As Valentine's Day Approaches, Office Romance on the Rise

If it seems like more people are flirting around the water cooler at your office these days, it may not be your imagination.

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Four out of 10 U.S. workers admit to being involved with another colleague at some point, according to a new survey by Spherion, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based employment firm, and Harris Interactive. A separate survey by Vault, a New York-based career publishing company, found that 17 percent of workers have actually been caught trysting on the job — up from just 2 percent last year.

With the ever-lengthening workweek, office romances have become more prevalent across the board, but within a small business — which represent the vast majority of U.S. employers — the possibility of increased tension and drama because of a tryst intensifies.

One of the problems for small businesses lies in the limited workspace. Unlike at a large corporation, employees at smaller companies often cannot simply transfer to another department if a romantic relationship ensues.

Small businesses are also in a unique position because an office romance — or worse, a breakup — can jolt their close-knit staffs, the camaraderie from which many of these romances spawn in the first place. As such, these companies generally take a pragmatic, case-by-case approach, rather than issuing strict no-fraternization guidelines.

“We don’t have a specific policy,” said Lisa Stone, human relations director at New Media Strategies, an Arlington, Va.-based online marketing firm. “We have an environment that cultivates relationships, and every now and then, Cupid strikes.”

According to Vault, 58 percent of companies will only interfere if the relationship has created a problem at work, similar to the approach New Media Strategies takes, according to Stone. On average, the firm's employees are 28 years old and work between 40 and 45 hours a week — factors that have contributed to at least a handful of romances among the ranks of the seven-year-old company, including one engagement, Stone said.

Twenty-five percent of workplace relationships eventually lead to marriage, according to the Spherion study.

In the two years she has worked at New Media Strategies, Stone said, she has never had to deal with an employee that had problems because of a work-related romance.

“HR provides support and counsel to all our employees, so if something did come up we would address it,” Stone said.

Barbara Pachter, a corporate speaker and author of The Power of Positive Confrontation, agreed with the case-by-case strategy that many companies now employ. She said she does not think management should deal with employee dating, unless it begins to affect business activity in some way. Instead she believes the onus of the relationship’s impact on the company lies in the hand of those doing the canoodling.

The one definite no-no expressed by businesses and counselors alike: managers should not date their subordinates, because of the potential HR and legal nightmares that can result.
While love may indeed conquer all, Pachter noted that office couples need to consider the high-stakes nature of such relationships. "If your relationship ends, the key is how you deal with it," she said. "It is your career we are talking about."

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