Why love in the workplace is flourishing.
By Mary Loftus published March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The first time I met my husband-to-be, I handed him my resume. I wasn't looking for a spouse--just a summer internship. But I ended up getting both, one five years after the other. I'm not sure when professional regard took on a personal demeanor. I can't name the moment our relationship changed from collegial to consensual. Perhaps it was when I noticed that his eyes matched the blue of his chambray shirt, or the afternoon I drove by the office just to see whether his car was in the parking lot.
I knew it was reciprocal when he gave me a trilogy of Tom Robbins books, wrapped in a road map, as a going-away present before I returned to college.
"Keep in touch with the News, and with its charming, albeit cynical, editor," said the enclosed note. "Just because his heart is cold like stone doesn't mean he is unappreciative of a smile on a pretty face."
I still have that note. It's stashed away in a closet with other mementos of our relationship--boxes of letters, our wedding album, our son's first lock of hair.
So finding love in the office seems like a good idea to me.
And I'm not the only one. Most offices are awash in romance today. According to several studies, about 80 percent of employees have either observed or been in a romantic relationship at their workplace. In a marriage announcement in The New York Times, the groom, who had met his bride at work on Wall Street, took time out from the proceedings to tell an observer: "If we think our employees aren't having romances, we're crazy. We need to come up with a productive way to deal with it. To say this can't happen is ignoring the reality of men and women."
Perhaps in this era, where singles are seeking full disclosure, it's wiser to begin a relationship under fluorescent lights rather than moonlight or candlelight. Secrets aren't as seductive as they used to be. There's a growing awareness of the dangers of making the wrong choices in bed, along with higher expectations about compatibility in marriage.
"Not being into the bar scene, I was more comfortable meeting at work," said David Kamp, who met his wife, Karen, on the job at a defense contractor plant. "We had common ground to begin with; we didn't have to create it."
The emerging awareness of love at the office reflects a whole set of changing rules and relationships in the workplace. Companies that find a way to accommodate love among workers may be fostering the psychological health of modern men and women. The approach could have a positive impact on the competitive health of the company itself.
THE GENDER SHIFT
With the sexual integration of the workforce, an increase in age at first marriage, and longer work hours, the office has become a natural place to find an intimate confidante, sex partner, or suitable mate. Sociologist Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., sees this as a healthy move--backward.
"The new news is old news," says Schwartz, professor at the University of Washington. "There was a time when men and women were linked economically as well as for emotional survival. Now we think of couples as just emotional units. But before that, they were a survival unit. Well, the world has taken another rotation, and we're back to being economic partners--by preference as well as necessity."
Historically, few women worked outside the home until the late 1800s, and men and women seldom mixed socially after marriage. In the 1890s, women began to move into the workplace, albeit in subordinate roles. Even in the 1970s, 99 of 100 business travelers were men. It's no wonder, then, that as women enter the workplace at higher levels, new ways of relating are emerging.
Lisa Mainiero, Ph.D., a management consultant and professor of management, began researching women in the workplace several years ago. She found tons of material on career entry and advancement. But "what women really wanted to know was whether they should be dating the good-looking man in their office. It's as if they were saying, 'Now that we're here, let's look around.' "
Old codes of conduct have become as dated as the slide rule. The 1950s black-and-white snapshot of identically attired young male executives sitting behind rectangular desks, forming a work force that was easily defined and contained, has been replaced by an interactive, full-color CD-ROM graphic of diverse employee teams working in offices without walls.
The gender revolution in the workplace has mirrored a shift in gender roles at home. Being economic partners on equal footing, and sharing similar work loads and job demands, brings interdependence to marriages. It takes the pressure off men to be the sole providers and gives women more rights and respect.
LOVE IN A CORPORATE CLIMATE
As ready as employees may be for this next epoch in the sexual revolution, human resource managers are agnostic about the value of romance at work. The prevailing corporate attitude has long been that office romances are nothing but trouble, a swampland of favoritism and nepotism, sexual harassment, and fatal attractions. For decades, the professional literature on love at work has focused solely on the negative impact of such relationships.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead asked flatly in 1978 for "incest taboos" against dating in the workplace. "A taboo enjoins," Mead wrote. "We need one that says clearly and unequivocally, 'You don't make passes at or sleep with the people you work with.' "
A former editor of the Harvard Business Review, Eliza Collins, declared in 1983 that when love blossoms between executives, it can "break down the organizational structure" and should be treated as a conflict of interest between the couple and corporation. She concluded that a senior manager should ask the employee least essential to the company to leave. Unfortunately, she admitted, that would most often be the woman. Where love has broken out, it's often been on the sly, to avert such a punitive response.
