IN any other setting, Joseph, a 33-year-old vice president at a small New York City mutual funds firm, would have been more direct in pursuing a date with the strikingly beautiful Gayle (not her real name), whom he met one afternoon during the summer. But the location where he first set eyes on the young intern was at work, outside his office, which prompted him to take a more cautious and modern route to get to know her the office e-mail.
"I don't know if you remember me, but I'm the guy you met the other day on the communications floor," Joseph said in the correspondence. "If you are interested in getting to know me, scroll down and read the rest of this message. Otherwise, delete it right now."
Gayle, 22, who had attended an exclusive college in Connecticut, found her interest had been piqued, so she read it. Although flattered, she did not respond for a couple of days, because she had a boyfriend and needed to find out several more key things about Joseph. Being resourceful, she discovered that he had received a degree from New York University, had worked as a national correspondent for a major newspaper and had rapidly ascended the corporate ladder, landing in a lucrative executive position with a six-figure salary by age 30. But more importantly, she learned that he reputedly did not date women in the office and was currently unattached.
As a vice president, Joseph was able to retrieve some inside information on Gayle as well, learning that she was a steady worker who didn't waste her time. He was taken by more than her physical beauty. He admired her ability to land an internship at the company, which indicated that she was keenly intelligent, ambitious and not wasting her summers. "It was not like meeting her at the unemployment office," he says.
About a month later, after Gayle dumped her old boyfriend, the two went out for drinks. They have been together since, most recently traveling for a romantic getaway to the Bahamas.
With the rise in sexual harassment cases and sex scandals involving some of the nation's most prominent businesses, romance in the office has come under intense scrutiny. But changing times, which requires high-powered professionals to spend between 40 to 60 hours a week in the office, are making it extremely difficult for men and women to find the love of their lives. So many people--despite the warnings and negatives--are turning to the workplace in their search for their mates, lovers and spouses. To some people, this is a safer route than blind dates and dating services, or picking up companions at a bar or health club, because there is shared history with the new lover, from office meetings, conferences, retreats, daily greetings or from colleagues in the office.
The spate of recent scandals has led to various books, studies and opinion pieces in which experts provide oft-conflicting views on dating in the office. A 2002 study by CareerJournal.com and the Alexandria, Va.-based Society of Human Resources Management finds that 76 percent of the 663 executives surveyed say office romances are dangerous because of the potential problems they pose for the companies--sexual harassment claims, decreased productivity on the job and the lowering of co-workers' morale. A 2001 study by the Employment Law Alliance noted that more than two-thirds of all workers believe such relationships are harmful and can cause favoritism and retaliation.
On the other hand, a 2001 study found that 04 percent of women who had a romantic relationship with their boss reported that, as a result, their work situation improved. Additional studies note that one-third of all romances begin at work; .another reveals that 80 percent of workers polled know or have been involved in an office liaison. And another study by the Society for Human Resource Management, which polled some 558 human resources professionals, revealed that 66 percent of respondents said marriage was the most likely outcome for an office romance at their firm during the last five years.
Despite some positive outcomes and favorable studies, some relationship experts urge workers to avoid such liaisons or, at least, to proceed with caution because romance in the office is fraught with complications.
"Everything has its time and everything has its space," says Dr. M. Jeanne Dolphus Cotton founder and director of the Trinity Universal Center for Positive Youth, Family and Personal Development in Waukegan, Ill. "When you go to work, you go to work. But if we are going to date, we should realize that the office is not the place for the relationship to be in full operation. However, keeping romance out of the office is so difficult to do, and rarely do you find people who are mature enough to respect the distinctive roles of lover and colleague. So I would not advise dating in the workplace."
