Magazine article USA TODAY

Romance in the Workplace

Magazine article USA TODAY

Romance in the Workplace

Article excerpt

Business fear that love between co-workers can lead to favoritism or, if the affair turns sour, trigger sexual harrassment and fatal attractions.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead wouldn't do it, likening it to incest. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman would, calling it necessary for a healthy, whole personality. Miss Manners says it's okay, if done properly. The activity in question is dating fellow workers.

Despite the mixed reviews from academics and pundits, about 80% of employees say they either have observed or been in a romantic relationship at their workplace. Perhaps in this era, where singles are seeking full disclosure, it seems a good idea to begin a relationship under fluorescent lights, rather than moonlight or candlelight.

Martha Rand, an electrical engineer, thinks work is a wonderful place to meet a partner. "You learn whether you're a fit or not; you're not just pretending to fit, like on a date." She met her engineer husband, Joel, while developing software programs at General Dynamics Corporation in Fort Worth, Tex. "And even when you get past the infatuation stage, you still have something to talk about."

With the sexual integration of the work-force now 46% female), an increase in age at first marriage (24.5 for women; 26.5 for men), and longer work hours, the office has become a natural place to find an intimate confidante, sex partner, or suitable mate. University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz sees this as a healthy move--backward! "The new news is old news. There was a time when men and women were linked economically as well as for emotional survival. We think of couples these days as just emotional units. But way before that, they were a survival unit. Well, the world has taken another rotation, and we're back to being economic partners--by preference as well as necessity."

Historically, few women worked outside the home until the late 1800s, and men and women seldom mixed socially after marriage. In the 1890s, females began to move into the workplace, albeit in subordinate roles. Even in the 1970s, 99 out of 100 business travelers were men.

It is no wonder, then, that as women enter the workplace at higher levels and across professions, new ways of relating have emerged. Old codes of conduct have become as dated as the slide rule. The 1950s black-and-white snapshot of young male executives in ties sitting behind rectangular desks, forming a workforce that was easily defined and contained, has been replaced by an interactive, full-color CDROM graphic of diverse employee teams working in offices without walls.

Yet, as ready as employees my be for this next epoch in sexual evolution, the prevalent corporate attitude long has been that office romances are nothing but trouble, a swamp]and of favoritism and nepotism sexual harassment, and fatal attractions. For decades, the literature on love at work focused solely on the negative impact of such relationships. Mead said in 1978 that there needed to be "incest taboos" against dating in the workplace. "A taboo enjoins. We need one that says clearly and unequivocally, `You don't make passes at or sleep with the people you work with.'"

In the 1990s, what with the Anita Hill Clarence Thomas debate on Capitol Hill, Tailhook in the hallway, and "Disclosure" in movie theaters, liability for employees' sexual shenanigans is a major issue. "Companies are a lot more conscious about problems with sexual harassment. Probably some companies have tightened up," explains Phillip Way, professor of economics, University of Cincinnati, who surveyed 121 business executives in 1990 about their attitudes toward dating in the workplace. Supervisors' other main concerns, he found, are favoritism and breached confidentiality. The fear is that when business talk becomes pillow talk, professional ethics are sacrificed.

So why isn't office dating verboten and flirting a firing offense? Because CEOs and other corporate honchos have discovered a simple truth--you can't outlaw love. …

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