In Defense of Office Romance

by Cathy Vandewater | February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's day, Vault readers!

In honor of this happiest (or most miserable) of holidays, here's a blast from the past—a little office lovin' advice from the authors of Office Mate, a book on "finding and managing romance on the job."

We offer this point of view today because, for the whole rest of the year, we're telling you not to flirt with coworkers. You've already had it drilled into your head that it's not the safest idea, what with all the sexual harrassment seminars and warnings from friends and other (ahem) career advisors.

But here's where we get to play Cool Mom: if ever there's a day to gamble on love, it's today. And, despite the what HR might have you believe, we're all adults. We can handle a little danger.

Flirt responsibly!

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The term "office romance" implies that the whole course of the relationship takes place within the four walls of the workplace—the dark supply closet for your rendezvous, the break room for your coworkers' whispering, and of course, HR's desk to get fired.

"Just because it's called office romance doesn't mean you should conduct it in the office," says Helaine Olen. That's her number one rule for avoiding drama in love on the job—keep it off site. But the co-author of Office Mate, a guide to workplace romance, says that the dangers are largely overblown.

Office Mate"I think the people who [have office romances] are the people who are capable of doing it," she says. She and her co-author, Stephanie Losee, would know: having met their husbands on the job, they're among those who made it work.

Back when Olen and Losee wrote their book in 2007, around half the working population had engaged in an office romance, with a quarter of those relationships resulting in marriage or cohabitation.

Those numbers have shifted slightly since: according to Vault's 2011 Office Romance Survey, the number of people who have had an interoffice relationship has risen to 59 percent--with half of those respondents reporting having developed a serious, long-term relationship with a colleague.

With so many success stories, why the bad rap? As Olen puts it, "If Match.com had that ratio, it would be on the side of every bus in the city."

We spoke with Helaine Olen to learn more about why office romance might not be as risky (or even particularly provocative) as you may think.

1. The Office is Your "Village"

Remember a safer, gentler time when everyone spoke to their neighbors? Yeah, we don't either. But according to Olen, a survey done in Ohio in the 1950s revealed that half of the married couples polled had lived a mile away from each other (or less) when they first met.

Coincidence? We think not. "Obviously, that's how we used to meet each other," Olen says, "knowing who was who, what was what." Not only did you actually see people every day, you were familiar with their reputations among friends and family—a useful piece of the puzzle to have in the selection process.

So now that we spend much of our time at our jobs, "What has come to be our village is our work community," concludes Olen. That's a key distinction to make from our online social networks, since the connections are in person. The comfort of the same people sitting at the same places every day gives us a sense of orientation and connection, and slowly builds organic relationships.

Of course, the sheer number of hours we spend at work these days limits our social time, further pushing us to seek relationships inside the company. "Somebody once said to me, where else are you going to meet people? The gym?" says Olen.

2. Workplace Romance=Old Fashioned Courtship

After-hours romps and week-long flings? They're in the minority, says Olen. Rather, office relationships tend to form in a slow burn, and last for the long haul.

"It's a more organic way of dating," she says. "We joke that often times a couple dating are the last ones to know that they're actually a couple; rumors of the romance often precede the romance, because people start to spend more time together and as a result, slowly drift into relationships."

She does admit, though, that when they become official, office relationships often move at a faster pace. "You're not getting to know each other on your first date—you already know each other," she observes. The result: once the switch is flipped from platonic to romantic, things progress quite quickly.

3. Your Coworkers Really Don't Mind

Surprisingly, Olen reveals that coworkers of office daters tend to root for the couple. "People see it as a validation of themselves," she says. "If we see a couple forming in our midst, in some ways, we like to think we're responsible for that. Nobody's rooting for you to break up."

Of course, that's only if you're keeping annoying behaviors—like sharing every up and down of the relationship, engaging in either fighting or PDA in office—private.

Another notable exception? Relationships between bosses and subordinates. "That seems to be the place where the most resentments pile up with coworkers," Olen says. She once did a call-in radio show for coworker of inter-office daters, and "Literally person after person called up with awful stories—but they were all [coworkers of] people dating bosses or supervisors."

And Vault's survey results back that claim: 34% of those polled regard boss/employee relations as unacceptable—more than for any other category of workplace relationship.

