and have for years criss-crossed the country
taking depositions and building cases together. They share grueling work
schedules, meals, hours of strapped-in airliner conversation, and even
exercise regimens that overlap away from home. When they put away the
briefcases, they look like a couple, and at times they act like
As is commonly the case, neither can cite any lightning bolts that
signalled the beginning of an irresistible attraction between them.
Because events dictated their time together, the attraction developed
slowly and naturally: they didn't deliberately cultivate it. The fact
that they found each other interesting was almost incidental--at the
beginning. Now, either will admit the other is good company, attractive,
and worthy of a fantasy from time to time. An affair is the last thing
they need as partnership looms for each, Don awaits the birth of a child
in a happy marriage, and Alicia knows in her heart that he isn't the
right guy for her.
In the course of their relationship they talked about affairs, but
consciously decided not to have one. At the same time, neither of them
wanted a relationship that had been neutered, and both acknowledged a
desire to enjoy the sexual spark between them, keep it within their
chosen boundaries, and continue working together without falling in love
or having sex. Instead, they deliberately cultivated an intimacy that
everyone came to recognize as special but not romantic.
Neither partner had to overcome the clumsy advances of the other,
yet this successful resolution of a modern-workplace attraction came
about as the result of an emerging sexual etiquette. It says we can talk
about sex without inviting advances or harassing one another. It offers
mutual respect and open communication as alternatives to playing out the
old stereotypes of seduction and conquest. It offers the interpersonal
sophistication to deal with sexual feelings in other than a romance-novel
Since 1983, we have been working together as management trainers.
As we traveled around the country, gathering experience with the problems
people were having, meeting workers of all kinds, we learned some things
about the new gender-mixed work force. Alicia and Don's experience is
becoming increasingly common. Women like Alicia tell us, "With Don, it
didn't happen overnight. We've spent enough time together to develop the
kind of trust and mutual respect that will let us talk about it. I know
how to say no, and he would never force himself on me. I trust him
completely, and there's no reason we can't enjoy an attraction that's fun
and energizing without ending up in bed."
And men like Don acknowledge that "part of me says it's all or
nothing when I have sexual feelings about a woman. But another part of me
says it's more complicated that that with someone like Alicia. Somehow it
has to be possible to play safely with sexy feelings, enjoy them, and
still not have to sleep together."
A New Sexual Etiquette
On the basis of our experience, we have developed a practical,
two-person model of sexual etiquette for those who wish to exploit the
energy of workplace attraction without physical sex or falling in love,
or avoiding each other altogether and pretending that the workplace is
genderless. At its heart is a consciously managed relationship founded on
mutual trust, respect, and acceptable boundaries that are openly agreed
on, communicated, and monitored by both parties. Unlike friends, these
partners share moments of great personal revelation. But unlike lovers,
they do not expect to share bodies and souls. They divulge only what they
Natural human desire is something any two people should be able to
feel without guilt or awkwardness. Where we set our boundaries is what
distinguishes committed, romantic relationships from the near loving
feeling of those who come to know each other intimately through work.
These are the five keys to pulling off the new relationship:
o Setting boundaries. Our personal boundaries are the psychological
barriers that define us as individuals. You need a strong sense of your
own values and purpose to risk sharing them intimately with someone else,
even more so when you rely on your boundaries to permit tremendous
personal intimacy yet prevent its becoming physical. You and your partner
openly discuss and decide what is and is not off-limits.
You establish boundaries and expectations for the relationship
right at the outset, as a means for defining and consciously managing it.
You agree that you will not develop a personal life together and that
your relationship will not be allowed to become a love affair. Some
boundaries, notably the sexual one, are lines you agree never to cross;
they remain forever out of bounds. Similarly, neither physical contact
nor the language of lovers has a place in the relationship--they will
only send misunderstood signals.
Other boundaries may be set and changed as you grow safe and
comfortable in this new, unfamiliar relationship: defining the kinds of
situations in which you allow yourselves to be alone, discussing certain
facets of your personal lives, the giving and accepting of compliments,
allowing your partner to see you when you are not at your best, and
admitting the high value you place on the relationship without fear of
You will also have internal boundaries to contend with--very
personal ones you set and maintain without the knowledge of your partner.
These are the lines you draw for monitoring your own thoughts and
behavior; coping with near-love feelings is a personal matter each
partner handles in his/her own way.
Part of the contract between you is an agreement to respect each
other's privacy and individual identities. Situations may arise when you
feel you must reinforce a boundary; you can do it indirectly, by altering
the direction of a conversation, or directly, by discussing the unwelcome
inquiry openly, as part of the process of consciously managing your
o Conscious management. There are no sure paths to ideal
relationships between mutually attracted men and women under any
circumstances. But without conscious management of this relationship,
personal attraction can lead to destructive consequences--from ruined
marriages to tainted professional reputations. Consciously managed, the
relationship becomes a series of purposeful, directed events, rather than
random ones that could drift into unplanned physical intimacy. You expect
to have differences that you will resolve openly, instead of dancing
around issues and leaving them open to ambiguity.
