After subjecting American corporate life to yet another academic autopsy, the Harvard Business Review has made the startling discovery that executives not only issue orders, strive for profits and thirst for power, they also fall in love.
Worse yet, they sometimes fall in love with each other.
A little inter-office hanky panky is nothing to worry about, the nation's foremost business journal concludes, but love between managers is another matter.
"Love threatens the organization's stability," warns senior editor Eliza G. C. Collins. "Love between managers is dangerous because it challenges--and can break down--the organizational structure."
When two executives fall in love, Collins says, there is but one solution: "either the person least essential to the company or both has to go."
Because the "least essential" person often turns out to be the woman involved, firing her may be "a sexist solution," Collins admits, but it's necessary to protect the very foundations of free enterprise.
"Although a sexual liaison may be considered immoral, unless it leads to harassment it presents a minor problem to the organization. But on occasion an encounter will develop into a love relationship, which constitutes a threat to the business."
Not since the Japanese discovered transistors, Toyotas and Theory Z has there been such a threat to American business hegemony. Not since Professor Harold Hill found Trouble in River City (as in pool, rhymes with Business School) has so much ado about so little created such outlandish cacophony. Not even 76 trombones could not drown out the snickering over Harvard's view of sex in the office.
Maybe the sexual revolution bypassed Massachusetts. Maybe the Harvard Lampoon has taken over the Business Review. Maybe the Harvard Business School genuinely believes the sexual standard for executives should be: fool around all you want; fall in love and you're fired.
Or maybe they've got it all backwards. After reading 15 pages of pretentious priggery and four case histories worthy of a soap series, it's easy to conclude that Harvard ought to leave love to someone else.
Anyone who sets out treating love as a disease is bound to find a cure. The only thing more ludicrous than the lamentations against love is the Business Review's manifesto for managers.
Written rules are the answer to interoffice affairs, the B-School's best and brightest conclude. "Clear-cut company policies should outline the conflicts and probable consequences of these romances. Explicit policies will make executives understand that to break a taboo, a relationship should be worth the price they will pay."
Sure, that'll work. Soon personnel directors all over America will begin drawing up rules for who can do what to whom. 1) The company president can date anyone he wants except Mary Cunningham. 2) All vice presidents will be required to file monthly updates on their sexual conquests along with their regular Management by Objectives evaluations and their budget reconciliations. 3) Assistant vice presidents will be permitted dalliances with their secretaries (no harassment, please) but will be allowed to have meaningful affairs only with persons of equal rank outside their division. 4) Department managers will be allowed to inter-marry but cannot date assistant department managers except after office hours. 5) All persons below the rank of management trainee can practice free love because they aren't going anywhere in the company anyway.
If it were not the nation's most important business school advocating such off-the-wall ideas, it would be easy to laugh off the issue. But Harvard's views on intramural sex say a lot about what's wrong with business today and what's wrong with business schools.
An ominous air of Company Uber Alles permeates the Business Review article.
Even if two unmarried executives fall in love, one of them must be fired lest the organization be affected, Collins contends. Never mind that neither of the lovers has done anything wrong. Never consider that the company might benefit. One of their colleagues might get jealous; a rival might not understand; people might talk.
Until women began moving into executive jobs, companies didn't have to deal with these issues. Companies now are willing to let women compete for promotions, but not for the hearts and bodies of their fellow executives.
"As more women enter higher levels in organizations these issues will surface and have to be dealt with," Collins says, but "most people in organizations are not trained to handle such relationships or their own responses to them."
The nation's best business school might be expected to respond to that lack of training by teaching executives how to deal with co-workers who happen to fall in love, but it is more efficient to simply fire the lovers.
If that seems sexist, "try to defuse the gender issue," Collins advises. If that seems unfair, don't worry about it, she says, "all of us have principles we hold dear. But to act on them in a business situation may be unwise."
A mere mortal, lacking the benefit of a Harvard MBA, might conclude that it is better to be unwise than unprincipled. Especially when it comes to love.