THE BLOG
05/05/2007 07:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

False Taboos

Mixing money with intimate relations can get you into serious trouble. Just

consider some recent headline news: the World Bank's Paul Wolfowitz may be

about to lose his job as a result of his involvement negotiating an

excessive pay raise and promotion package for his companion. Before his

tragic accident, New Jersey governor John Corzine received sharp criticism

for refusing to disclose details of his financial relationship with a past

lover, who happens to be the president of a major New Jersey labor union.

The latest: BP chief executive Lord Brown forced to resign in the aftershock of

revelations about his past relationship with another man, who, according to

reports, he had "kept" financially for several years. Meanwhile in

Washington , accused procuress Deborah Jeane Palfrey, started outing

high-officials who had used her female contractors' expensive intimate

services. First to resign from government office was Randall L. Tobias, top

State Department official.

Why all the fuss over these love payments? The fuss and the scandals, of

course, capture public attention only when they involve famous people, big

money, big organizations, and especially sexual intimacy. Observers delight

in seeing the rich and powerful getting their comeuppance. But still, why

such concern about something that seems to happen every day among ordinary

people as well as the high and mighty? It's not as if any of the recent

headline-grabbers were found dipping into their organizations' tills.

People worry about the mix of money with intimate relations because it seems

to violate a powerful pair of taboos. On the one hand, people fear that

sentimental relationships will disrupt the efficient functioning of

organizations; on the other, they are convinced that money will corrupt

intimate relationships. Money and intimacy, in this view, inhabit hostile

worlds. Money destroys intimacy and intimacy disrupts organizations. That's

why they should be kept apart.

A recent book of mine challenges the first taboo: the corruption of intimacy

by money. The Purchase of Intimacy

looks closely at the interplay of economic activity and multiple forms of

intimate relations in American couples, households, caring relations, and

the law. The book disputes the widespread fear that economic calculation

corrupts personal intimacy. Over a wide variety of intimate relations, it

demonstrates two facts any clear thinker has to keep in mind: first, that

all of us routinely mix our most intimate relations with economic activities

without apparent damage to either one: we owe economic support to our

children, our spouses, our parents, and often our friends. Caring

couples regularly pool their money, make joint purchases, invest shared

funds,

organize inheritances, and negotiate divisions of household work. In fact,

no loving household would last long without such regular inputs of economic

effort.

Second, people involved in intimate relations nevertheless take great care

in distinguishing one kind of intimate relation from another and they

regularly use economic markers for precisely that purpose: is this

relationship prostitution or dating? Is this connection a romantic

rendez-vous or is it just a friendly dinner meeting? In each case, who pays

what and when will differ significantly.

My book barely touches however on the fascinating other half of the problem:

how does intimacy affect organizational efficiency? Many managers and

analysts think they should be taking strong steps to eliminate intimacy or

at least its most intense forms from their organizations. They worry that

intimate connections among employees will undermine the organization's

performance by distracting them away from proper goals. A loving couple, in

this view, are likely to make love on company time. That's why companies

have rules against nepotism, against fraternization, anti- sexual harassment

policies, "cupid contracts", and a whole range of policies discouraging

intimate relations within the workplace.

Yet, studies of organizational life -- think of family firms – show that

intimacy and efficiency often get along quite well with each other and that

within limits, strong friendships, kinship and even sexual liaisons can

contribute to solidarity in the workplace. Of course, in their extremes,

intimate ties can threaten organizational efficiency but it's not the

automatic result of mixing intimacy with work relations.

We should debunk the twinned and persistent hostile-worlds myths that money

necessarily corrupts intimacy and that intimacy necessarily corrupts

organizational effectiveness.

So what about Wolfowitz, Corzine, Brown, Palfrey's clients, and other cases

like them? We should not be worrying about their mixing their intimate

relations with money. Instead we should only worry seriously about whether

or not they have violated visible commitments to their organizations or

subjected those organizations to risk of which, as experienced executives,

they should have been acutely aware. If not, let's keep their love payments

out of the limelight.