Through discussion, you create a voluntary contract in which you
both agree that you will divert your sexual energy from personal
attraction between you to the working relationship supporting it. You
agree that your attraction is a positive thing that makes your working
relationship exciting. You define ways to behave that will help you
maintain your mutual boundaries. You communicate honestly with each other
about your feelings and expectation. You make no attempt to hide the
relationship from your spouse or lover on the one hand, or your company
managers on the other, although you maintain discretion.
At first, you will probably find it difficult and awkward to
discuss the emotional issues involved in creating and managing this
relationship. It's new and unfamiliar turf and you're not sure what
constitutes the right measure of trust. Your best guide is to sense when
tension ballads--that's when something needs to be brought into the open
for honest discussion.
o Monitoring each other. Two people seldom approach a
relationship--any relationship--with perfectly matched expectations. You
and your partner both know that adjustments in your behavior will
sometimes be necessary to keep things on an even keel. You share the
responsibility for keeping your own behavior, feelings and expectations
in line with the boundaries you establish. Monitoring each other ensures
that open communication takes place when you sense your partner
mayinfringe on a boundary or yield to temptation.
Monitoring each other also sets the expectation of open
communication. You come to your relationship with respect for each
other's intellect, tastes, and competencies. You look to each other to
supplement what you individually bring to your work--to stimulate your
thinking and enhance your creativity.
o Open discussion. You are making deliberate use of sexual
chemistry to become both more personally satisfied and more successful
and productive. The overarching technique you use to keep behavior within
the boundaries you set is open discussion. It short-circuits problems
that tend to build with time. Instead of maintaining the relationship by
one-sided internal coping, you raise concerns to the level of two-person
You clarify areas of misunderstanding where individual
interpretations of events or intentions may be wrong. In time, you'll
probably be laughing at simple misunderstandings. You vent frustrations
to each other as well as understanding and being understood--eliminating
the need to reject and the pain of rejection. The secret is not some
perfect progression through an ideal set of relationship-building steps,
but rather in the openness that says, "Ask me. Let's talk about it. We
can work this out."
o Cooling-off periods. Unlike husbands and wives, you have the
advantage or regular time-outs from each other, away from a nonphysical
but demanding association. In permanent relationships, a large tolerance
quotient is both desirable and required. In this relationship, by
contrast, you are not obligated to keep each other happy or to take care
of each other or to tolerate differences in food or music or television
preferences on a daily and nightly basis. You deny yourselves some of the
privileges of a fully committed couple while you avoid some of their
On the rare occasions when work isn't going well, or your conscious
management techniques are flagging, you can acknowledge this is not going
to be the right day to caccomplish much together and step back to a
On the good days, this relationship fosters inspired work that is
intense, demanding and fulfilling. When it ends, parting involves
ambivalence. You enjoy what you do so you are reluctant to stop, but you
feel a sense of relief in getting away for a time to relax and be
nourished in different ways with your family and friends. Down time spent
apart allows you to keep a view of your work partner as someone
The "Business Couple"
Nothing promises to replace the committed love of a primary
relationship. But the bottom line is that men and women working closely
together find themselves in relationships that in many ways mimic
courtship and marriage. They ride the emotional roller coaster of success
and failure side by side. They become interdependent. They think alike
and share values. Common goals emerge and are met through mutual effort.
They have a de facto marriage minus the morning breath, the kids'
problems and the mortgage payments. Fresh tailored clothes, a perpetually
clean-shaven face, and a crisp clean shirt spare coworkers the gritty
reality that personal appearances take on at home.
As pretty as this picture looks, however, a review of life's
priorities quickly suggests to participants what it lacks. Coworkers who
are more than friends come to realize that their work partner is not the
one who takes care of them when they are sick, who shares the joys of the
children, who wakes them up on Christmas morning. They take part in none
of the life activities that make their at-home romantic relationships
primary and their work relationships secondary. Above all, the privilege
of discarding boundaries that separate individuals, the free merging of
two people, is exclusive to the primary relationship.
Loving center-of-our-lives arrangements remain the source of our
deepest satisfactions sexually and otherwise, but secondary relationships
provide treasured qualities of narrow depth and exclusive experience not
found elsewhere, especially since professional interests are dominant
factors in our identities. They allow discovery and elaboration of parts
of ourselves that remain unexplored in other relationships--passions for
art or music of sports, say. One very sober "business couple" we know
discovered to their vast amusement that they are both avid Elvis fans. On
a business trip to Memphis they decided to use their free time to visit
Graceland, simply because it's there--something their mates wouldn't do
Good Work Is Sexy
"Business couples" breathe life into their projects together. They
find themselves struggling to make them survive. They grieve when they
fail. And they revel in the joy of what they've created in their intense
interaction. They may travel together closing deals, winning accolades,
recounting victorious days together. Good work is sexy!
