Everything You Know About Workplace Romance May Be Wrong

Changing attitudes make it a little safer to fall in love at the office, but you still can get stung.

Dear Valentine: You don’t have to hide your love away in the office anymore so long as you follow your employer’s rules of engagement and remain discreet. Workplace relationships are coming out of the closet. But be careful what you long for.

With people working ever more hours over the past decade it’s becoming more acceptable for workers to connect romantically -- even though some employers still keep the clamps on corporate coupling. In truth, experts say, limiting office relationships is probably no easier than banning Valentine’s Day or flirting at the office Christmas party.

“People spend so much time in the workplace now, where else are they going to meet someone,” says Professor Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economist and workplace expert at University of Texas Austin. “You can restrict office romance, but it’s really not going to change behavior.”

To be sure, office romances are becoming more accepted, but they may not be any easier to carry off than in the past. They are often fraught with risk, reward and excitement – and then they can get really boring.

Who’s Zoomin' Whom?

The numbers show it. in its annual Valentine’s Day Survey says that 38 percent of people have had a workplace relationship. The same survey says that two-thirds of workers do not attach any stigma to office romance. Other surveys have shown that between 20 percent and 30 percent of marriages now start as a workplace relationship.

Powerful executives and politicians get some of the credit for blazing the path for office romance – not so much for being enlightened leaders as for defining the limits of bad behavior. In effect, the culture has been shifted by office Romeos like Jack Welch, Jack Kennedy, David Petraeus, Bill Clinton and John Edwards. And don’t forget to add corporate magnates not well known for their sex appeal like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom engaged in office hookups with women who worked for them. Even their innocent romances, both of which led to marriage, might have won a human resources summons to strivers lower down the corporate ladder.

So, What Are the Rules?

What are the rules that you must follow? One point is universal: Sexual harassment is not office romance. It’s immoral, despicable and actionable. Don’t even think about anything that’s non-consensual.

Beyond that there are some other common sense rules for less-extreme but still unwise office amore: Don’t be pushy, adulterous, overt, obvious, distracting, smoochy or casual in any way about sleeping with co-workers. Most people make efforts to conceal what they do, but that can cause problems too.

“It’s a bad idea to have an affair or a quick fling,” says Katherine Crowley, a workplace psychologist and co-author of Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal. “But it’s becoming understood that things happen, with the work day getting ever longer and work boundaries ever expanding into personal time. When people spend so much work time together inevitably they become attached, they grow increasingly fond of each other and then they are falling in love. ”

If that were the end of it, and it was just another story of love and glory, there would be no problems. Crowley says people start out thinking their relationship is their own business, but many find it hard to hide their love away. Once it’s known among co-workers, problems are almost inevitable. Work couples are seen as being compromised and less than 100 percent committed to the team, especially when an underling takes up with a boss. Even when there is mutual consent, a powerful person taking advantage of an underling is considered very risky behavior.

And the worst thing -- like Woody Allen’s one liner from Annie Hall about relationships being like a Catskill resort’s food -- “terrible, and the portions are too small” -- is that any office relationship, no matter how well-intentioned at the start, has a good chance of ending, and badly. It’s one reason that workplace counselors say it’s best not to date the person in the next cubicle or someone on your work team with whom you deal frequently.

Workplace Damage Control: The Morning After

Most of the office romance counseling that Beth Erickson, PhD does in her Minneapolis practice comes at the end of the affair. “It’s after the breakup that problems occur. There can be immense resentment under the surface and people find themselves not knowing how to go back to a collegial relationship – and indeed it is extremely difficult,” says Erickson.

Even relationships that don’t start in the office can be difficult. The workplace adds complications, and they tend to spin out of control. Employers fear the worst, especially because the Supreme Court ruled that they can be held liable once they become aware of bad behavior. Or should have been aware.

Even CIA director Petraeus failed to keep his love life secret. But the shock value has diminished over time, even for relationships like Petraeus's that might have jeopardized national security. Eliot Spitzer went from disgraced client of a high-priced prostitute to TV host, and sex-texter Anthony Weiner is a frequent talking head on cable. Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer Welch are now successful co-entrepreneurs following their scandalous affair while she wrote about him at Harvard Business Review.

Bigger Workplace Problems Than Snoggin'

“The worries about office cuddling seem quaint in this world,” says one senior human resources executive in the New York financial industry. “People are more worried lately about things like embezzlement and ugly layoffs and theft of customers and intellectual property when people leave.”

A high-level healthcare human resources executive on the West Coast agrees that office relationships “have generally been a non-issue although there have been a few instances where romantic relationships have soured, resulting in some difficult and even painful employee relations matters.”

Such situations require compassion and sensitivity on the part of human resources professionals, the health professional says, and deep understanding. “Work has become an obvious place for people to find partners, lovers, spouses. It is where we spend the most significant part of our waking hours each week and it seems like a natural place to identify people with similar interests, professional goals and even values.”

But this executive, like many others, draws the line when it comes to “employee/boss entanglement,” which inevitably poisons the workplace with favoritism and suspicion. “It’s very foolish on the part of the boss or supervisor to cross this line.”

The Supreme Court is considering a case that could soften the definition of who is responsible for harassment. A decision is expected soon. The case law might then catch up with the reality of the workplace, especially when it involves “horizontal” relationships involving co-workers. Workplace experts show say it’s less likely there will be a big shift toward easing up on “vertical” workplace cases in which bosses can abuse power.

“Powerful people who think they control the world and are Masters of the Universe think they should not have to be bothered by the rules,” says Hamermesh. “When they enter those relationships it hurts everyone – shareholders, workers, the whole company. Everyone in an innocent ‘horizontal’ relationship is hurt. It’s not fair to anyone.”