Now, company liability for employees' sexual shenanigans have become a major concern. "Companies are a lot more conscious about sexual harassment. Probably some companies have tightened up," says Phillip Way, Ph.D., professor of economics at the University of Cincinnati who, in 1990, surveyed 121 executives about their attitudes toward workplace dating. Supervisors' other concerns, he found, are favoritism and breached confidentiality. The fear is that when business talk becomes pillow talk, professional standards and secrets are sacrificed.
So why isn't office dating verboten and flirting a firing offense?
Because corporate honchos have discovered a simple truth: You can't outlaw love. The new gender balancing of the workplace makes it virtually inevitable. As journalist Leslie Aldridge Westhoff, author of the book, Corporate Romance (Random House), puts it: "Corporate romance is as inevitable as earthquakes in California."
Executives are becoming, if not enthusiastic, at least accepting. In a 1994 survey of 200 chief executive officers conducted by Fortune magazine, three-quarters said romances between workers are "none of the company's business." And more than half said they're seeing more married couples at the office than they were 10 years earlier.
These CEOs can breathe easy: When handled properly, experts say, workplace romances can actually benefit companies. Once employees get past the initial ditzy, infatuation stage of being unable to concentrate on anything except their new love, an office romance has been found to raise worker morale, stimulate performance, enhance creativity and boost productivity.
Love transforms. It can turn recluses into socialites, grumpy critics into team players, and sloppy, disorganized employees into models of efficiency. Romances that have been encouraged and supported by colleagues can bring vicarious energy to the office. And if the lovers span departments, another positive can be improved communication and coordination between those departments.
If the relationships turn into long-term commitments, companies can gain happier, more fulfilled, loyal employees--preferably with 30-year mortgages.
"In most cases, romantic relationships between employees are perceived as having no impact on the day-to-day work habits of the participants," found James Dillard, Ph.D., a professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin. "If performance at work is perceived to change, relationships are more likely to show positive change than negative change."
WHY WE GO FOR COLLEAGUES
An office provides the perfect environment for attractions to form. Coworkers have similar traits and goals, are familiar and accessible, and share in each other's excitement, frustrations, and celebrations. It beats 1-900 chat lines and Aunt Nora's offer of a blind date, at the least.
Many of the romantic relationships forged in the office are long lasting. In fact, according to a 1988 study from the Bureau of National Affairs, more future spouses will meet at work than at school, social, or neighborhood settings.
Taking a look at why we're more likely to fall for colleagues, and the consequences of acting on those percolating emotions, may help us figure out whether workplace romance is worth the risks. "You've got to weigh the costs and benefits and then just say, 'OK, I'm talking about a partner for a significant portion of my life--I'll chance it and take the consequences,' " Way says.
o PROXIMITY. We fall in love with coworkers, well, because they're there. The more you're around someone, studies show, the more you tend to like them. And liking, if other conditions are right, can evolve into deeper feelings. Being dual level, as well. You don't get a chance to smell her perfume or notice those tiny hairs on the back of his neck otherwise.
Propinquity can be either physical, such as desks being located near each other, or functional, as in working together on a project. It can even be occasional or incidental, such as running into him in the snack bar or elevator, or being sent with her to the same seminar. Repeated exposure leads to familiarity, which leads to trust, which leads to. . .well, you get the idea.
In one survey, 94 percent of the office romances reported were between employees in the same building; 34 percent were in the same or adjoining offices. Close working conditions encourage shared confidences. When rent is flooded or your mother's ill, the person you tell first is often someone sitting near you. Computer message systems have taken functional proximity to a whole new level. Cyberspace pen pals can be floors apart, yet find common ground when linked by a mainframe. The New York Times recently profiled a couple who conducted a prolonged correspondence through interoffice e-mail before their wedding. The wife described the experience as "a wonderful combination of old-fashioned courting and, at the same time, up-to-the-minute technology." Through extensive computer networks within companies, "bytes and blips have become yet another means for the endlessly inventive human heart to make connections," said the article.
And, computer courters claim, it's safe--there's no physical contact until an emotional connection's been made. Of course, computerized love notes may not be completely private; employers have the right to monitor the message system. And clever coworkers can gain access to office mates' mail.
o SAFETY. We all know the free-wheeling, penicillin-resistant demons out there that have sabotaged the free-love generation. There's not only AIDS but other sexually transmitted diseases. Then add the psychopath lottery (pick your numbers and take your chances that the cute guy walking by at the beach isn't a Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer). And throw in the free-floating anxiety associated with our increasingly anemic society.
