Romance in a fluorescent-lit cubicle

Is dating at work riskier for women than men?


Katharine Mieszkowski
December 8, 2007 12:10AM (UTC)

If you spend your free time at work looking for a date in the personals on Craigslist, writers Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen have a gentle suggestion. Look away from your computer screen, and into the next cubicle. You may be surprised by who you find there. The authors of the new book "Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding -- and Managing -- Romance on the Job," who are also Salon contributors, argue that the workplace has become the new town square, where many couples meet.

Despite the popular belief that sexual harassment policies prohibit dating among co-workers, most human resources departments don't officially object to colleagues dating; it's the boss/employee love match that gets legal worried. In fact, more companies prohibit porn in the workplace than romance.

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Broadsheet corresponded with Losee and Olen via e-mail about why office romance has gained greater social acceptance, yet still takes some finesse to navigate, especially for female employees.

You argue that there's less social stigma around office romance these days, yet recently the head of the American Red Cross resigned because of a relationship with a female subordinate. What relevance do such high-profile sex scandals in the boardroom have to office romance in the trenches?

There is much less stigma attached to workplace romance now than even a few years ago. The numbers bear this out: About half of us have done it at some point. It's not surprising; members of Gen X and now Gen Y are so committed to co-mingling their personal and professional lives, they really don't understand what the fuss is about. Remember that the oldest Gen Xers are in their early 40s and have been in the workplace for two decades now, so that's a lot of time for change to occur.

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What hasn't changed is the response to boss-subordinate relationships. They're inherently messy and can lead to charges of favoritism. But for the record, we object strenuously to the fact that Mark Everson was forced out of the Red Cross. No one has yet come forward publicly with an allegation that his personal relationships affected his performance at the American Red Cross, for which he was highly praised. If everyone who either committed adultery with a co-worker or dated a subordinate or their boss was sent packing, the nation's unemployment rate would no doubt jump a few percentage points.

Does having an office romance carry more risk for a woman than for a male colleague?

It seems that inter-office romance can still be a bit riskier for a woman, despite the recent high-profile firings of misbehaving male executives. Women are often judged much more harshly for their sexual behavior. That's true inside or outside of the office, alas. But contrary to popular perception, surveys show the majority of your co-workers either won't care or will be actively supportive of your romance provided they don't perceive it as threatening to the work environment. As several of our respondents told us, the more knotty problem is what happens if you start planning your wedding; your colleagues all expect an invitation. They feel a sense of ownership -- parentship, even -- of couples who blossom in their midst.

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One study you cite mentions that men are more likely to believe that a romance with their female boss helps their career than women are to believe a romance with a male boss helps theirs. What do you make of the discrepancy?

This was a question asked by Careerbuilder.com in its 2006 survey on inter-office romance. Men were much more likely than women to say that dating their boss helped their career. Other data supported this perception.

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Several years ago, a professor at the University of Connecticut asked MBA students to assume the role of a co-worker in an imaginary office where an affair was taking place between a senior married executive and a lower-ranking subordinate. Different scenarios were played out, including how the romance affected others in the office and the sex of the senior and junior employees. Generally, the MBA students judged the situation and participants much more harshly when the lower-ranking employee was female. In fact, they not infrequently questioned the lower-ranking woman's motives in entering the affair. When a man was the junior employee, the situation and his motivation was judged much less harshly by the students. It must really be love!

Our advice: Don't date the boss unless it's true love. That means you think you're headed for marriage, children, the whole enchilada. Otherwise, it's too risky.

If you're interested in someone at work, how can you navigate the office holiday party without becoming gossip fodder the next day?

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Stay the hell away from them. While we confess that we heard stories of office Christmas party naughtiness that led to wedding bells, we heard many more that ended in absolute embarrassment for everyone involved. The office Christmas party can seem like a romantic opportunity, but it's just another work meeting that happens at night while you're wearing evening attire.

If you're interested in a co-worker, figure out another way to approach them, preferably not in front of witnesses. Our research demonstrated that most office romances begin with friendship between two colleagues who spend a lot of time getting to know each other before ever making a move, so it should be pretty easy to find a way to be alone. If you need a touch of alcohol to give you the courage to make an approach, we suggest happy hour.


Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski


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