A Fine Balance: Love and Work

Posted by Aparna Kumar on May 9, 2011
A Fine Balance: Love and Work
Attraction. Desire. Common interests. Close quarters. Whatever the reason, romance develops in the office just like anywhere else. But what leads coworkers to act on their attraction, to take that extra step and get involved?

Social Outlet
For many people, whether they like it or not, the office is not just a place to do work—it's also their primary social outlet. In such industries as management consulting and investment banking, new recruits fresh out of college or MBA programs join firms as classes. At many firms, classes go through training together—often in popular spring break locales such as Palm Beach, Florida—and engage in firm bonding or orientation events, where drinks flow freely and pairing off is inevitable. "You just don't talk about it openly," says a former Merrill Lynch analyst. "Especially if it's within the same division. But it's pretty much known."

Asset or Liability
For those who have to travel a lot or work at client sites, the possibility of striking up a romance with someone on the same project can be an on-the-job liability—or an asset, depending on how it turns out. "The consulting industry requires many late nights—-often in cities where you know no one—-and for the socially inept, work is a place where you can get to know people very well and they can get to know you," says one avowed office dater.

Young people starting out in high-pressure industries like investment banking, the Internet, or medicine often find it can help to have a partner who can truly empathize with their demanding and often stressful careers. "Anybody who goes into I-banking with an existing relationship outside the firm, watch out. I'd say 80 percent of the time, the relationship will fall apart," says the ex-Merrill analyst. "For instance, if you've got a date with another banker but you're swamped with work, you can call at the last minute and cancel. They'll understand, because they're going through the same thing."

With companies boasting a "work hard, play hard" culture and touting their work/life balance initiatives, it's not surprising that many employees are taking such a sporting attitude to heart. Some even argue that working with your lover is the ultimate form of work/life balance. "It's efficient," says one worker. "A big reason why a lot of relationships fail is that people work too much, so dating a coworker eliminates that problem." Other office daters cited "commuting together" and "having the same vacation days" as additional perks.

Of course, there are negative aspects of intraoffice dating, as well. While there may be less formality involved in asking out someone you work with (because you get to know them gradually, in the safe haven of the office), if your affection is unrequited, things can become awkward or uncomfortable. And the best things about dating a coworker can often be the worst things as well. Even if the feelings are mutual, the relationship may not be all sweetness and light.

On the positive side, your "friend" is never more than 50 yards away, you can send schmoopie e-mails all day long, and office gossip can fill in during awkward gaps in conversation. On the negative side, Your office "mate" is never more than 50 yards away, and because you talk about office gossip all the time, your professional and personal life tend to blend together. You go home with a coworker and you end up talking about work all night. "It can be like a broken record," says Helen, a marketing manager.

For participants, the most common side effects of intraoffice dating are lowered productivity and that they become the subject of contagious office gossip. But there can be even more negative repercussions to office relationships. At the extreme, "if the relationship goes south, it can even result in violence in the workplace," warns Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career. Of course, office romances can be career-damaging as well. If you're caught doing anything inappropriate on company premises, or if your coworker-turned-jilted-lover decides to sue you for sexual harassment, you can kiss your job goodbye.

The risks of intraoffice dating may be obvious and well documented, but they're not enough to discourage the nameless thousands who get involved with coworkers every year. Dave, an expert in the art of workplace dating, is currently involved in a clandestine affair with a woman in his office. It's clandestine mostly because both he and his office "mate" have had previous relationships with other coworkers. "I have 'touched bases' with a few of my coworkers," he says. "But how could I resist? If a singles bar is a glass of milk, than the office is the whole cow."

Of course, if you work for a big company like IBM or PricewaterhouseCoopers, and if your sweetheart is in a different group, division, or even just on a different floor, the fact that you're involved is probably no big deal. It's the couples that work in close quarters that run the greatest risk of suffering the consequences of an office hook-up.

Lisa's story is a familiar one. A woman in her late 30s and the head of her department at a major financial services company, Lisa got involved with a coworker in his late 20s. "People suspected they were together. It became a game for the rest of us, trying to piece together the puzzle and determine that they were in fact, getting it on," says one of Lisa's former coworkers. The speculation hurt Lisa's credibility and she eventually resigned. The young man stayed on at the company and promptly started dating a woman Lisa had hired. "Of course, he didn't tell number two that he had dated her boss—but the rest of us knew," says the former coworker.

If you find yourself considering an office romance, know what you're getting into and be discreet. Be aware that some companies have a written policy against office romances, even those that happen between equals. Although your company may not be legally able to hold it against you, be safe and assume that an office relationship will be frowned upon.

"For years, the etiquette has been: Don't date up or down. You must know the rules first and in certain cases they can be bent—not broken," says Nan DeMars, author of You Want Me to Do What?: When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work. DeMars advises that (no matter how unromantic it sounds) people go to HR and find out what the rules are before getting involved with a coworker.

But if you simply can't resist getting your kicks on company time, "do it through your Hotmail or Yahoo account," as Lisa advises. "And learn to get quick with the minimize button."

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