Enter your coworkers. You've seen the pictures on their desks, the relationship they have with their ex-, the way they handle pressure. You know their favorite foods, the kinds of jokes that make them laugh, the name of the dog they had in third grade.
"We're a highly mobile society. Work is the only community we have, it's the main thoroughfare for our lives," says sociologist Schwartz. "There's a certain amount of fear in meeting people we can't locate. In the workplace, there's a sense of safety and familiarity." It's that old choice, the known vs. the unknown.
Corporate offices have replaced singles bars as a prime mating market and are usurping churches, neighborhoods, social dubs, and family networks as the way couples meet. College is the only other place where we are brought together with so many like-minded peers. But since more marriages are delayed until after graduation, colleague relationships are taking the place of coed mating.
"Human resource offices may attempt to ban the notion, but men and women working together is a more romantic setting than a school campus," says Bill Powers, a retired Belk Lindsey department store executive who met his wife at work. "Work actually serves as a natural courtship ground, because at work, communication is encouraged. An exhausting job performance over a period of time will remove the veneer from the timid. Flirtatious signals may well be subtle, but they are continually being sent and received."
o SIMILARITIES. We tend to work with people who are like us in many ways--similar social class, education and income levels, interests, attitudes, and values, with the corollary being that "like attracts like."
Mainiero, whose pioneering research led to a book on Office Romance: Love, Power and Sex in the Workplace (Macmillan), says that because companies choose employees who fit into the corporate culture, they have, in effect, prescreened large groups of qualified romantic candidates. "In a way, the corporation has now taken the place of dating services." Since her study of love in the workplace, Mainiero has received hundreds of letters recounting workplace dating experiences.
"I found that there is a positive side. Until then, there had just been a negative impression, based on bad experiences with hierarchical relationships."
The advent of peer relationships has revolutionized love at work as well as at home. Office peers have an opportunity to develop romances based on friendship and respect. Coworkers who become involved generally admire each other as teammates first, lovers later.
"Today's office romances are very different than the 'powerful boss seduces beautiful young secretary' variety of the past," says Maureen Scully, Ph.D., who focused on organizational work ethics as an assistant professor of management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School.
Workplace couples are as likely to have been irresistibly attracted to each software virus as dancing to an orchestral love song.
Biologist Phil Crow, 46, first met his wife, Janet, as she was dissecting the spleens of fetal mice in the northern Virginia laboratory where they both worked. "I was very impressed with her technique," he recalls. "You have to realize the mice were the size of a bean, and the spleen was the size of a pinhead. It was amazing to watch."
Many of the commonalities office couples share are work related, but others are surprisingly personal, Betty Ivra met her husband, Rod, at Harris Corporation in Melbourne, Fla. They were both new to Florida and eager to visit the sights. "At first, he was just someone to go to Disney World with," Betty said.
Then the couple discovered how much they had in common: They had previously lived within a mile of each other in the Washington, D.C., area. And, in a scene right out of 101 Dalmatians, they had a matching set of golden retrievers--Angel and Roca. "They say people have dogs who are like them," Betty said. "It was definitely a positive--here's a man who likes the same animals I do."
o AROUSAL. Workplaces can be exciting, challenging, dynamic, stimulating, creative. Or they can be dull, rote, clinical, lonely, frustrating, and boring. Either way works to Cupid's advantage. When the environment is intense, whether through excitement or anxiety, misattribution theory comes to call. We become aroused due to job conditions but transfer those feelings onto the attractive man or woman working nearby.
"Physiological arousal can come from a myriad of work factors, such as time deadlines, physical exertion, extreme temperatures, dangerous working conditions, competitive demands and other anxiety-provoking situations, and can be mislabeled as sexual or romantic feelings for an opposite-sex coworker," says Charles Pierce, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany.
In other words, work is a turn-on. You shower, dress up in a power suit, go to a place where you are valued for your ideas, energy, and ability to get things done. You hang around other people who are also at their best and brightest. Then you're thrown into situations that get the adrenaline flowing.
Office romances are especially common in professions where employees are expected to spend long hours together under intense circumstances, and sometimes depend on each other in matters of life and death.
Hospitals, police stations, newspaper offices, and law firms are hothouses for love. L.A. Law, Homicide Life on the Streets, and E.R. may turn up the melodrama, but some of those simmering sexy subplots are reality based.
"You get turned on by competence, by being a team that wins, by being better together than separate," says Schwartz. "That's very erotic and compelling."
