By MH Staff - Posted on 8th June 2013
Don’t bother with the bar scene. Skip the online meat market. The odds are good that you’re already surrounded by eligible women five days a week. They’re your colleagues and one of them just might be a keeper. But is it worth the risk?
1 HR is important but your colleagues call the shots
When Grant (whose name has been changed, as have all names in this article) met Amanda, he was 23, just starting at Yahoo!, and on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder. She was 29, a strawberry blonde, dressed in all black, a pencil behind her ear. He was instantly attracted. She was his supervisor.
Many romances between bosses and their employees begin just as innocently. What's surprising is how few companies have a policy on these or any other type of office relationship: only 25%, according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management.
Of course, there can be a huge difference between what's allowed and what's smart. In the same report, 80% of HR professionals and 60% of employees felt that boss-subordinate relationships should be prohibited. In fact, people who date a superior are trusted less and lied to more often by colleagues than those who date a peer, according to Dr Sean Horan, a professor of communication at DePaul University in Chicago. "People might think you are getting access to unfair resources," he says. "They are going to communicate with you differently."
Fortunately for Grant – at least when it came to his career – Amanda wasn't interested. But by the time he transferred to a new department, the two were hanging out a lot. They ate lunch together and had drinks with colleagues. As though banished forever to the realm of "friend," Grant even slept on Amanda's couch while he was between apartment leases.
Then one night, after a dinner party at her place, they started kissing. He woke up the next morning in her bedroom and slipped out.
2 Figure out if it's a fling before you take off your clothes
As far as Grant was concerned, that night was the start of a long-in-the-making romance. For Amanda, it was a drunken mistake. That disconnect between perceptions would be difficult for any guy, but when you have to face the woman you slept with the next morning at work and then the morning after that and so on, you're pretty much stranded on the island of Awkward.
This was what happened with Max, then 23, and Louise, then 27. It wasn't long after they first met on the job that they went from chatting in the kitchen to drinking beers at the nearby pub to groping each other under the conference room table. Work was fun for a change.
But just as Louise was prepared to become more serious with Max, he was ready to end it. What happened next with them is what happens in many unsuccessful office romances: one person moves on, the other broods. Louise watched Max flirt with colleagues. She fumed. Lucky for Max, she was a silent brooder. That's not always the case. Rejection can do crazy things to a person's mind. "Do you really want the awkwardness?" asks Frenkel. "It's called office politics because of the unpredictable relationship bureaucracy and a bunch of individuals with differing opinions creates – and that's without complicating it with a unrequited love interest out to prove you're not up to scratch and make your daily existence hell."
3 Be break-up ready
Not to be a mood killer, but no matter how promising your new relationship seems in the moment, more likely than not it won't work out. More than 60% of all new couples broke up within the first year, according to Rosenfeld. Given these odds, the best way to avoid the ugliness of an office break-up may be to talk about the possibility while you're still in the blissfully nascent (albeit ignorant) stages of courtship.
Mainiero interviewed 100 female business executives about office romance and found that the women who viewed their break-ups most positively were those who had already discussed the worst-case scenario on the first date. That's right: the first date. If you attempt to do triage once things have already fallen apart and emotions enter the picture, you're too late. And since your ex-girlfriend doesn't become your ex-colleague, you want her to be happy, or at least not blubbering in the bathroom. "It may sound odd," says Mainiero, "but it's a good idea to set up strategies."
For Grant and Amanda, the romance seemed to go wrong even before it had the chance to go right. She wanted to remain friends. He wanted all or nothing. Under normal circumstances, a guy might be persistent. But in the office, persistence can translate into creepiness, which can translate into a call from HR. In short: grin and bear it. As awkward as it was, that's just what Grant did. "I was so furious," he says. "There was a period of silent treatment."
In a way, Grant and Amanda were lucky. Around the same time their relationship was failing, another office couple showed them exactly how not to act. The couple was constantly breaking up and getting back together, mad at each other one moment and madly in love the next.
"Their relationship was ridiculous," recalls Grant. "It became a serious problem." But that's the thing: once you've wandered into relationship drama at work, there's no telling what might trigger the next blow-up. Level-headed as you think you are, try being polite to the person who, hours earlier, called you a selfish bastard.
4 Never mix pillow talk with office talk
To avoid starring in your own nine-to-five soap opera, keep all relationship conversations out of the office in the first place – even when things are going great. That will make it easier to hold the negative stuff at bay, says Dr Tina Tessina, a relationships psychotherapist and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again. "If something goes bad, you will have the reflexes to not let those feelings out at work."
Consider the approach Rick and Nina took. They first became involved when Rick, 26, was a legal intern at the firm where Nina, 25, was a research assistant. Eventually Rick was hired full-time as an attorney, at which point he made a conscious decision to treat Nina even more professionally than he did the other researchers. "At work we are very rigid around each other," he says. "With every other person on her level in the organisation I'm pretty chummy."
