Sex & Relationships

Cruising the Cubicles: The Do's and Don'ts of Office Romance

Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen on finding and managing romantic relationships in the workplace.
Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen are coauthors of the new book Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding -- and Managing -- Romance on the Job. Olin has written numerous essays on parenting, families, feminism, politics for publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and, while Losee is the author of numerous books including Horse Crazy and A Cup of Comfort for Writers. Both women married men they met at work. Here, they answer some questions about love on the job.

American Sexuality: In what ways is finding "love" in the office better than finding "love" at a bar?

Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen: There is no better or worse way of finding love. Meeting your sweetie at a hip bar in the Meatpacking District is just as wonderful as finding true love amidst the cubicles. Our point is that people who are looking for a romantic relationship that lasts are more likely to find it on the job than by cruising singles bars (or the aisles at the local Stop and Shop, for that matter).

The reason is that office mating gives potential couples the luxury of time. When you meet someone at a bar, you judge them quickly, based on first impressions. This person is either your type or they're not. But when you meet someone at work, you're not there to size them up as a romantic candidate. You're there to work. So you get to know the content of your colleagues' character over time. You come to value them for far deeper qualities, such as the way they treat their coworkers or the way they behave under pressure.

Meeting on the job also, frankly, makes people harder to get. No one wants to make a romantic mistake in their workplace, so they take advantage of this luxury of time and make sure there's something really substantial there before they take the leap. Almost invariably they are friends before they are lovers. You don't hear that too often about couples who meet at a bar.

What are some of the unique ways people flirt at work? What were some of the more unusual stories about this that you heard from people you interviewed?

People love to use the newest technologies to flirt at work, but that's a quick route to disaster. Flirting via IM or sending sexy texts on your company issued mobile is a good way to create a printable record of your early romance, which is nothing any of us wants. Ask the woman we interviewed who was presented with just such a printout by her boss. Colleagues also flirt by sending anonymous desktop gifts, but that's not so clever either since it creates speculation about which coworker has the crush.

Some people are slow to pick up cues from potential mates. What precautions should a person take to make sure his or her actions are not viewed as harassment? After all, it seems actions that are okay at a bar or party could be taken the wrong way if done in an office setting.

Absolutely. In fact, one of the first things we always say is, if you're the type of person who can't take no for an answer, you have no business dating people at work.

The thing that saves most people from having to answer this question is that office relationships tend to develop organically. By the time you go on your first "date" you often know as much about the other person as if you'd been going out for quite some time. So, much of the time there is no actual question posed about becoming romantic.

But yes, when one person thinks the relationship is platonic and the other is interested in more, taking a subtle but direct approach is better than dropping a series of veiled hints. The key is to say something low-key but unmistakable and convey with your eyes and tone of voice that you are absolutely willing to take no for an answer. That way both of you can recover quickly if the answer is no.

How should one handle innocent but annoying unwanted attention?

If it's annoying and unwanted, that sounds like it's coming from someone who has not taken the hint. So stop hinting. Come out and say, "I really don't feel comfortable when ... " and if that doesn't put a stop to the behavior that is the time to speak to human resources.

I knew someone who quit his job because his office romance soured. His girlfriend ended up having a fling with another coworker and, well, you can imagine the gossip that that created. What were some of the office romance horror stories you heard and what can be learned from them? In other words what went wrong in these cases?

The good thing about headline making breakups of this sort is that they make headlines because they're rare. People date at work and break up without bloodshed every day. They're often young people, and young people tend to be serial daters. But because everyone there shares the goal of safeguarding their paychecks, people tend not to blow themselves and their exes up, even while they're moving from this one to that one. That being said, the only behavior you can control is your own. One of the worst stories we heard was actually Stephanie's. A broken-hearted ex who was an artist brought his oversized canvases to the office for the staff photographer to shoot so that he could submit the pictures to galleries. The outermost painting was a pink and orange testament to their failed relationship, with clear references including an enlarged version of her signature to a greeting card: "All my love, Stephanie."

There was nothing for her to do but hold her head up and take the high road, hoping he would eventually follow suit. That's all anyone can do. But if someone's behavior is truly extreme or doesn't play itself out quickly, you might have to ask your boss or human resources to intervene.

Office flings seem to have been around forever -- along with the stereotype of a "woman sleeping her way to the top." That said, should one avoid dating much more senior or junior coworkers?

We were interested to find a tremendous amount of survey information on office romance, and one of the statistics was that men were much more likely than women to say that dating the boss helped their careers. Another study showed that when presented with a hypothetical situation, folks judged women who dated a superior much more harshly than a man who did the same. But aside from that, the fact that so many of us date coworkers -- half of us will try it at least once -- points to an advance in feminism. When you feel like you're in a one down position, at work or elsewhere, you don't take risks. The fact that women feel comfortable is a good thing.

If more people accept the office as a place where they are allowed to meet potential partners, what happens to "professionalism"? How do you control the office so it doesn't become too sexually charged? Do you believe in dress codes?

People used to think that others didn't accept the office as a place where they were allowed to meet potential partners, but they were all doing it anyway. The fact that it is now considered acceptable only provides opportunities for executives to manage a situation they used to pretend wasn't happening. They have been managing it without saying that's what they were doing. Some 70% of companies have no office romance policy whatsoever -- not a word. But now we expect that companies will come out and acknowledge the ubiquity of office romance by instituting written policies. It increases professionalism if employees know what their employers expect of them, it doesn't decrease it.

As for offices becoming too sexually charged, it's hard to imagine that bringing the topic of office romance out in the open will make offices sexier. It's more sexy when something is forbidden, not when it is considered commonplace. And no matter what you consider acceptable or unacceptable in terms of workplace romance, the fact remains that everyone is there because they need to pay the rent. We hardly think women are going to start wearing microminis and men are going to unbutton their shirts down to their belly buttons at work now that they've been told that dating each other is okay, prompting a call for Mao coats as the new corporate uniform.

From the interviews you conducted, did you ever find cases where an office romance was detrimental to a person's career? (For example, perhaps the couple is seen as less serious about their jobs.) Do you remember a particular story that took this route? What can be done to avoid such scenarios?

An office romance is often damaging if it violates conflicts of interest in some way. The heart wants what it wants, so in these cases the participants have to know on some level that they have put the heart above the paycheck and there might well be a loss involved, whether of the job or, or in the case of extramarital affairs, the marriage.

You have to think that when an office romance is detrimental to a person's career, they were likely to chuck it all whether they met the object of their passion within the company or without. It's hard not to think of the NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak here, driving across the country in a diaper to confront her ex's new girlfriend. That certainly didn't get her assigned to the next manned spaceflight.

Office romances are still a bit taboo. Do you think our views are starting to change? Why or why not?

Our views haven't changed, it's our perceptions of others' views that are changing. In the past, everybody was engaging in office romance but nobody was talking about it. The media reaction to our book demonstrates to us that people were hungry to talk about it. When half of people engage in an activity, you can believe they approve of it. They were just afraid that others didn't approve. Now they know the reality. Taboos don't last too long under those conditions.
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