Conversely, romance can add spice to jobs that have become routine. Having a crush on a coworker can perk up an employee's productivity, studies show. Romance brings emotions back into the cubicles of corporate sterility.
o PERKS. Workers often welcome a midday break from office routine and grow close to regular lunch partners. Project teams, already bonded by hundreds of late-night, stress-filled, deadline-driven hours at work, may also socialize after hours at parties and dinners.
Architects Joe and B.J. Barnes, married for just over a year, met while working on several projects together in a New York firm but didn't start dating until they'd been coworkers for two years. "There was a strong social group in the office, and we'd go out for drinks, Mets games, the firm softball team, and parties on the weekends," said B.J.
"We were part of a core group of 10 to 15 people who were similar ages and had similar life situations," said Joe, who was engaged to someone else at the time. When Joe's relationship broke up, he found himself crying on B.J.'s shoulder. "One night, after we had drinks together, I went to get her a cab. I kissed her on the cheek, then I kissed her more passionately. The next day, I called and asked her out."
Some companies also reward top employees with business soirees, out-of-state conferences and conventions, health-club memberships, even cruises. Food, travel, and camaraderie forged through accomplishment and celebration can provide the backdrop for a developing relationship. If a potential romance has been held in check by a conservative corporate culture, business travel might suspend office norms and let the lure of a strange city and anonymous hotel rooms breathe life into boardroom fantasies.
o CONVENIENCE. With workaholism striking, by some estimates, almost half the American population, a large part of employees' lives are spent on the job. If each workday you put in 10 to 12 hours at the office, sleep for seven, eat for two, and commute for one, that leaves between two and four hours for everything else, including washing your underwear.
For upwardly mobile singles compelled to work nights and weekends, finding someone you want to date can be a time-consuming, nearly impossible feat. "If I didn't date at work," said Patty Waiters, a single marketing consultant from Santa Cruz, Ca., "I might as well not date."
With 60-hour workweeks, it's difficult to understand how couples who don't work together ever see each other. Coworker couples can share commuting time and lunch time, walk down the hall rather than pick up the phone, and work on late projects together instead of stranding one spouse at home.
Cyndi and Kevin Renckens, who met while working in financial services for Martin Marietta, share the half-hour drive to work twice a week. "Life gets so busy, commuting offers us a great time to talk and not have any outside distractions," Cyndi says.
They also provide emotional support to each other during the day. "Just seeing her at work can lift my spirit," Kevin confides.
o BIOLOGY. Employees are not only socially motivated but biologically primed to become attracted to coworkers. Hormones flow in the office as well as outside it.
On-the-job romances involve varying degrees of intimacy, passion, and commitment. They may range from one-night flings to long-term marriages. But all have a sexual component, unlike the deep friendships, mentor relationships, and unrequited crushes that also develop at work.
"An organizational romance exists when two employees have acknowledged their mutual attraction and have physically acted upon their romantic feelings in the form of a dating or otherwise intimate relationship," according to psychologist Herman Aguinis, Ph.D., of the State University of New York at Albany.
These office romances are far from platonic, and the participants don't seem to have grasped the concept of delayed gratification: A quarter of employees say they've had sex on the premises of the workplace. Another 18 percent claim having had sex with a coworker during work hours.
But there's more to workplace romance than just sexual flings.
To call a deep relationship that involves love and marriage potential an "office romance" tends to trivialize and oversimplify the phenomenon, finds Marcy Crary, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., who is an expert on male-female relationships in the workplace.
"Most of us have been socialized into thinking of intimacy and work as two separate compartments in our lives; intimacy takes place at home, work at our place of employment." But in a study of attraction and intimacy at work, she reports in Organizational Dynamics, real life is messier. "For many, the realities of day-to-day experiences belie these rational arrangements of our worlds."
Indeed, in the 1990s, the proliferation of home offices and office romances are signs that the boundary between work and home is not as rigid or impermeable as it once was. The elements that Sigmund Freud said make up a healthy individual work and love--have become overlapping spheres once again. Integrating the fragmented parts of our selves promises to bring emotional balance to our lives. And for singles, it's legitimizing the only place left to look.
For her study, Crary interviewed professional men and women, primarily in their 30s and 40s, about their experiences with attraction in the workplace. She received such a detailed description from one woman that she included it in her article as an exhibit: "First, I'll find myself noticing something about his physical appearance. Then, I'll ruminate over some personal data about him. The person may appear in my dreams. I begin to ask him questions about himself, watch how he is with other people, perhaps get in conversations with friends at work about who's cute or not, and think of him, perhaps giggling at his joke more. I'll initiate more conversations with him. I may covertly pass on information about my availability. I move into a more personal state and seek contact with him outside the workplace."