"That's fine if you both know the game you're playing," Frenkel adds. "Depending who's being icy in the office, the other partner could feel resentful and sidelined. Men tend to be very good at compartmentalising areas in their lives, while the lines can be more blurred for women."
There's another reason to keep your distance in the office. Tempting as it might be, hanging out with your love interest during work hours can lead to what Tessina calls "hyper-cliquing," or bonding with someone at the expense of other relationships. Soon your colleagues will feel neglected, then resentful. This is more than just bailing on your buddies for a girl. These people hold a stake in your career.
5 Try putting yourself in her heels for a change
You may see your workplace as uber enlightened and sans sexism, but the reality is that women still need to fight for the things men take for granted. That's why if you're romantically involved with a colleague, there's a good chance she's going to worry more than you will about what others around the office think about your relationship.
Here's an example of what she's up against. In a study published in the British Journal of Management titled "Don't Screw the Crew," Dr Kathleen Riach, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Essex, England, found that gender stereotypes emerged when she asked employees across a chain of pubs in the UK how they felt about colleague romances. "The man was often viewed as a kind of masculine stud who had conquered women at work," Riach says, "whereas the women were more likely to be seen as being promiscuous."
When Vivian, 27, and Mike, 33, first started dating, she was writing for the newspaper where he was the weekend magazine editor. Meaning well, Mike once boasted to another editor that Vivian was a great reporter. The editor just laughed and gave Mike a macho jab in the gut that said he knew just what kind of "reporting" they'd been up to. It was all in good fun, but when Mike told Vivian what had happened, she was mortified. "He was trying to use his status to help me in my career," she says. "I really didn't want his help."
6 Don't kid yourself; they know
Grant and Amanda didn't talk for weeks. After the tension became unbearable, they agreed to meet outside the office. Turns out Amanda had needed time to process what happened before deciding she wanted to be with Grant. They started seeing each other. But it was early, and they didn't want their colleagues to know.
In the careerbuilder survey, 37% of people involved in a romance said they kept their relationship a secret at work. But did they? No matter how stealthy you think you're being, colleagues often pick up on the subtlest signs of romance, whether it's a quick hand squeeze in the passage or a one-beat-too-long look across the conference table. And even if you don't give it away, bad luck might.
On one of their morning train commutes from Amanda's place, she and Grant ran into the head of HR, who wondered aloud why Grant was in the neighborhood. Didn't he live on the other side of town? He was coming from a dentist's appointment, he said. But it was 7am. From the look on the HR manager's face, it was clear she wasn't buying it.
"Come clean, especially to close colleagues – it will help to reassure them that your new relationship won't affect the one you have with them, and will make it seem less like it's a casual, shady thing you want to hide," says Frenkel. If it reaches the point where others take notice, just fess up. The way colleagues find out about a relationship can affect their opinion of both parties, says Horan. In interviews he conducted with people whose colleagues were involved in romances, those who were told flat out about the relationship had a more positive response than those who, say, caught the couple kissing in the parking garage.
7 Do not do it on top of the photocopier
Or on a filing cabinet. Or in any of the other places where 20% of the 35 000 women surveyed by worldwit said they'd had a sexual encounter with a colleague in the office, including in conference rooms, lifts and storage rooms, and yes, even on the boss's desk.
Most relationships go through an I-can't-keep-my-hands-off-you stage. But you can, and you must. It's not only violating company policy that you ought to worry about. It's striking a nerve with the newly divorced woman at the front desk. It's pissing off the IT guy who hasn't had sex in six months. The truth is, more than half of employees – your colleagues – feel that public displays of affection should not be allowed in the workplace, while only 35% of HR professionals do, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
In the case of Andrew, 26, and Mia, 34, it didn't take long for their harmless flirting to catch the attention of others in the office. When he kissed her impulsively during a team-building exercise, she got spooked about how people might react. And no wonder: Mia had already received a playful card from a colleague that she didn't find all that amusing. It read: "Happy birthday to the office slut!"
8 Protect your good name
Speaking of sluts: don't be one. Even just the perception that you're the office Casanova could be a "major turn-off" to your female colleagues, says Stephanie Losee, co-author of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding – and Managing – Romance on the Job (R193, kalahari.com). More importantly, it can also feed the gossip mill, which may have an unexpected impact on your career: a 2009 American study showed that people who are targets of colleague whispers are also likely to be gossiped about publicly during formal work meetings.
As Jason, 32, found out, sometimes the lothario label can have a long life. He'd been dating Jen, 29, for nearly four years when a trade publication ran an article that he was leaving AOL – where they'd met – for a position with another company. Soon after the story went up, so did a reader comment warning women at Jason's new workplace to watch out. "He sleeps around," the person wrote. It didn't matter that he and Jen were living together by that point. His player reputation had stuck.
That's not to say office dating isn't worth the risks. Remember Grant and Amanda? While the first time he wound up in her bed didn't go over well, these days – 10 years later – it's where he wakes up every morning.