A Fine Romance

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I'm starting to think Paul Wolfowitz may have had it right.

No, not the cushy pay and promotion deal he ordered up for his girlfriend. Not the boneheaded way he handled the matter, heedless of appearances and warnings that the package was out of line. Not his dig-in-the-heels stance, putting his interests above those of the institution.

But I've been wondering whether Wolfowitz was correct in arguing that his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, should have been allowed to remain at the World Bank after he became president.

And whether the board of directors' ethics committee was needlessly rigid in insisting that the only way to cure the conflict was for Riza to leave the bank or be transferred into a backwater division not reporting up the bureaucratic chain of command to Wolfowitz.

The irony is that this inflexibility unwittingly set the stage for the turmoil in which the bank finds itself.

This doesn't excuse Wolfowitz from primary responsibility for the current situation. It does suggest that the modern workplace -- with its inevitable romantic attachments -- is more complicated than it was, say, 30 years ago.

Not so long ago, many companies had strict rules against workplace dating; now, romance on the job is a fact of corporate life. In this messy new world, the old strictures -- conflicts cannot be tolerated and must be cured by a complete separation -- may no longer be necessary or sensible. Both employers and employees may benefit from more creative solutions than the self-imposed ethics straitjacket the World Bank employed in l'affaire Wolfowitz.

Women, especially, stand to gain from such flexibility. After all, men still tend to be the ones in more senior positions -- and junior employees such as Riza lose out. Instead of forcing Riza out, the bank could have put safeguards in place to prevent unfair dealing.

Wolfowitz's original pitch to the panel was to remove himself from any involvement in determining her salary or promotions -- the opposite of what he ended up doing, of course. But he insisted -- and this turned out to be a big sticking point -- that the two be allowed to have professional contact.

Granted, this wouldn't be an entirely comfortable or risk-free arrangement. Riza would have a certain status as the President's Friend. She was up for a promotion when Wolfowitz arrived; if she had received it, there no doubt would have been grumbling about preferential treatment. A supervisor who differed with Riza might think twice before taking her on.

And, certainly, Wolfowitz's conduct in orchestrating her raise doesn't exactly provide comfort about what his conduct might have been if she had stayed. He is, I admit, not the poster president for my argument in favor of a more accommodating workplace.

Office romances are different from office friendships or other entanglements, but are they so different that only total disassociation will suffice? "What do you do between best childhood friends, roommates in college, roommates in business school? We give those people bonuses for hiring each other," says workplace bias consultant Freada Klein. "For some reason, we get very focused on the sexual part of the relationship."

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