Office romances tend to develop in predictable stages. From her interviews with more than 100 executive men and women around the country, Mainiero has identified four common stages:
1. Fantasy. A sudden romantic interest in a colleague develops; it may result in dressing up, daydreaming, and working harder to try to impress the potential lover.
2. Honeymoon. The employees realize the attraction is mutual and act upon it. They go on a date, begin a relationship, and may be distracted at work, with eyes only for each other.
3. Renewal. The relationship enters a stable phase; concentration on work returns. The couple feels comfortable and secure with one another and gets into a routine.
4. Climax. The couple makes a decision to head toward a long-term commitment, such as marriage, or to break off the relationship. There's often a painful period of self-evaluation.
As workplace couples negotiate such personal landmarks, they must also worry about their status as employee and coworker. About two-thirds of workplace couples try to keep their relationship a secret. But most office couples are known to be an "item" long before any formal announcement. While employees might prefer to keep their romantic involvement quiet, colleagues tend to be incredibly sensitive to even subtle changes in the behavior of someone in their work group. After all, keeping attuned to the office's hidden alliances is critical to employees' corporate survival, and gossip can spread faster than a global memo.
Even at work, everyone loves a lover. Coworkers tend to be most supportive of an office romance when they sense the couple is in love and headed for commitment, concludes Robert Quinn, Ph.D., an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan.
In a survey of 126 professionals, reported in Administrative Science Quarterly, Quinn looked at the "Formation, Impact and Management of Romantic Relationships in Organizations." He detected three types of motivation:
o Love Motives. Employees look for companionship or marriage. The couple tends to be monogamous, committed, careful not to let their work slip.
o Ego Motives. Employees seek excitement, adventure, or a sexual fling. The trouble comes when expectations don't match.
o Job Motives. Employees seek advancement, money, power, or promotion. Coworkers feel cheated if the romantic relationship gives the employee an unfair advantage.
Reports Quinn: "When two participants are perceived as being sincerely in love, the relationship has a different meaning than when the male is perceived as always looking for his next conquest and the female is thought of as being on her way up the organization."
The corollary is, not every office romance goes smoothly and not all company couples are looked upon favorably. Hierarchical romances, extramarital affairs, breakups, and sexual harassment are the litany human resource managers recite to support a skeptical view of workplace romance. Supervisors want things to run smoothly, and emotional issues can gunk up the gears with sticky situations and tangled obligations.
o DATING THE BOSS. Supervisor-subordinate dating is the most hazardous to an employee's reputation and career. These relationships, say researchers, evoke company censure, ill-will from fellow workers, and possible lawsuits.
If the relationship breaks up, the lower status employee may be forced out of a job or feel emotionally unable to work for the ex-lover. If the relationship endures, jealousy and resentment among coworkers may surface.
Coworkers who believe they were passed over for promotion due to such a relationship can claim "paramour preference" in court. When two peers are dating, status issues don't come into play. But when a manager is sleeping with an employee he's also supervising and evaluating, it disrupts staff morale and becomes a human resource director's nightmare.
"The main issue is not sex, or even gender, but power and politics," Mainiero explains. "The ideal relationship would be two single peers in two different departments who have very different career paths. It's cleaner that way. It will always raise eyebrows if an employee is reporting to their lover. There's a fear by coworkers that power is being traded for sex."
Colleagues become alienated or envious, believing that they won't receive the same consideration or attention from their boss as his or her lover. Even if a lover is given a deserved promotion, it won't be perceived as such.
Exhibit A is the well-publicized early-1980s relationship between president William Agee and his then-executive assistant, Mary Cunningham, at Bendix Corporation, a Fortune 500 maker of industrial and aerospace equipment. Cunningham, an MBA in her late 20s, was quickly promoted to vice-president for corporate and public affairs, then to vice-president of strategic planning. Rumors flew that the rapid rise of "Bendix Mary" was due more to her relationship with Agee than to her competence.
Cunningham left the company, and later wrote about the experience in Power Play: What really happened at Bendix? "That I happened to be the most convenient pawn around was merely coincidental. My fortunes were inextricably tied to Bill's. If he fell, I went, too. Probably my biggest error was ignoring all the warning signals in the name of duty or loyalty."
Nevertheless, the romance had a happy ending: The Agees were married in 1982 and commissioned an ice sculpture for their reception of two adjoining hands, symbolizing "the bonds of business partnership and matrimony."
As more women move into management positions, the boss in a hierarchical work romance is as likely to be female as male. The part of the hardened editor having an affair with a bright young reporter in the movie, The Paper, was played by Glenn Close, not Robert Duvall.
