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Infidelity and Sexual Harassment in Family Firms

infidelity and sexual harassment in family firmsAs a psychologist and family business coach, I see it too often. It is a well-known secret that many family firms struggle with sexual inappropriateness, infidelity, or even abuse. Even with abundant litigation for sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s still an ongoing problem because the underlying cause is not being addressed.

Like eating and drinking, the sex drive is a normal and necessary part of human life. Expression of our sexuality is learned. However, most people receive little useful education about how to make love work or how to make love last, or just how to make love. And unfortunately, much of what we learn about appropriate sexual behavior is gathered from unreliable sources such as television, movies or pornography, or worse, through exploitation by unethical adults. All of these sources are very two-dimensional and self-serving at best.

The problem isn’t that we have a sex drive. The problem is what we do with that drive. As with most human skills, sex can be used in a positive healthy way or it can be used to abuse and manipulate. Sex can lead to pleasure and a love bond within a relationship. Or sex can lead to pain, suffering, and corruption.

Other than a perfunctory sex-education class in public school, where the emphasis is on health and procreation, where does a child learn about sexual techniques, or the relationship between sex and love, or the subtleties of sex in the workplace? Where do they learn about sexual ethics?

I have met few parents who openly discuss sexuality with their kids. Most parents tell me they’re more than willing to answer any questions their kids ask about sex, as if any kid in their right mind will tell their parents they’re thinking about sex!

Let’s see how this lack of education plays out by examining the case of the Smith Family Firm.

(The names have been changed to protect their identities.)

Meghan and Greg were really scared when I first met them. They wanted their son, Dan, to take over the business when they retired. Dan just didn’t seem to have leadership abilities, and his latest escapade was about to sink everything. A female employee had filed a well-documented sexual harassment complaint against Dan.

Where did Dan get the idea that that was acceptable behavior?

Dan had seen his dad conducting numerous affairs throughout the years. As each affair ended quietly, his parents never spoke of the problem. Unfortunately, this lack of communication led to repeated affairs. They didn’t resolve their marital and sexual problems. Meghan thought suffering silently was the best way to handle it because her husband was always repentant. As a consequence, Dan became angry that his father betrayed his mother over and over again and that his mother let his dad get away with it.

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What Dan learned about sexuality as a child is that it’s something secret. That there’s nothing you can do about hurtful sexual behavior. That women are helpless in the face of a man’s advances.

It’s not surprising with those mixed messages, Dan propositioned an employee. No one had educated him about how to properly handle his sexual impulses. For Meghan and Greg, the sexual harassment lawsuit was a wake up call. Sex was only one area in their marriage that was a problem because of poor communication and inappropriate use of power.

Sexual improprieties also affect the employees, vendors, business associates, and customers. Dan’s inability to develop leadership in the workplace was a direct result of having no respect for his father. Greg’s leadership was questioned by employees because his son was so irresponsible. Meghan was viewed as a long-suffering inept wife rather than the competent CFO she was capable of being.

In addition to destroying a business image, sexual infidelities affect your sense of self-esteem and the health of your relationships with the ones you love.

So, why do people risk sexual infidelity?

Besides a lack of education, sexual misbehavior is essentially a signal of a deeper problem. With Greg, the affairs represented his lack of confidence in dealing with his well-educated wife. For Dan, sexual power over an employee was the only way to feel powerful at all, since he was failing miserably in the family business.

Whatever the reason for the sexual impropriety, don’t keep it a secret. Use the signal for what it is, a message about a much needed change in your life and relationships. Don’t hesitate to seek professional, confidential help from a psychologist. Among families in business, because of the need to be supportive, nurturing and protective of family members, sexual improprieties are covered up more often than in other settings. As embarrassing as it is to bring these things out, it’s more embarrassing to pass the problem along to the next generation and risk everything you’ve worked so hard for.

Sexual harassment photo available from Shutterstock

Infidelity and Sexual Harassment in Family Firms

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D.

Licensed psychologist Kathy Marshack, Ph.D. has worked as a marriage and family therapist for 34 years. Asperger Syndrome is one of her specialties, and she has counseled hundreds of couples, families and individuals who are on the Spectrum. She has authored three books and has been interviewed in The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CNN, the Lifetime TV channel and NPR. She practices in Portland, Oregon. To learn more visit or download a free chapter of her new book, “Out of Mind – Out of Sight: Parenting with a Partner with Asperger Syndrome,” at

APA Reference
Marshack, K. (2020). Infidelity and Sexual Harassment in Family Firms. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 Feb 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.