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Workplace relationships become more complex, and possibly litigious, when they occur between couples where one is in a position of power or one reports to the other.
Workplace relationships become more complex, and possibly litigious, when they occur between couples where one is in a position of power or one reports to the other.

THE FUTURE OF WORK

The pros and cons of office romances Add to ...

Barbara Cerf moved from Boston to New York to begin working at an insurance company. At her first day on the job, she spotted a man walking down the hall and thought him attractive. He noticed her, too, stopping in front and saying, “Who the hell are you?” Ms. Cerf responded that she was a new employee.

Recognizing the obvious connection, Ms. Cerf decided mischievously to take his rabbit-fur hat when she left for lunch. When he found out she had it, she told him she liked it too much to return it and had decided to take it home. He replied, “If my hat’s going home with you, so am I.”

They kept their relationship a secret for about six months but decided to fess up when they were accidentally booked into the same hotel room at an industry conference. The company accepted their relationship since Ms. Cerf reported to someone else, and they became engaged shortly after.

That was in 1973 and Ms. Cerf was 23 at the time. She and Pete eventually got married and had two children. They now run PB&J Consulting together, a branding and social-media company supporting small businesses. He is the P, she the B and their son, Jared, a writer and their marketing vice-president, is the J.

“When Pete and I got married, New York magazine did an article on how people met at work and we were one of the people they interviewed. It was very unusual,” Ms. Cerf observed. “Now, everyone is open about who is sleeping with whom and I think that’s great. If you have to hide things, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble,” she added.

Still, if you are looking at your colleague with googly-eyes, you may want to think twice, according to Sharon Schweitzer, chief executive officer of the Austin-based consultancy Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide.

“In the past, some employers ignored office relationships, remaining uninvolved unless there was a catastrophic ending,” said Ms. Schweitzer, sourcing a 1998 workplace-romance survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which showed that only 13 per cent of HR professionals said their organization maintained a written policy for these relationships. By 2013, the SHRM Workplace Survey showed that 42 per cent now have workplace romance policies in place.

“These more widespread and strict policies reflect companies’ push to mitigate possibly disastrous consequences in sexual-harassment lawsuits, decreased productivity and lost revenue,” Ms. Schweitzer said.

“As a former employment attorney, I can share that litigation is only one potential issue; professional discipline, losing a professional licence, and professional and personal brand destruction are all associated with office romance gone sideways,” she added.

Naturally, workplace relationships become more complex, and possibly litigious, when they occur between couples where one is in a position of power or one reports to the other. Even relationships between people working together on the same project or in the same department can produce disastrous results.

Despite this, office romances are becoming commonplace. Ms. Schweitzer cites a 2015 survey by Mic, a news site targeting millennials, which found that the workplace was the third-most common place for 18-to-34-year-olds to meet their current significant other, beating dating sites and apps.

While some do result in breakups with “company-wide ripple effects,” many people remain happily married for years.

Ms. Schweitzer suggested that if you find yourself attracted to a colleague, a smart first step would be to examine your company’s office policy, although she acknowledges that love doesn’t always behave in the most logical way.

She also recommends that employees carefully assess the pros and cons of a workplace romance by asking themselves whether it is worth transferring to a different department or location, or even risking their entire career for a relationship? Can they avoid perceptions of favouritism and public displays of affection at work?

“Relationships aren’t guaranteed to succeed. So remember, unlike a failed romance outside the business setting, it’s not as private when it involves a professional colleague. You’re risking personal and professional brands, so think twice,” Ms. Schweitzer warned.

Women, in particular, she observed, may get hurt more when office romances go awry, owing to subtle stereotypes and power dynamics. A 2016 Vault.com survey about showed that more women than men feel regret after a failed office relationship, with only 43 per cent of women saying they would do it again, compared with 71 per cent of men.

Still, for many, there is no denying love (or lust). Taking into account the amount of time many of us spend working – two-thirds of Canadians report working more than 45 hours a week – and the odd endearing love story such as Ms. Cerf’s, romance at the office is probably here to stay.

“Many of my friends met through work,” Ms. Cerf acknowledged, adding, “Now if I can just introduce to my son to a nice girl.”

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.

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