Whatever the gender order, dating up the chain of command is the only arrangement that almost all companies, even the most liberal, firmly prohibit. Most companies have written policies banning super-visor-subordinate relationships and enforce them by transferring or even dismissing employees who are discovered in such romances.
"We have a young crew here, most in their mid-20s, and I know dating happens. There's no policy, nothing formal about it," says Kelly Candelaria, a human resources officer of Ticketmaster's Los Angeles office. "Except that there's no dating your boss."
But if romances were so readily controlled, the whole issue would be moot. The fact is, bosses fall in love, too, consequences be damned.
Mark, a grocery store manager for a large Florida chain who asked that his last name not be used, moved in with one of his cashiers. He had to switch stores and took a $10,000 a year pay cut. "I kind of admired that they made me move, rather than her," he said. "But it's taken me about three years to get back up to the salary I had then."
o EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIRS. About one-third of office romances are extramarital affairs, which tend to be uncomfortable for other colleagues. Coworkers feel caught in the middle, awkward around the participants' spouses, and sometimes angry about the impropriety of the situation. Both participants may find that they have damaged their careers by engaging in behavior seen as unprofessional.
"Levels of tolerance toward affairs seem to depend on three factors," says Mainiero. "How discreet the affair is, the motives of the couple having the affair, and the level of conservatism in the company." She cites the case of a man whose wife had been committed to a state mental hospital who began an affair with a woman in his small real estate office. The other employees were pleased that he had found some happiness and supported the relationship.
Wal-Mart used to prohibit dating between employees, if one or both were married, and fire anyone who committed adultery with a fellow worker. But then a New York woman, who was legally separated, was fired for dating a single coworker, she sued the company and won, although the company was vindicated in an appeal. Wal-Mart has since changed its corporate policy and ignores all dating except in cases where a direct supervisory relationship exists.
o BREAKING UP. It's always hard to do, but it's even harder in the office. Continuing to see an ex-lover day-in, day-out can be torture, a constant reminder of the failed relationship. There's no such thing as escaping into work. A coworker breakup can create a war zone in the office, with employees taking sides.
Breakups also bring out the worst in people--and not uncommonly give rise to charges of sexual harassment, whether real or manufactured. The bitter residue left by personal rejection can translate into office fights and vengeful paybacks. One jilted lover continued to send computer messages to her ex-boyfriend that alternated between pleading for his return and threatening his job and new relationship. He finally made a printout of the harassing comments and took them to a supervisor, which was enough to stop the behavior.
Mainiero suggests that both parties sign a contingency plan at the beginning of their relationship. Such a document should contain general guidelines for how to rationally handle a breakup, including agreeing to "avoid emotional scenes at the office" and "continuing to act professionally with each other as colleagues."
o SEXUAL HARASSMENT. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines unlawful sexual harassment as either quid pro quo (job favors in return for sexual favors) or environmental (hostile or offensive work environment). The behavior must be unwelcome, deliberate or repeated, and result in economic or psychological damage.
An office romance is distinguished from sexual harassment in that it is jointly desired. Mutual attraction can be fickle, however, and charges of sexual harassment may emerge later.
"A lot of sexual harassment cases started with what at least one side said was a consensual affair," observes attorney Carole Katz, a partner in the Pittsburgh firm of Reed, Smith, Shaw, and McClay, who specializes in employment law and works preventively with companies on the issue of sexual harassment. "The employer then gets dragged into a personal fight that usually involves one employee's word against another's about something that happened behind closed doors."
On a cautionary note: Women who are involved in an office romance and then later file a sexual harassment suit against their former dating partner may be seen as less innocent, and the accused treated with more leniency, than in cases where there was no previous consensual relationship. In a 1992 survey, 98 M.B.A. candidates asked to judge a hypothetical situation of sexual harassment viewed the woman as more complicit, and the man as less guilty, if there had been a prior romance.
Companies will go to great lengths to avoid sexual harassment suits, since they often involve moral scandal, negative publicity, and--more importantly--big bucks.
The Navy, after the spectacle of Tailhook, put together a 64-page handbook full of rules and regulations for on-the-job conduct and, in fact, have set up a toll-free "sexual harassment advice line" as an emergency romantic reference.
In civilian life and in the military, those who find themselves interested in a coworker are proceeding with caution, in light of the new sensitivity toward sexual harassment. "Men are starting slower and are careful to make sure advances are wanted--in the past, they might expect to be rebuffed, but not to lose their job," said Schwartz. "They're more timid now: 'Would you, could you, does this bother you?'"
Most companies take a hands-off approach to office dating unless the relationship interferes with work. In a 1991 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 92 percent of members said their company had no policy at all regarding love at work.