Michelle and Kevin are intimates but not lovers. They are
experimental chemists in the new-products division of a pharmaceutical
company. They think and plan and dispute ideas together, then defend
their ideas in the corporate world with an intensity known only to people
who have shared insight. There is a magic between them that transcends
chemical formulas and careers, and each of them knows it.
Sometimes they look at each other after completing an important
thought in unison and, without words, communicate an appreciation for one
another that unknowing observers might misconstrue as love. Their lab
technique is a symphony of moves developed through countless hours of
teamwork--they know each other's professional souls, anticipate their
every move, and sometimes it looks and feels very personal. But it isn't,
and they know it. When work ends, Michelle is totally absorbed in a life
all her own with seldom a thought of her lab partner. In it she shares
loving intimacy with another partner who doesn't know a beaker from a
Petri dish, but knows her like no one else does, not even Kevin, who has
a fulfilling personal life of his own.
We recently talked with Judy and Mark, two industrial trainers who
were among the earliest subjects in our investigation of non-loving
intimates. We asked them how their arrangement could be so special and
sustained and still not have eclipsed their romantic relationships--as
many who react to our model suggest it must.
"It's terribly unscientific," Mark began, "but anyone who has ever
been in love knows what it feels like--and the two of us have just never
felt that way about each other. Fascination, respect, some lust from time
to time, but never love."
"We care a lot for each other, and we appreciate each other as
colleagues, even find each other sexy," Judy added.
"Sexual chemistry was there at the beginning and still is, after a
fashion," explains Mark. "It made us special, and it still does. Things
can get complicated when animal attraction occasionally gets mixed in
with real caring, but it all amounts to something less than an
irresistible force for us."
"The thoughts of fulfilling an already satisfying relationship come
and go, but there's been no real pain in not acting on them. There has
been honest frustration sometimes, but when work ends and we part
company, neither longs for the other or gets jealous of the people we
each go home to."
"The special times have always come when we're putting everything
we've got into a project," notes Judy. Over time, the power of sexual
attraction is not diminished, but they gain more experience and skill in
What partners get out of non-loving intimacy is clear. Their
relationship is amazingly satisfying psychologically, and very workable.
They pursue their work with an abandon they never could afford if they
were lovers who had to get along both at work and at home. They do
genuinely inspired work together and honestly love it, their creative
energy flowing from a sexual attraction they've chosen not to indulge
physically or force into love. They have friends and family at home,
where they recharge themselves.
Companies also benefit. They get highly motivated workers who are
enthusiastic and happy. The relationship enhances creativity. And
partners are not deceiving anyone or stealing work time. They waste no
energy on feeling guilty.
Men and women bring differing and complementary orientations to
shared work. A tremendous amount of energy can flow from their sex-based
differences when they are allowed to keep their sexual identities, rather
than suppress them in conformance with the corporate ideal of a safe,
genderless workplace. Non-sexual intimates willingly spend time together
to achieve great results--and avoid behavior that would threaten the
And so love is much as it's always been. Sexual, romantic love has
been and will be the many splendored thing, driven by a desire for fusion
and physical intimacy and achieving that blurring of boundaries that
takes place only in sex. But our model promises legitimacy for what many
men and women have felt but dared not admit or act on--the reality that
sexual chemistry can be safely shared with an associate and play a
constructive role in their lives.
It works because what has changed the workplace has crept onto the
domestic scene as well. The days of insecure spouses who waited at home
has passed, part of the revolution that has swept women into jobs in
large numbers. Simply put, peers understand peers. Newly equal husbands,
wives and lovers accept what they know from common experience--colleagues
may be sorely tempted to become lovers, but they will settle for being
more than friends. The trust that makes it all possible is, after all,
the only valid measure of romantic fidelity.
MYTHS OF ATTRACTION
o It is dangerous for men and women to work alone together after
hours; they tempt fate, and ask for an affair. But the modem workplace so
often dictates that very situation. We frequently have no choice but to
work together. Besides, the man/woman chemistry can stimulate a great
team effort if it stays within acceptable bounds.
o A man isn't capable of spending long periods of time with an
attractive colleague without making sexual advances to her. Men admit
that they can't control the feeling, but deny that it leads them to hit
on every attractive female within their orbit. Besides, modern women
sometimes make the first move. For both sexes, there is something to be
said for delayed gratification--saved for their at home lovers; or
sublimation of sexual energy into something else--like work.
Acknowledging attraction is harmless--it's what we do with it that
o If work partners are sexually attracted, they can't possible do
the job effectively--their minds will be on sex rasher than work. Sexual
energy can stimulate creativity and actually drive them into a better
working relationship instead of into bed or a sexual harassment
o Managers have an obligation to break up a work team they suspect
of being sexually attracted because embarrassing and disruptive
consequences are inevitable. Managers should deal with actual outcomes,
not fears of what might happen. If productivity suffers, someone
complains or the company is embarrassed managers should intervene.
Otherwise, they should leave workers alone to be productive and enjoy
their work together.