Internal affairs: The dirt on love at work
Is meeting under the mistletoe worth the grief?
Sarah and Josh, work colleagues at an Ontario telecommunications company, had always been flirty, but Sarah knew that the heat was on when they started sharing breaks together. Soon, Josh was finding reasons to stop by Sarah’s desk three times a day and the two were corralling co-workers for after-hours drinks. One Friday night, after everyone else had left the bar, Josh pulled Sarah close and kissed her. They officially became a couple and vowed to keep their increasingly serious romance out of the office.
Then, after almost a year together, Josh struck up an intense friendship with Crystal, one of Sarah’s assistants. When Sarah confronted him, Josh said that he wasn’t interested in Crystal, but he also made it clear that he wanted to end things with Sarah. Once Josh was safely single, it wasn’t long before he and Crystal were an item. "I was devastated," Sarah says now, four years later. She was also angry – so angry that, one morning, when Crystal returned a minute late from a smoke break with Josh, Sarah nearly went ballistic over the tiny infraction. Sarah’s work life and love life had merged and, as much as she liked her job, she knew she had to leave.
Most of us have heard a version of Sarah’s story – office romance goes bad, footage at eleven – but as Helaine Olen and Stephanie Losee, co-authors of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding – and Managing – Romance on the Job, point out, the occasional workplace train wreck gets all the attention because it doesn’t fit the usual pattern. "You always hear the disaster stories about office romances, but you never hear how smooth most of them are-even when they don’t work out," says Olen.
With more men and women working side by side than ever before and just about everyone putting in longer hours (more than one-quarter of Canadians regularly clock 10 or more hours of overtime a week, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada), the decision to cross the work-romance boundary is becoming increasingly common. A recent survey on the Canadian job website Workopolis found that 15 percent of respondents met their current partners at work, and more than half of the 12,000 Canadian and American singles who answered a 2008 questionnaire on the dating website Meet Market Adventures said that they had been romantically involved with a co-worker in the past. Add holiday office parties to the mix and the balance tips even further.
What’s also changing is how office romances are perceived. Gone are the immediate associations of a breathy, big-busted secretary and her lecherous, very married boss. A recent poll in The Globe and Mail found that 70 percent of more than 10,000 participants felt that dating a co-worker didn’t violate office etiquette, and 71 percent of respondents to a 2007 CareerBuilder.ca survey saw no reason to keep a relationship with a co-worker a secret.
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"People are working intense hours – often in professions they’ve chosen based on values and skills they feel compatible with," explains Olen. "Basically, they’re working in an office with people they have a lot in common with." She also points out that the more open lifestyles of generations X and Y (hello, Facebook!) have stripped the office romance of its most scandalous connotations.
"What we’ve often found is that these work couples don’t just suddenly start dating," says Losee. "They’ve known each other for a while and become friends, and often rumours of them dating have spread throughout the office before it even occurred to them. Sometimes they’re the last to know that they’re in a relationship."
As pro work romance as Olen and Losee are, they caution that there are rules to follow – especially if you want to limit material for resident gossip girls (and guys). "Just because it’s called an office romance doesn’t mean that it has to be conducted in the office," says Olen. The separation should start from the beginning. Never ask someone out inside office walls: You don’t want to put that person in an awkward position at work, and you don’t want your co-workers to overhear you – especially if you get turned down. "Imposing professional decorum at this stage will set a precedent if the first date leads to a relationship," says Olen. And, of course, steer clear of snogging in the lunchroom and planning the salacious details of your weekend over cubicle walls – it’s just too much information.
Sharon and Dave, who met while working in different departments of a Toronto media company, dated for almost nine months before letting their co-workers in on the secret. Why the delay? Sharon wanted to wait until she knew that she and Dave had a future together before introducing such an important part of her personal life to the office. Sharon and Dave also found the months of sneaking around "kind of sexy." Now, six years later, they’re married with two children.
But not everyone is ready to take Cupid’s side. Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions, a consulting company based in Northampton, Mass., is adamant that dating a co-worker is never a good idea. "I’ve been in the trenches, and I’ve seen the massacre," she says, with total seriousness. "Divorce between two employees in the same small company, with co-workers lining up and taking sides, can completely disrupt business. And even when the romance does work out, you and your partner have all your eggs in one basket: If the company tanks, you’re both out of a job."
Matuson also warns that managers and co-workers are the first to notice when a couple fails to maintain the professional conduct necessary for a successful career – especially after a breakup, when tensions are at their highest. "If you want to be treated like a professional, you need to act like one – all the time," she says.
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One thing that all the experts agree on is that dating your supervisor is a risky proposition. As Matuson points out, if you’re dating someone higher up the corporate ladder, even if you get promoted based on your own merit, your co-workers might believe that you had the inside track on the job. Lateral dating is probably the best strategy, as is avoiding – always – a tryst with a married or otherwise-involved work colleague.
No one is denying that work romances are fraught with potential bumps, but when has the course of true love ever run smooth? "Every day, office romances don’t work out and people live to tell the tale and still work together," says Losee. "In most cases, one of them will eventually leave the company – not because they couldn’t stand to work near the other person but because they’re part of an age group that is fairly mobile."
That was the case for Michelle, a graphic designer who lives in Vancouver. She dated Liam, a tech wizard from the IT department, for about three months before the romance quietly fizzled. The breakup was relatively painless. They still work together, and since then, Michelle has become friends with Liam’s brother. Sounds like just another day at the office.
Dating experts Helaine Olen and Stephanie Losee on how to handle office-romance breakup blues.
• If you’re initiating the breakup, give your partner reasons that aren’t fixable. "Don’t tell him things that will motivate him to say ‘No, I can do less or more of that if you give me a chance,’" says Olen.
• Trying to keep the breakup a secret will only feed the gossip mill. "Let your co-workers know that the romance has ended and that you’ve moved on," says Losee. "Only your best friend needs to know the dirt."
• Save your emotions for after hours: No shouting, crying, dirty looks or badmouthing.
• If your ex is having trouble being civil with you at work, set up a meeting outside the office. "Acknowledge his hurt feelings and promise that you won’t reveal his secrets to your co-workers," says Losee.
• If your ex’s negative behaviour escalates, take the problem to your boss or HR department. "Be upfront about the relationship and outline your ex’s recent behaviour," says Olen. Remember: Harassment on the job is never acceptable.
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