"With the changing nature of the work force--opposite-sex work teams and working more days of the week--it's human nature," insists psychologist Charles Pierce. "How can you put a policy on it when it's going to happen?"
"Employees have legitimate and legally protected privacy concerns," says attorney Katz. "Society recognizes and encourages the right of employees to associate freely and to pursue personal relationships that do not affect their job performance."
When problems related to office romance do surface at work, companies take an increasingly progressive attitude. In the late 1980s, they proved more open to taking positive action, such as discussing the relationship and providing counseling, than in the late 1970s, when reprimands and transfers were more common.
"Even no policy is a policy on this issue," says Robert Ford, Ph.D., professor of management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. To ignore the issue is tantamount to approval, given employees' social and biological inclinations.
Only one company of the 245 Ford surveyed had formal policies against single employees dating each other. Just 2.4 percent had formal policies against married workers having affairs with other employees--although more managers said they would ignore the former more so than the latter. By contrast, 43 percent of the companies had formal rules about displaying nude pictures or obscene cartoons at work.
Ford is adamant that the mixing of love and work is "the beginning of a horror story." He contends "companies are taking a chance on two out of three bad outcomes. The couple could end up hating each other. Or they could get married, which brings up the concern of nepotism. Or they could return to a neutral relationship."
As a manager, Ford says, he'd do his "best to discourage dating at work. It inhibits a sense of professionalism and builds an indulgent company culture."
How companies look upon love at work has a lot to do with how they look at workers--whether they see them as whole people with hearts and libidos intact or as cogs in a flow chart. The business world has long attempted to manage emotions by removing them from the workplace, under the illusion that "a healthy business personality is different from a healthy human personality," says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman.
Indeed, observes the University of Wisconsin's James Dillard, there were historical forces that desexualized the work-place--religious morality, the idea that workers must be efficient and logical, with control over their emotions"--the Mr. Spock model of man. But management thinking has moved away from the puritanical notions that workers must be saved from their baser animal instincts.
Today, says Dillard, the workplace has become more balanced in terms of gender and expectations of workers. And managers now understand that people "are working together not just as machines but they are interacting."
The corporate culture--its personality--defines how companies respond to workplace romance. Companies that are slow paced, conventional, and conservative tend to discourage office dating, whereas fast-paced, dynamic, liberal companies take office relationships in stride.
In the new, global economy, companies that are flexible and adaptable may well be the ones that survive. Anything that increases employee satisfaction decreases costly employee turnover. On-site daycare, quality circles, flextime, job sharing, holistic health plans, stress-reduction seminars--these are all signs that companies are more progressive on social and family issues, because they have to. The social amenities a company offers, and a sense of community engendered among employees, already have become drawing points for attracting new talent in the most highly competitive markets, like that of software development.
Companies that are progressive about social and environmental issues tend to have enlightened views about office romance as well. Ben & Jerry's, headquartered in Waterbury, VT, is the home of Rainforest Crunch, on-site childcare, and winter solstice parties with subsidized hotel rooms so no one will drink and drive.
"We expect that our employees will date, fall in love, and become partners," says Liz Lonergan, human resources manager. "If a problem comes up, we encourage employees to let us know and we'll talk about it. At Ben & Jerry's, we feel that people can be who they are. I'd hate to think that it's okay to be gay and be out, but you have to keep it hidden if you're dating someone at the same site."
Even in settings as conservative as law firms, office dating is not uncommon. "You're talking about people who don't have anything but their job," says partner Don Steele of employees in his Los Angeles law firm. With 80 associates in the firm, he says, dating is inevitable, but "very carefully done." Sexual harassment issues are a concern, and attorneys are well aware of the potential liability issues involved. The relationships that do form, like the one between a senior associate and her coworker husband, tend to be "solid, not the spicy stuff on L.A. Law," says Steele.
Then there's that ultimate arbiter of modern mores, Miss Manners herself, aka Judith Martin. She's pro-office romance--within proper limits, of course. "I'm in favor of having them conducted in people's private time. If you want to give someone meaningful stares, and they're staring back at you in a meaningful way, and it doesn't disrupt the entire office, and you're having a hot romance after hours, I wish you much happiness."
Long before women entered the work force and romance became an issue, the rules and roles of power were inscrutable and arbitrary. Favoritism and hidden agendas were established parts of the office scene. Deep friendships and old loyalties have led to many a questionable promotion or inflated annual raise. Female employees have long contended that promotions are handed out on the golf course, and that fraternal bonding over happy-hour beers excludes women who are trying to find equal footing on the corporate escalator.
