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Love at Work

How to get away with an office romance. The potential for abuse isn't the only reason companies discourage office affairs, says Judith Sills, Ph.D.

Freud himself identified the two great arenas of human enterprise as Love and Work. But love at work is apparently considerably less great, at least in the mind of your boss. Across nearly every industry and organization, corporate will has attempted to stem the flood of affection—frowning, legislating, transferring, firing, and handbook holding against its inevitable tide. Why?

Three things really bother the work world: the potential for abuse, the potential for alliance, and (worst of all?) the potential for distraction. All three threaten the bottom line.

Abuse has rightly received the bulk of the effort to contain the human sexual impulse in the workplace. Potential abuse of power basically comes back to that age-old sexual question: Who gets to be on top? And how does that impact the person on the bottom? In the classic, corporate sexual position, he's on top, she reports in, and the question always lingers—did he use his strength to nudge her into place beneath him? And, once there, mightn't the pleasures she renders make an "objective annual review" something of a mockery?

Many may ultimately marry the boss, but the organization squirms until the ring is on the finger. Still, even where the possibility of exploitation is eliminated, discomfort with office dating is not. Even in the absence of formally stated policy, when the guy from Accounting and the woman who leads the New Products team start sleeping together, all of Accounting and Marketing (plus some of Sales, half of HR, and a few Production people who spend time on the other side) notice and react.

That reaction is not all negative. We pay attention because even vicarious romance is emotionally arousing in the way that the Frobisher account is not. But mild excitement might be an irritant to a boss who is, in her mind, paying an hour's pay for an hour's work. That hour did not include longing glances or the covert giggles of those who observe them.

Too, we pay attention because a new relationship alters office politics, and that might impact us personally. Two coworkers who become a couple immediately shift the power balance on the R and D team. These two have the potential to be a voting bloc or to act as an axis of support for one another. Strong friendships offer the same possibility of political alliance, but sexual liaisons are particularly adhesive—another reason bosses discourage them.

Further, in the family of the workplace, sexuality between allied employees is metaphoric incest. People who observe the relationship wriggle a little at the boundary violations suggested by love at the office.

The office affair makes every one of us a little more aware of the sexuality buttoned just beneath our suits. It is in the corporate interest to squelch that sexual awareness in the service of our personae as nonsexual colleagues. A flaming affair across the hall blows everyone's cover.

Everyone's, that is, but the two lovers, who tend to believe that no one knows the relationship even exists. This almost universal delusion allows office lovers to proceed with their affair as if it has no impact on the workplace. As with all psychological denial, its emotional advantage is that you get to do what feels good without regard to consequence. Unfortunately, if your relationship is in any way harmful to your work team, professional performance, or corporate culture, denial prevents you from mitigating those consequences.

Not every office romance has a negative impact. Some lead to lovely long-term relationships between consenting adults who are then doubly committed to the organization that serves as the setting for their deep affection. Some romances develop into marriages that function better because each partner has an intimate appreciation of the other's work life. And some office flings contribute to the complex histories and great friendships that make the workplace about something deeper and more satisfying than mere work.

But it can also do a shocking amount of damage. Love affairs end more often than not, and when the personal and professional overlap, the office affair can create heartbreak on steroids. Despite a profoundly altered relationship, continued contact may be unavoidable, prolonging—even utterly preventing—recovery.

Sheer awkwardness between the former lovers tends to jeopardize the career of one. Now you've lost your lover, your concentration, and possibly your job, a high price to pay for a failed shot at love—if that's what you both were aiming for in the first place.

Workplaces may sustain injury, too, regardless of the outcome for the lovers. Concerns about favoritism, suspicions about misuse of company time and resources, and a general resentment of people who are at the job but not on the job erode the climate of trust, focus, and commitment to excellence on which productivity depends. That's when love at the office can be a very unfriendly thing.

If one or both coworkers are married, then their colleagues become unwilling collaborators to infidelity. Some easily brush this aside as none of my business, but others—perhaps those who have a friendship with the unsuspecting spouse—are especially discomfited. And the behavior of the lovers matters a lot. Those who conduct themselves as grown-ups, who are as consistently professional in the office as they are passionate in private, do less harm to themselves and their colleagues than those who behave like teenagers in heat.

The prevailing winds at your workplace may matter the most. After all, we work as much for a culture as for a corporation and your ability to fit within your workplace's unwritten code matters. Generally speaking, if you are working in a publicly held company today, you have to be more careful about everything. If the company's making money, your private good times are apt to be more easily tolerated.

But as every manager, attractive single, or HR consultant has already discovered, romance at the office can, at best, only be held in check. No policies or lawsuits will ever eliminate it entirely. Nor, perhaps, should they. After all, work can be a very sexy place, and that's one of the unsung reasons why it's worth going there every day. —Judith Sills, Ph.D.

Go for It With Grace

Chances are that you—or your friend two cubicles over—will at least contemplate some form of an office romance. If so, keep in mind these guiding principles:

  • Absolutely no romance on company time. That means no cutesy, affectionate, or dirty e-mails; no after-hours sex in the office; no closed-door stolen moments; no tie straightening, crumb brushing, or other proprietary gestures. If you must have an office romance, don't have it at the office.
  • Don't take any unnecessary joint business trips and don't book adjoining rooms. If legitimate business throws you together and you want to take advantage of a discrete opportunity, fine. But never spend a penny of the company's money to further your affair.
  • Don't tell. Anyone. Don't gossip, confide, or give in to the delicious impulse to discuss your new love interest.
  • Don't buck the culture. If your company merely discourages office liaisons, then your discretion will make all the difference. But if your behavior contravenes explicit HR policy, get a grip and give up love. It'll cost you your job.