Audrey B. Chapman, a Washington, D.C.-based relationship therapist and author of the new book, Seven Attitude Adjustments for Finding a Loving Man, also advises against office romance. "When they are going through the romantic part and love part and passion part, it is wonderful, and they are excited about it. But the moment there is a problem and there is a breakup, there is office gossip, and that is the thing you have to be most worried about," Chapman says. "Most of the time there is office envy--another person who wanted to have an affair, and they hear that this other woman is hooked up with you--it can cause office tension and office rage. For example, if you get involved with a supervisor, or a boss, or somebody with some authority, that will create a lot of tension with you and your associates. They will view you as getting extra attention and that raise. [In addition, they'll believe] you only got the raise because of the person you were affiliated with."
Although office flings more often than not backfire and explode, some couples have tested the waters and succeeded. Their success is the result of maturity, a high commitment to professionalism and a respect for ground rules that helped them navigate this dangerous terrain.
"I think it is practical," says Joseph, noting that his risky move has landed him a potential marriage partner. "First of all, you know that the person works. You know that the person is somewhat socially adroit and is fairly educated to be working in corporate America, and you have references. You can ask someone, "What's up with the Sister? They might say, `She is a pain in the a--, or she is beautiful, but she has the worst luck with men.' They give you the good and bad, but you have the information to work with as opposed to when you meet them cold."
Gayle says she prefers dating someone in the office because you are not starting with a "blank slate," and she doesn't take numbers from "riffraff," or people she meets at clubs.
Marvin and Janine (not their real names), who work for the same high-powered non-profit organization in Chicago, were both committed and passionate about their jobs, which led to long hours in the office, frequent travel at a moment's notice and little time for their private lives. The job made it extremely difficult for either to date and sustain meaningful romantic relationships. Yet dating on the job seemed to be out of the question.
Both Marvin and Janine, who are in their late 30s, knew the pitfalls of such a course, realizing that, personally and professionally, it could be a recipe for disaster. But when the love bug bit in the spring of 1998 after a long friendship, they agreed to give it a try. However, the courting didn't begin until they developed a plan of action on how they should interact inside and outside the office.
"We engaged in a romantic cost-benefit analysis," Marvin says. "The benefit of our feelings for each other had to be weighed against the cost to our professional integrity and our productivity."
This was done by developing a "defense plan," "safety zones" and "office probation," which called for no hugging, romantic touching, whispering in one's ear or mingling in public areas. This was extremely difficult because Marvin would be on the road for weeks, and when he returned, their first glimpse of each other would often be in the lobby of the agency or in the waiting area next to the president's office, where Janine was stationed.
"So we developed codes," Janine says. "A double bat of the eye would mean something. It would take the place of a hug. I would catch his eye, and he would look at me and quickly bat his eye." They also had a numeric code, which was placed in a pager and a word code placed on faxes. The couple dated for six months before telling anyone.
The office romance between B.J. and Brenda, a couple in their 40s who worked at the same government agency in Washington, led to marriage. When B.J. was introduced in 1988 to Brenda, a new coworker, he was going through a difficult period in his second marriage. The two senior information systems analysts took graduate courses together and started going out to lunch together, where they had friendly and lighthearted discussions. They established a strong friendship, and when B.J.'s marriage dissolved, their friendship grew.
Initially, they were very discreet about the relationship. They maintained a very professional relationship in the workplace, choosing not to spend time in each other's offices, or show affection. "I said, `Wow. This is really a lady who seems to have a lot of integrity about her,'" B.J. says. "She's really sweet. I just knew this was it. I think she would make a good wife." Seven years after they met, they were married. Two years later, Brenda left the agency for a more senior post.
Relationship experts say that the first thing an office couple should do is to make a rule about what they are going to do if and when the relationship ends. Since Marvin and Janine of Chicago had already established the ending rules, they were able to adjust without too much disruption when their hot romance cooled down. "We are a rare couple," Marvin says, "who separated at the office and remain friends, and that is the key--the friendship part."
Asked if they would ever try an office romance again, both said yes. "If I had a choice, I would prefer not to," Janine says, "but the experience did prove to me that it can be done and that it can work." Marvin added: "Love is a romantic proposition, so it must remain fresh, and one must be open to the idea of new possibilities. Although we are friends today, who knows what the future holds."…