Workplace Relationships: Work it, Well

In his research, University of Memphis psychology professor Charles Pierce, considered an expert on nine-to-five nookie, confirms that the workplace is the most likely place to meet a romantic partner, even start a relationship.


In his research, University of Memphis psychology professor Charles Pierce, considered an expert on nine-to-five nookie, confirms that the workplace is the most likely place to meet a romantic partner, even start a relationship.

Like most office romances, it began innocently enough when Max hired Fran to work on his sales team. “It wasn’t an immediate attraction,” says the former sales manager of a Vancouver-based telecommunications firm, who now works as a consultant. “Fran was coming out of a divorce and I wasn’t in the market for a relationship, especially not with someone who worked for me. We were colleagues first; then friends and eventually we got together. It just happened.” They tried to keep their relationship quiet and remain strictly professional at work, but another team member picked up on their chemistry. “I think he also liked Fran, so he decided to make trouble for us.” About four months into the relationship, the couple moved in together. “It didn’t affect our work in any way, but this guy who had grumbled about us from the start went to my boss and accused me of favouritism. That wasn’t true: I had gone out of my way to be fair.” The company was having problems with another married couple that worked in the same office, he says, and the boss wanted to avoid further conflict. Max fought to keep Fran but her contract was terminated: ostensibly because of a mistake at work. “In fact, it was something really minor – it certainly wasn’t a firing offense,” he maintains. “When I pointed out we had someone else on contract, and that he had also made minor errors, I was told, ‘Well, he’s going too.’ I guess someone saw a discrimination suit looming.” What had begun as a harmless relationship between two people in love ended up as office warfare, with plenty of hurt feelings. “The whole incident was extremely unpleasant and two people lost their jobs, simply because Fran and I had become a couple,” says Max. “It wasn’t so bad for me but Fran was devastated to learn she was being fired for incompetence. It took her a long time to get over it; even though I repeatedly told her the whole thing was just an excuse.” Cautionary tales aside – and there are plenty of them – office romance, traditionally a touchy subject inside corporate North America, is currently alive and well and out of the (supply) closet. U.S. surveys (Canadian experts on this topic are nowhere to be found) indicate that up to one-third of all romances start at work and half of those turn into long-term commitment or marriage. From mom-and-pop firms to giant corporations, from police stations to the hallowed halls of government, love is in the air. And it isn’t just confined to alcohol-fuelled one-night stands or inappropriate smooching at the office party. Stringent drinking and driving laws seem to have stifled such foolhardy stuff, which ran rampant in the business world 20 years ago. In his research, University of Memphis psychology professor Charles Pierce, considered an expert on nine-to-five nookie, confirms that the workplace is the most likely place to meet a romantic partner. He says 80 per cent of employees have had some sort of “social-sexual experience” on the job, whether it’s flirting, dating, a casual fling or a full-fledged affair. While Pierce’s findings may sound shockingly high to some of us, they are no surprise to local experts such as Bob Wilson, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Vancouver-based Wilson Banwell, which provides workplace health services, including employee and family assistance programs, to local firms. He points out that a little over 60 per cent of married men and 46 per cent of married women admit to having extra-marital affairs, and that most involve a co-worker. “When these things start, nobody thinks of the consequences down the line,” he says. “But romances involving married employees can compromise organizations, families and individual careers quite severely.” Our increasing urge to merge with our co-workers was recently confirmed by Vault, one of the biggest sources of career information on the Web: a popular destination for young professionals and companies that recruit them. In Vault’s 2005 office romance poll, 58 per cent of employees surveyed admitted to a workplace relationship, up from 46 per cent two years ago. However, while the phenomenon seems to be on the rise, we’re getting increasingly leery about tipping our hand. Last year, only 12 per cent of Vault’s respondents opted to disclose their relationships to co-workers, down from 19 per cent in 2004. Naturally, the salacious implications of this phenomenon have become fodder for the media. Canada’s Urban Male Magazine (UMM) recently dubbed the workplace “the finest meat market around” and offered readers some lighthearted (if a little creepy) counsel on the do’s and don’ts of “dipping your pen in the company inkwell.” It advised young corporate types looking for action to begin by making “a hottie inventory” – apparently achieved by lurking in the lobby and prowling every floor, hopefully without attracting unwanted attention from security. But before moving in, UMM strongly urged would-be suitors to prepare an exit strategy: just in case the “cutie” in the next cubicle disappoints. However, urban males should not let fear of reprisal slow them down. “A good, hot office romance is a wonderful thing,” UMM says. “Turning the daily grind into the bump and grind can be a ton of fun, and it can make going to work a pleasure… literally.” Why are we suddenly so hot for our colleagues? According to psychologists, the workplace is the