The Rise of the Office Romance
Old rules about dating co-workers are giving way to new realities
Ask a couple of our times where they were when Cupid’s arrow struck and chances are they’ll say the office. We’ve become very work-centered, so the reality is that the workplace is now one of our primary meeting places.
Long workdays that leave little time or energy for the social circuit and the increasing presence of women in formerly male-dominated spheres have made the office a viable, even attractive, alternative to cruising the club scene or scanning the personal ads. People in the same line of work can be sure they have at least one major interest in common. And co-workers who date each other avoid fear of the unknown (as Lisa Mainiero, a professor of management at Fairfield University, pointed out in her book Office Romance: Love, Power and Sex in the Workplace.
“With the difficulties involved in meeting people of kindred spirit, and the rampant fear of sexually transmitted diseases, we are more comfortable establishing relationships with those whom we already know well”, she writes.
It also helps that companies are updating their attitudes toward office lovebirds. The fraternization policies that pervades corporate culture in the past almost always required one member of a soon-to-be-married office couple to leave the company.
“The woman usually ended up looking elsewhere for work,” Mainiero says. “In the past decade, corporations have realized that those policies were somewhat neanderthal.”
In fact, a recent Fortune magazine survey of 200 corporate chief executives found that 70 percent of them believe office romance is “none of the company’s business.” And the Society for Human Resource Management reports that in a survey of its members, who are personal managers in industries from construction to finance, nearly 72 percent don’t think employers should be allowed to require a member of a co-working couple to resign if they marry.
Though companies’ approaches to office romance are changing, a slight generation gap is still noticeable in the opinions of their employees. According to Gallup polls, working men and women under 40 are more likely than their older counterparts to say they would consider dating a co-worker.
No surprise there. The younger workforce has a totally different attitude about work anyway. For example, they’re not motivated as much by power and money and success. They tend to look more for a balance between work and family.
Office romances can be wonderful, but they require careful planning and maintenance. Mainiero says the most successful relationships she has come across in her research involve people who work in different departments, have different business contacts, and follow different career paths.
The same tendency among couples: as long as people aren’t working together too closely, there doesn’t seem to be any negative impact on their relationship. One executive actually saw increased productivity when two employees became romantically involved – they spent more time at the office because they weren’t always rushing off to see each other.
Though the office may be a good place to meet a potential mate, the pick-up tactics tolerated at a singles bar are unacceptable at the water cooler. Companies are responding to the increasing awareness of sexual harassment by creating strict policies to deal with the issue. But sexual harassment guidelines shouldn’t be extended to outlaw consensual office romances.
Polices will fail that forbid all relationships. When people find each other attractive, they will act on that. And people who work together can have very satisfying relationships.
Sexual harassment policies have made people a little more cautious, but they are not putting a lid on the number of officer romances. Though people sometimes try to lump them together, the two issues are separate. Trying to control one is not necessarily going to prevent the other.
The benefits of an office relationship can extend even beyond the couple involved. Mainiero’s observations of couples in the workplace have convinced her that their influence can motivate other employees, minimize personality conflicts, and increase communication among departments.
Attraction and romance at work bring out the best in all of us, she writes, as long as it is handled properly by the couple.
In the Company of a Colleague
Some important do’s and don’ts of an office love affaire
Office romantics who want to keep their careers and their love lives out of the circular file should heed to advice to Lisa Mainiero, the author of Office Romance : Love, Power and Sex in the Workplace.
Don’t fall in love with your boss. While peer relationships can be manageable in the workplace, research shows very clearly that hierarchical romance brings up concerns about favoritism, exploitation, and low morale among employees. The lower-level person struggles (usually without success) to live down the stigma of sleeping his or her way to the top, while the higher-level person’s business judgment suddenly looks questionable. People can end up committing career suicide.
Be clear about your intentions, but don’t force the issue. If you sense that your interest in a co-worker is not reciprocated, back off immediately. The office is not the place to be persistent. At the first indication that the other person is not interested, drop your pursuit because if you don’t, it can be considered harassment.
Be professional at all times. Don’t have lunch with your lover every day, hang out in his or her office, or hold hands in the hallway. When you’re at work, act as you would around any other colleague. Most co-working couples with successful relationships lead separate lives at work as much as possible. Some married couples drive in separately, for example, or use different last names. There should be clear boundaries between work and after-hours relationships.
Keep up the professionalism when it’s over. Though breaking up is hard to do, couples who successfully maintain their work relationship after the romance has died have an easier time. It’s a good idea to set up a kind of “psychic contract” at the beginning of the relationship, outlining ground rules for making the office a romance-fee zone and talking about the best way to handle a possible breakup.