Is an office fling worth the risk?
By Dan Rafter
Office romances can ruin your career, break your heart and reduce you to a star-crossed adolescent sneaking make-out sessions in the company break room.
But Leslie Minnix-Wolfe knows that there's another side. Her office romance resulted in a marriage that's now in its eleventh year, two wonderful children and a husband whom she loves dearly.
"Remember the movie 'When Harry Met Sally?' Well, my husband is Harry and I'm Sally," laughs Minnix-Wolfe, a resident of Reston, Va. "He was always the guy I'd talk to when my relationships were failing. He always came to me when things weren't working out for him. We became friends first. We have so much in common. We've been married eleven years and we're still going strong."
Minnix-Wolfe and her husband, Jeff Wolfe, know that they're the exception. Most workers who embark on office romances are headed for disaster. Like all other relationships, the majority of office romances end with the couple splitting up. If the split is amicable, that's fine. If it's not, that's trouble, especially when the former romantic interests must see each other every day at work.
Even faced with this grim reality, U.S. employees are still falling in love with their co-workers. In fact, it's happening quite often. According to a survey conducted by Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto company famous for its steamy romance novels, nearly 40 percent of adults have dated a co-worker, while 72 percent know of fellow employees who date each other.
Meanwhile, businesses are doing little to discourage these workplace dalliances. A 1998 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 72 percent of companies had no written policy addressing office romances. Of those companies that did have a policy, 55 percent permitted - but discouraged - office flings. Only seven percent had policies that outright forbade such romances.
So, even if it's generally a bad idea, office romances are going to happen. Fortunately, workers who fall for their cubicle mates needn't panic. An office romance doesn't have to mean trouble for a career. Workers can follow several steps to make sure their office love doesn't get them demoted, fired or laughed out of their company.
Keep your hands to yourself
One sure way for employees to lose respect at the office is to act like lovesick teens. No one wants to see the office manager smooching with the head of the marketing department in the lunchroom.
Minnix-Wolfe and her husband, both software engineers, made sure to spare their co-workers this sight.
"We were an item out of the office, not in it," Minnix-Wolfe says. "We never started any physical stuff at the office. We didn't treat each other like we were dating. We were there to work. We weren't making out in the bathrooms. If that's your primary focus, anyway, it's not going to be a successful relationship."
Judith Sherven and Jim Sniechowksi, a husband-and-wife team of corporate counselors living in Windham, N.Y., say that more office daters should follow Minnix-Wolfe's lead. Unfortunately, they add, most don't.
"Some people have to keep their office romances hush-hush," observes Sherven, a clinical psychologist. "When you're keeping it a secret, that makes the relationship even more exciting. It's like sneaking out the bedroom window when you're 16. Unfortunately, this isn't a good representation of what the relationship really is all about. It's more fun being a sneak than it is being in a real relationship."
"A relationship like this can turn two adults into adolescents," adds Sniechowski. "That's the problem with the first part of a love affair. Having a successful office romance requires a real consciousness. You have to be careful to act professionally at work. Unfortunately, with most people consciousness is the first thing to go by the boards when they're starting a relationship. You have to be more careful when starting an office romance than when you are involved in a romance outside the office."
Part of being mature in the office includes not dating your boss. It also means not dating anyone who reports directly to you. Doing this leads to all sorts of conflict-of-interest problems. It can also lead to sexual harassment lawsuits.
"It's really a problem when people get involved in a vertical romance," Sniechowski confirms. "In this situation, what comes first, business or love? Can you deliver an order to someone you're in love with?"
Talk about it with your superiors
When starting an office romance, most people initially try to keep their relationship a secret. This, though, can cause problems, especially when a supervisor later uncovers the hidden romance.
Sherven and Sniechowski advise workers to tell their immediate supervisors about their romance. This can be difficult. But often, supervisors can suggest ways to make an office romance less stressful. One member of the couple, perhaps, could work in a different division where they won't see their partner as often during the workday.
But what of employees whose companies have written policies prohibiting office romances? They should still tell their bosses.
"If the romance is genuine and you're working in a company where office romances are taboo, then there really is no great way to handle it," maintains Robin Gorman Newman, a relationship counselor in Great Neck, N.Y., whose website, www.lovecoach.com, offers dating advice. "But you can always get a new job if you have to. If you meet a great guy in the office, go for it. If worst comes to worst, get your resume ready."
Date for the right reasons
Today's workers are logging in longer hours than ever. Some spend most of their evenings or weekends stuck in the office. It's only natural that they would become attracted to the people with whom they're spending most of their time - their co-workers.
But this can cause problems. Too many office relationships start only because their participants feel they'll never have the time to meet a romantic partner outside the workplace.
"Are you attracted to this person because you're spending so many hours in the office? Is it a situation of convenience or is it a true interest? That's what you have to ask yourself," Gorman Newman advises. "Make sure before you begin a relationship that it's for the right reasons, not because you're working longer hours and are lonely and desperate."
Office daters must also be certain of their motives when starting a relationship, Sherven and Sniechowski report. Often, one member of an office item is looking for a casual relationship while another is seeking a deeper commitment. Of course, this happens to couples who date outside the office, too. But those couples don't have to deal with the inevitable hurt feelings while working with the person who broke their heart.
"At the earliest time possible, you must talk about what each person is looking for," Sherven said. "You need to have an honest, open conversation about what you have in mind. Ordinarily, you wouldn't do that. But this is a special situation. You have to make sure you both are on the same plane."
Some business experts, though, say office romances are rarely worth the hassles they bring. Linda Talley, a Houston author who's written the book Business Finesse: Dealing with Sticky Situations in the Workforce, is one of them.
"Certainly, a lot of office romances have worked," Talley admits. "But those are the exception. Most do not work. And they cause great stress at the office."
Talley says office romances are especially dangerous for women. Females are usually judged much more harshly when they become romantically involved with a co-worker, she says. This happens no matter how much power the female employee holds with the company, she adds.
"People always think the grass is greener," Talley says. "That's why they have office romances. There will always be office romances. They won't go away. But people should take a leadership role when they're at work. They should say, 'I'm here to work, not to carry on with somebody.'"
If You Must...
If you just can't help yourself and are considering engaging in some office romance, follow these common-sense guidelines:
- Act Your Age - Maintain a professional demeanor at work, and leave the groping for after hours
- 'Fess Up - Tell your immediate supervisors about your relationship; they may suggest ways to lower the stress level of your office romance
- Avoid Power Plays - Never get involved with someone you supervise; such a romance can lead to sexual harassment complaints
- Be Tech-Savvy - If you've ever hit the send button only to discover you've mistakenly emailed a message to your entire address book, you'll understand why it's not a good idea to write erotic notes to your partner at work or leave suggestive messages on your lover's voicemail. Plus, employers have a right to delve into your email and voicemail at work; inappropriate messages aren't a good career move
- Be Prepared - It's always a good idea to keep your resume updated, but you might need it sooner than expected if your office romance goes sour and you can't stand to be around your ex any longer