Surviving an Office Romance

It's more common than ever these days, but it still can wreck a career. Here are the do's -- and don'ts -- of office relationships.

WHEN THEY STARTED DATING nine years ago, co-workers Erika and David Mangrum tried to keep their relationship secret.

But it wasn't long before the couple -- who at the time worked in the Raleigh, N.C., offices of Sprint -- became office gossip. "My personal life was suddenly quite the conversation topic," says Erika, now 38 years old. "I really didn't like it."

Erika and David each held a high-ranking position at the company, though in different departments. When David's division was spun off to become a separate company that was a direct competitor to Erika's division, things actually got worse for the couple. Erika realized her job was in peril now that she was cavorting with the enemy. So she quit.

Erika eventually opened Iatria Day Spa, now a successful business. "All's well that ends well," says Erika, who is also the proud mother of a four-year-old daughter. "But it didn't feel that way at the time."

With Americans spending an increasing amount of time at work, it's not surprising that love is blossoming amid the cubicles. In fact, 67% of the respondents to a 2003 American Management Association (AMA) survey on office romance said they approved of dating at the office -- indeed almost a third (30%) said they have done so themselves.

But approval rates run much lower among workplace experts and human resource professionals. In the latest survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a whopping 81% of HR professionals said they consider workplace romances dangerous because they could lead to conflict within the organization. Seventy-four percent said they believed it could present a legal liability.

In other words, despite the increasing numbers of folks giving office dating a try, it still could cost more than a broken heart. You could sacrifice your dignity, and perhaps your job. Not that that's going to stop anyone. So rather than say "don't do it," here's an overview of the potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. Whispers at the Water Cooler
Let's face it: It's near impossible to keep an office romance a secret -- particularly if it becomes serious. But that doesn't mean you should treat your co-workers as your confidants. So if you must dish about the trials and tribulations of your relationship with Frank in accounting, do it to friends outside of your company.

That said, once your secret has been discovered by some of your co-workers, you may want to come clean to your boss, who no doubt will soon find out anyway. "I know it feels like an invasion of privacy," says workplace expert Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of WorldWIT, an online community for professional women. But "it's embarrassing and insulting for your boss if the rest of the office knows and he or she has not been informed."

And keep in mind: who you date will no doubt affect how you're perceived in the office. Getting involved with the office Don Juan (or being the office Don Juan) will hardly help your career. Neither will dating someone who is universally despised.

2. Remember, the Office Is Not the Love Nest
Ryan says she'll never forget a conference she attended where no one was paying attention to the speaker because a couple in the front of the room just couldn't keep their hands off each other. "He was braiding and unbraiding her hair," she says. "People were transfixed and horrified at the same time. It was so appalling, you just wanted to go over there and slap him."

Needless to say, love trysts don't belong in the office -- or the boss's office, the hallways, the office elevator. "Never call each other 'honey' or 'sweetie.' Never play footsie under the table. And don't hold hands or kiss at work," Ryan says. "You have to restrain yourself."

Ignore this advice at your own peril: Liz Kelly, a human resources professional and author of the dating book "Smart Man Hunting" says when two of her co-workers at a large East Coast financial firm were caught having sex in the office elevator by one of the building maintenance staff, they were suspended from work for a month. "They were pretty embarrassed," Kelly says. "The gossip spread like wildfire."

It could have been worse for the two love birds. At some companies something like that could easily cost you your job, says Kelly.

3. Facing the Angry Ex at the Conference Table
The statistics look promising: Two thirds of office flings turn into long-term relationships, according to the AMA. Forty-four percent result in marriage. But what about all those relationships that don't work out? "A lot of people break up and they can't continue to work together," says Ryan. "It can be really ugly and it's a major career risk." Ultimately, one partner often has to quit his or her job to get away from the situation.

How do you avoid this scenario? Ryan's advice: Simply don't date anyone in your department or discuss in advance how a breakup would be handled. And know that you will have to keep your emotions in check. "Don't leave notes on the desk, don't write e-mails -- don't do any of that stuff," says Ryan. "Your career is more important."

4. Lessons From Monica
Dating is pretty much unregulated at most workplaces -- only 12% of respondents of the AMA survey said they had a written policy on office dating. But an office romance gone bad could have serious legal consequences for a company, including costly sexual harassment lawsuits. To reduce that liability, some employers ask employees who are dating to sign consensual relationship agreements, more commonly known as "love contracts."

The love contract, first designed back in 1983 by employment attorney Jeffrey Tanenbaum of Nixon Peabody LLP, is meant to protect both the employees and the company, he explains. Although love contracts vary by company, most pretty much state that the two employees are engaged in a consensual relationship and prohibit sexual harassment and favoritism.

The popularity of love contracts took off after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, according to Tanenbaum. Since then, he says he has written them for both small and large companies, heterosexual relationships and same-sex couples. He wrote one for two co-workers who were both married -- to someone else. He even claims to have written a love contract for three co-workers engaged in an affair.

Some may consider love contracts invasive, but signing one could actually protect you. Steve Carney, a workplace expert and author of "The Teamwork Chronicles," suggests checking the company policy on office relationships before engaging in one. If the company offers you the option to sign a love contract, do it.

5. Who's the Boss?
Most workplace experts say you should avoid dating up or down in the workplace hierarchy. "You cannot date your boss, you cannot date somebody who reports to you," says Ryan.

Just ask Susan Smith (to protect her 30-year marriage, we are not providing her real name), who five years ago dated a subordinate. He was "one of those drop-dead gorgeous dudes that any woman would sell her soul to work with," she writes. "I was his boss and even though it was quite clear early on he didn't have the right stuff to make his employees get work done either on time or under budget, I kept him on for the coolness factor...(and) lots of long talks, great sex, and knowing that the ladies back at the office envied me."

So imagine Smith's surprise when she was fired after her boss found out about the affair. Looking back, "I'm really ashamed," she writes.

6. Making it Work
Hope and Jason Brown met six years ago when they were both starting out their PR careers at an agency in Detroit. "We were pretty open with it from the get go," Hope says. "Our bosses knew and our colleagues knew. And I think they felt as long as our relationship wasn't impeding any of our efforts on behalf of our clients, they were supportive of it."

Hope and Jason, then 23 and 27 years old, respectively, often worked together on accounts but never let their relationship interfere. "It was never 'honey' this or 'sweetie' that at the office," Hope says. "And despite the fact that, yes, we were a couple and at one point we were engaged, work was work and our professional obligations still needed to come first."

Now married for three years, both Hope and Jason have moved on to different agencies and are working their way up the career ladder. "It worked for us -- I don't know if it could work for everybody," she says. "But it's a good thing we moved on to different jobs: I don't know if we could have worked together and lived together every single day of our lives."