Otherwise, your workmates are largely okay with love among work-place equals. "People that we interviewed for the book said that the only downside was that they had to have a really large wedding, because everybody wants to be invited," Olen says.

4. The Relationship is More Likely to Succeed

In their book, Olen and Losee discuss "Warren Harding Syndrome"—a term for when you're taken in by a great first impression only to realize that it didn't tell the whole truth. Such a pitfall is common in a dating scenario where all you have to go on at first is a glance across a crowded bar.

But lucky for inter-office daters, it's easy to get beyond knee-jerk assessments when you're working—and spending time—together. That makes for higher-quality unions—and lower risk ones, since you probably have an idea of what you're getting into when you embark on the relationship.

It also might broaden your dating horizons a bit.

"Let's say your love interest can't stand wearing anything other than jeans and you hate jeans," Olen says. "Chances are if you're in a bar or a gym, you're never getting past that point. That's it: one chance and you're over."

But being around the person day after day after day, jeans—or other minor turn-offs—lose their initial importance. Instead, more important qualities take the stage.

"You get to see people at their best and at their worst," Olen says. "Do they work well? Do they like their job? Are they happy? Are they conscientious? Whatever matters to you… what's important to you, you get to see in an office."

Of course, that goes for red flags too—an area those loving coworkers can come in handy on. Listen to them, Olen advises, "if they don't think highly of someone." They know both of you, and they're likely right.

5. The Risks Don't Outweigh The Rewards

Lawsuits? HR throwing the book at you? Horrific breakups?

Relax.

"We make a big deal out of the sexual harassment issues, and they're certainly important," Olen says, "But it's not that common, at the end of the day. Most people who are dating in the office are pretty happy to be dating in the office."

That's not to say that you should be cautious. For example, you should always ask someone out off work grounds, Olen says, "So it doesn't seem like a work-related request." And always take no for an answer, period, no further pursuits.

But don't fret over someone misinterpreting a simple coffee invitation. "The average person is not walking around looking for a sexual harassment suit," Olen says. "It's usually something they do at the end of their rope. It's not, "oh god—he gave me a weird look, that's it.""

Similarly, assumptions that HR will care are also overblown. "I think there are very few companies left where you could imagine it being a big deal," Olen remarks, "That's a great misnomer."

Rather, if you see an office relationship turn serious, just be honest about it. "What people don't want is major secrecy," says Olen. "Frankly, when you think other people in the office are going to figure things out, it's probably worth a mention."

As for the breakups? Well, you're on your own with that one. But chances are you can handle it. "What's amazing is, when people criticize office romance, they forget that we're all basically adults," says Olen. "When you were in the village 150 years ago, nobody ever said "don't think about the guy down the block, because if it doesn't work out you'll have to run into him at the water well for the next 40 years."

Point taken.

But that said, there are some steps you can take to improve the success rate of a budding office romance.

Here are Olen's tips:

1. Do a 'pre-nup.' "The idea is that you set the ground rules when you can't imagine anything going wrong, when you're really happy and in love. This way, you have some agreed upon neutral ground rules going in."

2. Keep up other office relationships. "Don't lose your office network; it's really important that you continue hanging out with your office coworkers, and basically act like you did before you were dating the person."

3. The relationship details stay home. "It's a no-go zone. I know that's hard for some people. No one wants to hear it. And if they do hear it, they're going to talk about it."

4. Avoid boss/subordinate relationships. "As we say in the book, if you can't see the whole thing ahead of you—the mortgage, the kids, the nursing home—this is one relationship you might really want to think twice about before pursuing it."

5. Be honest with your boss, but not prematurely. "A week is too short, a year is definitely too long. If they don't know by then, you are a CIA agent," Olen laughs. But don't tattle on yourself for a two-week fling. "That just makes you look juvenile," she points out.

Lastly, don't forget to have fun—a relationship should improve your quality of life (even at work!) and Olen acknowledges that common sense should protect you from most snafus.

But so far, it seems people are handling office flings just fine on their own-- 63% of those whom Vault surveyed would, if given the chance, do it all over again.

Read More:
Vault's 2011 Office Romance Survey

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

Filed Under: Workplace Issues


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