perfect petri dish. Today we work longer hours, leaving us less time to socialize off the job; women are well represented at almost every level; more single young people are entering the ranks; more employees are getting divorced; successful companies are recruiting staff with similar values and commitment levels; and there’s a whole new emphasis on teamwork. In an informal fast-paced business environment, work equals play and we all know where being playful at work can lead. Take for example, Vancouver-based 1-800-GOT-JUNK, which employs mostly 20-somethings in its high-energy sales centre. “We’re all about people,” says recruiting manager Renata Witthoeft. “We expect everyone here to give 110 per cent but at the same time, we want them to have fun.” GOT-JUNK’s workplace conduct is governed by its four core values: passion, professionalism, integrity and empathy. Given its people-based corporate culture, with an emphasis on personal responsibility and commitment to diversity, Witthoeft says it would be counter-productive to implement stringent policies around employee dating. “So far it hasn’t been an issue,” she says. “And anyway, I’m confident that we attract the kind of people who would think twice before jeopardizing the company or causing problems for their co-workers.” [pagebreak] Many researchers, including Pierce, support GOT-JUNK’s view that personal relationships inject much-needed energy and enthusiasm into the workplace. However, Andrea Jacques, a Vancouver-based organizational/leadership consultant and columnist with The Office Journal, adds a note of caution: “Romances and close friendships are certainly more likely when there’s positive synergy among employees, and that’s a good thing,” she says. “But they also thrive in toxic workplaces characterized by bad management and lack of trust. If the working environment is ‘hell on earth,’ that can definitely bring people together. If employers are seeing a lot of close relationships forming, they should make sure they’re happening for the right reasons. It might be an opportunity to look at their culture and, if necessary, raise the bar.” In this day and age, bosses and HR professionals are much more open to the idea of office relationships than they were a couple of decades ago – at least until things get ugly. Problems associated with employee dating generally crop up when anger, jealousy and bitterness (common emotions on the heels of any breakup) begin to damage productivity and morale. Romantic retaliation can easily wind up in the realm of sexual harassment or lead to charges of favouritism – which is exactly what happened to Max and Fran. But it’s often the less dramatic forms of retaliation, such as subtle intimidation or undermining an ex-lover’s work that go unnoticed by management. When such behaviour continues over time, whether on the shop floor or in an executive office, it’s toxic, cumulative and ends up affecting everyone. Because it’s impossible to outlaw love at work, in any of its forms, very few Canadian companies have written policies governing employee dating, except when it comes to supervisors canoodling with direct reports. Even then “thou shalt not” is largely an unwritten rule that is tough to enforce. Instead they expect managers to voluntarily come clean so that, if necessary, one or other partner can be reassigned. Most companies we spoke to say they prefer to deal with relationship issues as they arise, which they admit in the very worst cases may already be too late. Unlike in the more litigious U.S., where consensual relationship policies are gaining popularity and companies may require couples to sign relationship contracts, most B.C. organizations prefer to manage negative consequences through existing workplace or sexual-harassment policies. In such cases, employees are encouraged to take concerns to their boss, or if the boss is involved, directly to HR. Some organizations have an independent third party empowered to investigate complaints of favouritism or harassment. Under Canada’s Labour Code, all employers are required to develop an internal harassment policy. In practice, many small firms simply don’t bother. This is not a good idea, as any number of Canadian employers have found to their cost. Corporate compliance with the Labour Code is always considered by the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal when evaluating a company’s liability. Fallout from workplace relationships can show up in unexpected ways. Drew Railton, a Vancouver-based regional VP with career management consultants Toombs KWA, which helps companies manage layoffs, has seen senior people let go for lack of integrity, especially when it comes to mixing business and personal decisions. He has also seen employees about to be released attempt to hold onto their jobs by using a relationship with their manager’s boss. “I have never yet seen a layoff decision reversed by this strategy,” says Railton. “In fact, such relationships have usually been factored in. When this comes up, my role is to make the employee see that no matter how the situation plays out it does not bode well for them to play that card.” Bob Wilson agrees with Railton that no one in a position of authority, such as a senior manager, VP or CEO should ever consider a relationship with someone who works with them, or for them. “In private companies you might be able to finesse it but in publicly traded companies you have to stop it,” he says. While it sounds like a cliché, office relationships continue to blossom between the boss and his executive secretary. “All of a sudden someone is accorded a status way beyond what their job would allow… going on trips, getting all kinds of benefits and perks,” says Wilson. “As other employees become aware it leads to jealousy, infighting and discomfort, which can have serious ramifications for the organization.” When