The reality, says Goodman, is that there are "all sorts of political and personal alliances in the corporate power structure that are untinged by sex."
Love looks benign by comparison.
THE RIGHT APPROACH TO OFFICE ROMANCE
1. Don't play kissy face on company time. Constant touches, back massages, cute nicknames, and making out in the hallway leave coworkers embarrassed and bosses with questions as to your professionalism and ability to concentrate on work assignments.
2. Don't date the boss. Coworkers will resent your undercover alliance and will question even deserved rewards or promotions. You'll be the target of gossip, maybe even sabotage. And if the relationship sours, you may lose your job. If you and your supervisor do fall for each other, decide which one will ask for a voluntary transfer to another department.
3. Read the fine print. Know your company's written policies and unwritten norms on workplace dating, extramarital affairs, nepotism, and married couples working in the same office. Find out what the reaction was to previous company romances and how they were dealt with by management.
4. Don't sleep with married colleagues. The sizzle you feel may be real but can be transformed into a creative, collegial relationship instead of a messy extramarital affair.
5. Have clear boundaries. Make sure that you and your lover are seen as individuals at work. Don't blur personal and professional lines in the office. And never carry over a fight from home to work.
6. Never say never. Eliminating colleagues as potential lovers and long-term companions could be cheating yourself out of a wonderful relationship. As Erica Jong has said, "The trouble is, if you don't risk anything, you risk even more."
PROFILES IN ROMANCE
Cops: Partners in Crime
Before Susan met Jim Bradford, she had a firm rule against dating guys she worked with. "I had set a policy never to date law enforcement officers. But I talked to Jim a long time at a squad party and found out we had a lot in common--family interests, bike riding, running. This guy was not just a police officer, he was also a really nice person."
Susan had also discovered that other men she dated, predominately businessmen, were intimidated by her being a sheriff's deputy. "We'd go out for a date, and I'd have a gun in my purse," she said. "It never worked."
Jim and Susan dated for a year and a half before getting married. Their coworkers were shocked when they received the wedding invitations.
"We were careful to keep our private life private," says Susan, 31, an environmental deputy and hostage negotiator for the Hillsborough County (Florida) Sheriff's Office. "At work, we only talked to each other if it was work related."
Jim, 29, a property detective, says he was attracted to Susan's well-rounded and up-beat personality right away.
Now he finds there are definite advantages to marrying a fellow officer. "Susan understands what I go through at work. We can debrief and vent frustrations. She knows about the job stresses and the police subculture," Jim says.
The only rule at the Sheriff's Office is that dating or married couples can't work out of the same district. While Susan admits she and Jim worry when each hears that the other is out on a perilous call, they realize that's just part of the beat.
"We accepted when we went into this job that it was dangerous," Susan explains. "I know Jim's cautious. I don't overreact. And I understand when he's called out in the middle of the night."
Architects: Building a Life
Andrew Wolfram was working at a New York City firm as a summer intern when he met Chandler, an architect at the firm. "Our desks were so close, our chairs would bump into each other," Chandler says.
They worked together on a few projects and started going to lunch with each other every day. It was Chandler who took the initiative to expand their relationship, calling Andrew at home one evening.
"I met most of my friends or past lovers at work," says Chandler, 35. "It's the place I form most of my relationships. You get to know a person when you're with them eight hours a day."
Being gay, the couple said, may have caused them to be extra careful to keep their dating discreet. "We didn't want any gossip," confides Andrew, 31.
In a way, it was easier for them to conduct an office romance than for straight couples. "Being the same sex, there wasn't that male-female kind of power thing," explains Chandler. "Traditional male-female roles don't exist in same-sex relationships. It was more egalitarian."
Chandler and Andrew enjoy traveling together to look at buildings, most recently going to Pittsburgh to see Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water."
"Being an architect is different from being a stock-broker--you don't put it down at the end of the day," says Chandler.
Engineers: Quality Control
Martha Rand thinks work is a wonderful place to meet a partner. "You learn whether or not you're a fit--you're not just pretending to fit, as you are on a date," she says. "And even when you get past the infatuation stage, you still have something to talk about."
She and her husband Joel, both electrical engineers, met at the General Dynamics Corporation in Fort Worth while developing software programs. Martha was one of the few women engineers on the project.
"I was very impressed with Joel professionally," says Martha, 30. "He epitomized some of the qualities I wanted to develop."
At the next happy hour their work group attended, she and Joel "drank a little too much and got flirtatious," Martha remembers. "It opened the floodgates. We had a long talk at lunch the next day."
Joel said they went out of their way not to be too social in the office. "We never held hands when we walked in together. It just didn't seem the thing to do."