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The Birds, The Bees, and the Business

By Laura Sweeney

All it takes is a casual lunch here and a happy hour there, and before you know it, you have yourself an office relationship. But beware: Secrecy, intimacy, and risk are generally not recommended tools for career advancement.

Thirty-eight percent of workers aren't afraid to give office dating a try. For those who can't resist the passion, some rules for office lovin' may apply.
"I've sworn off it once before," says Tanya. "I think it's a bad, bad idea. I'd like to say I'd never date someone I work with again." Tanya, a repeat office romancer, knows you're not supposed to do it, but she does it anyway.

It's just too easy to spark a romance at work. All it takes is a casual lunch here, a happy hour there, and before you know it, you have yourself an office relationship. "Work is the best prescreening around," writes Dennis Powers, author of The Office Romance (Amacom, 1998). After all, co-workers have a lot to talk about, whether it be complaining about the boss or comparing commutes.

In fact, Powers writes that after college, the best place to meet a mate is at work. That's enough to make you take another look around the office. "This is a steamy place," says Meredith, a nurse practitioner at a hospital in Philadelphia. "People work such long hours, and with so many young people on staff, dating definitely happens a lot".

Secrecy, intimacy, and risk are generally not recommended tools for career advancement. Nevertheless, 38 percent of workers aren't afraid to give office dating a try, according to a survey by research firm Roper Starch Worldwide. For those who can't resist the passion, some rules for office lovin' may apply.

Rule #1: Know your company's policy.
Until you know your company's policy on office relationships, you can't know all the possible consequences of dating the hottie in the next cube.

Pat and Colleen met at Aerotek, a recruiting firm based in Hanover, Maryland. Like many firms, Aerotek had no written policy on office dating at the time, but there was an unspoken understanding that it was discouraged. Eight months after he started seeing Colleen, Pat was up for a promotion. "I basically had the promotion wrapped up," he says. "Then someone called the branch manager and told him I was dating Colleen."

Pat and Colleen found themselves sitting across from Aerotek's director of operations, who confronted them about their relationship. "Things got ugly from there," says Pat. "They couldn't fire us because there was no policy on it, plus we had never admitted to anything. But we both handed in our resignations under duress."

Rule #2: Think about the breakup first.
If you think running into your ex around town is painful, try working in the same office. Kim, another repeat office romancer, learned this firsthand. "There's post-relationship anxiety with any breakup, but work is a weird place to have to deal with this feeling," she says. "Your day can get totally messed up because your head is somewhere else."

After Tanya and her first office boyfriend broke up, he admitted he was dating another woman in the office. "That was really hard for me for a couple of months," she says. "It's still unpleasant to see them together and I have to see it every day."

In his book, Powers recommends that you and your new office pet plan an exit strategy. Can one of you switch departments? Are you willing to give up your position over this person? As difficult as it may be, you need to think about the possibilities should your love turn to loathing.

Rule #3: Be discreet.
Most people's instinct is to keep things under the covers, so to speak, especially in the early stages of the relationship. If you're serious about developing your professional reputation, it's safer to keep your personal life private. If co-workers feel uncomfortable with the situation, they may complain or be overly critical of your work.

Being discreet isn't easy. Lisa and Tom kept their romance a secret for almost two years in a consulting firm of 20 people. "At one point I even hid behind a pillar in a lobby so my manager wouldn't see me," says Lisa. The closest they ever came to getting caught was at an early morning meeting. "I had spent the night at Tom's house and the alarm didn't go off. We were conspicuously late and we both had wet hair." As it turned out, two years of secrecy came down to one misplaced confidence. "We told someone we shouldn't have," explains Lisa. "After that, the secret was out."

Rule #4: Love conquers all.
The more romantic side of the story is that many office relationships turn out to be the real thing. According to Powers, one-half of all work romances lead to a serious relationship or marriage. "Better odds," he adds, "than those for nonwork relationships."

The fact is that attraction is a stronger force than policy. Pat and Colleen, who resigned from Aerotek, got married last summer. Lisa and Tom left the consulting firm together to attend the same graduate school. Even Tanya, our repeat office romancer who once swore off dating co-workers, says, "I'd never say never because I'd hate to miss out on something that could be really wonderful."

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