BCB asked for stories of office romance gone horribly wrong, only a handful of people were brave enough to talk to us and, of those, none was willing to use their real name. This reluctance is understandable. Most of us have been attracted to a co-worker at least once during our career: even someone as morally upright as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has admitted to “lusting in his heart.” At the other extreme there’s former U.S. president Bill Clinton, whose Oval Office antics have assumed legendary proportions. While the end of an office relationship can be painful enough for single people, it goes double for those who are married. We heard stories straight out of movies such as Fatal Attraction and Disclosure (both of which should be compulsory viewing for anyone intent on pursuing a married co-worker). While no bunnies were actually boiled, our subjects reported that scorned lovers keyed cars, wrote malicious anonymous letters to bosses and spouses, left angry voicemails, lurked outside their office buildings, followed them home, sent inappropriate emails, spread embarrassing rumours among their co-workers and threatened to do much worse. John, a 44-year-old married executive who admitted to a brief fling with his former secretary, advises people to think hard before leaving the straight and narrow. “If you risk having an office romance, you also run a huge risk of being accused of sexual harassment,” he warns. “At first it was exciting: but I quickly realized she wanted me to leave my wife. When I tried to break it off, she did some crazy things at work and threatened to tell my boss I was harassing her. I had to go to him before she did. Luckily, she eventually left the company and my wife never did find out. There’s no way I’d ever do anything like that again.” We also heard from Shannon, 35, a single account manager, who fell for a married co-worker. “It started with a little harmless flirting by email and the occasional lunch but over time it became increasingly sexually charged,” she recalls. “Things changed when we went out of town to a conference and spent the night together. After that he completely avoided me. He said it was better for the company if we just pretended it never happened. It was very painful emotionally and also extremely uncomfortable professionally because our company was quite small and we had to work together.” Risks associated with office romance between single people can usually be mitigated by using discretion. But affairs where at least one person is married are especially risky, particularly for women. When an affair ends, or if it becomes a problem in the office, workplace psychologists say it’s still the woman who will probably lose her job, especially if the affair is with her boss. If she stays, she may have to deal with the scorn of her peers, some of whom might know the spouses involved, be upset about having to cover for the affair or feel their workload was adversely affected by the relationship. If a woman gets embroiled in a messy affair, senior management might even question her commitment to her career. So, your eyes meet hers across a conference room table and you feel the heat. You want to ask her out but how do you make it work? Chris and Tana Heminsley, who both worked at BC Hydro’s Vancouver head office when they began dating seven years ago, advise potential couples to be realistic about their relationship from day one, which means discussing how you’ll handle things at work and how you’ll react if the relationship ends. Setting ground rules may not seem romantic, they say, but it’s the step most often missed by couples whose relationships go off the rails. [pagebreak] The Heminsleys had both worked at Hydro for more than two years (he was in the strategic group, she was in finance) when Chris first asked Tana out for lunch after a planning session. They had an easy rapport and quickly realized they shared similar values and aspirations. Tana remembers feeling surprised and a little excited to have developed feelings for a longtime co-worker. “It wasn’t something I’d ever considered,” she says. When Chris suggested they go on an official date, Tana said she’d have to check company policy. (Like most companies, Hydro has no specific rules about dating, although its Respectful Workplace Policy warns employees of the potential for charges of harassment or discrimination, especially when a relationship develops between a supervisor and a co-worker.) “I always err on the side of conservatism,” Tana says, laughing. “I also wanted to talk about it with my boss.” When she was confident that there was no conflict, the romance began but they kept it from co-workers until they felt “solid as a couple.” The Heminsleys dated for five and a half years before marrying almost two years ago. “As time went on, we both changed roles within the company and it did get a little more difficult,” Chris says. “There were times when I had access to sensitive information that I couldn’t share with Tana, and vice versa. From the beginning it was important for both of us to do everything with integrity, which meant setting firm boundaries and banning inappropriate pillow talk.” (Tana once excused herself from a meeting when the group was reviewing a proposal written by Chris.) Today Chris, 41, is acting director, corporate transmission while Tana, 43, recently left to form her own personal and leadership development group. While their workplace dating experience might sound onerous to some, they say an office love match makes a lot of sense, especially in a stable organization like Hydro where people can get to know each other safely, over time. What was their biggest challenge? No contest, laughs Tana: for her it was sticking to what they called the “three block rule” – no public displays of affection (PDAs) within three blocks of the