Working: Dangerous Liaisons

It's always dicey dating someone at work. But when that person happens tobe your subordinate, it's like "playing with nitroglycerine," says one attorney.

HE WAS A quality-engineering technician at an Ohio plastics factory. She was an inspector who reported to him. Their romance started harmlessly enough. One day he asked her to join him and a dozen co-workers for a drink. "I didn't think it would go any further," says the technician, who asked that his name not be used. Soon after, she asked him to a baseball game, and over the next two months, they went on a half-dozen dates. Even as things started to get serious, he didn't think it would affect their relationship at work: "I figured it would only be a problem if she had some kind of discipline issue, and she was an excellent worker."

His boss wasn't so impressed and ordered the engineer to write her up for overcounting the inspections she'd done. When the woman found out, she refused to take the technician's calls and began avoiding him at work. He decided not to pursue her. "I can take a hint," he says.

Then about a week later, he was called into a meeting with four executives. He was being investigated for sexual harrassment, they told him. The woman had accused him of propositioning her. "I could not believe what I was hearing," he says.

Eventually his name was cleared, but things were never the same at work. People stopped seeking his advice. Co-workers turned their heads when he approached. Even after the woman was transferred to another unit, divided loyalties ruined his team's cooperative spirit. "Trust me," he says, "after what happened, I've made it a strict rule to never get involved with people I work with."

Getting involved with someone you work with is one thing. But getting involved with someone who works for you is quite another. It complicates matters by "a factor of ten," says San Francisco employment-law attorney Garry Mathiason. "It's playing with nitroglycerine. There's so much that can go wrong, it's basically just a bad idea."

Of course, the head doesn't always rule the heart, and supervisor-subordinate relationships are more common than you might think. An American Management Association survey of 500 managers and executives found that of the 24% who've had an office romance, more than a fourth had one with a subordinate.

So how should you protect yourself? First off, don't even think about asking out a subordinate unless you are already friends. You need to be able to speak openly enough that the employee understands there'll be no repercussions for turning you down. More than one boss has been stunned when an underling who seemed willing to date reveals ? in court ? that he or she did so in fear.

Another tip: Forget about sending mushy notes over the office voice mail or email. Those are the kinds of things that could come back to haunt you if the relationship goes sour. "They never go away," says Monica Ballard, a sexual harassment education consultant. "They can be downloaded and blown up four-by-six and shown in front of a jury."

Before the romance gets too deep, let your supervisor know and ask him to talk with the subordinate. This protects you in case the worker later claims to have been coerced. Don't sit in on this meeting yourself, advises lawyer Jacqueline Rolfs. "Otherwise, it might look like the subordinate is feeling pressured."

Some companies even require employees to sign a consent form. The one Mathiason devised, the "love contract," has been used by more than 1,000 companies. Besides acknowledging that the relationship is consensual, the document requires that if a conflict later arises, it must be handled through arbitration rather than in court.

Many companies have rules against dating subordinates. At State Farm, for instance, if workers of different ranks get involved, they must tell management, which will change the reporting hierarchy. "If both of you are regarded as valuable workers, there's a chance your employer will make accommodations," says Dennis Powers, a Southern Oregon University professor who has written on the topic. And if you hide your romance? In most states, nothing prevents your employer from firing you for violating company policy.

No matter what the policy, realize that one of you may wind up having to transfer or leave the company. Roberto Sipos considered that possibility before he asked out Brandy Gilliland, the secretary at the Scottsdale, Ariz., security company he managed. He decided to do it anyway. "I was ready to risk my job," he says.

Sure enough, it wasn't long after the two began dating that word about their relationship got out. "There was a little snickering going on behind my back," says Sipos. He began to feel that his staff was losing respect for him. "I didn't think I could effectively run a small company and be involved with someone who worked with me at the same time."

He made a tough choice: He decided to quit his job and continue the relationship. Two years later, the couple are still together and Sipos is happier in his new job. "If you're getting involved, know that you're willing to take the consequences," he advises. "And there will be consequences."