office. Speaking of PDAs, the Heminsleys advise other couples to be very careful how you communicate. “You never know who’s going to get on an elevator,” Chris points out. “Oh yes, and avoid using company email. We had a situation in which a guy wrote to a co-worker, thanking her for a great evening. By mistake he pressed the wrong button and sent it to the entire organization. When things like that happen, it can be pretty embarrassing.” So, if you’re currently looking for love in all the wrong places, why not take a chance and trade moonlight and candlelight for the power of fluorescent light? Who knows: your life partner might just be that smiling face at reception or the friendly guy you bump into at the water cooler. The Job you Love Getting a job with Vancouver’s Great Little Box Company is almost as difficult as finding the love of your life. (Last year the privately owned company, which consistently ranks among the best Canadian employers, attracted 10,000 resumes for 30 new jobs.) But if you survive the exhaustive interview process and are deemed a fit with CEO Robert Meggy’s “people first” corporate culture, your chances of hooking up around the water cooler look pretty good. In the last few years, at least six couples have met, married and in most cases still work for the company. Over the past 20 years, Meggy has watched numerous in-house relationships bloom and whither, but as long as a relationship doesn’t adversely affect morale or hinder productivity, he’s not worried. People spend more time at work than they do with their families, he says, so developing close relationships with co-workers is inevitable. Meggy’s wife Margaret, who is company VP, works right across the hall. Three years ago, Shirley Leach, a customer service rep, began working alongside her now husband, Shawn, a new member of the sales department. It was all business until she invited him to join the company hiking group. Weeks later, when co-workers had dropped by the wayside, the two realized they shared more than a love of the great outdoors. “We kept it quiet for the first six months. At least I thought we did,” says Shirley. Great Little Box is known as fertile ground for singletons, she adds, as long as newcomers share the same commitment to their boss and the corrugated-box business. Shirley recently returned to work after the birth of their first child but no longer works as closely with Shawn, which she says is a good thing. “I think we probably do talk about work more than most couples, but over time we’ve learned how to switch it off.” When Cupid strikes at work If you have your eye on someone in the next cubicle, workplace psychologists offer the following advice on how to win at romance and keep your career intact: Acknowledge the relationship as soon as possible. What lovers think is a well-kept secret is usually office gossip.

  • Check company policy before hooking up. While there may be nothing in writing, there are usually some unwritten rules. Can you live with them?
  • If you’re single, and both on an equal footing, most companies have no problem with dating, as long as there is no acrimony or conflict of interest.
  • If one or both of you are married, think long and hard. Depending on the circumstances, it could be a career-limiting move. Is it worth it?
  • Don’t hook up with a co-worker after a night of partying. You could be riding the elevator with that person until you retire.
  • Before agreeing to date, consider what could happen if you break up. Be honest: if things got ugly, could you still work together?
  • Stay away from the boss. Trysts between supervisors and employees are still frowned upon. If you can’t help yourself, fess up to senior management before you’re outted by a co-worker. One of you should expect to be reassigned.
  • Be very discreet in the early stages. If the romance fizzles you’ll save face and you can try it again without being labelled a player, or worse.
  • Avoid discussing intimate details of your relationship with co-workers. Way too much information.
  • Act appropriately in and around the office. No long lunches or carefully orchestrated business trips.
  • No lingering looks or PDAs of any kind. Avoid making personal calls and frequent office visits. Never communicate via company email.
  • Don’t let your relationship affect your job performance or objectivity.
  • If it ends, set ground rules on how to deal with each other. Don’t encourage co-workers to take sides.
  • Make sure you have more in common with your partner than your work. Without other shared interests, your relationship could be headed for trouble over the long haul.

The bottom line We knew you’d ask. When it comes to sex at work, 23 per cent of respondents to Vault’s most recent office romance survey admit to indulging in “sexual relations” at least once, with the office cited as the most common location, followed by the restroom and the conference room. Other popular hotspots are apparently the stairwell, elevator, cubicle, copy room, closet, lunchroom (ew) and the boss’s office. If you’re an adrenalin junkie, for pity’s sake consider your co-workers, if not your own career. In the heat of the moment people tend to forget they are not alone. While researching this piece, one of our contacts called in to report a couple having sex on a desk in the next office building. If you don’t want to be picked up by a cell phone camera and end up on the Internet, close the blinds. Oh, and please lock the door. A payroll officer working for a large engineering firm describes how her assistant, delivering a document to their married boss at the end of the day, caught him in a passionate clinch with another staff member. “Of course she was really embarrassed and backed out right away. He knows she saw them but he never spoke to her about what happened. It’s created a pretty tense situation.”