Office Romance

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Nancy Wollin January 31, 2009

When they make headlines, office affairs usually involve an adulterous high-ranking government official (think oval office, blue dress, a cigar) or a misbehaving high-profile executive (think American Red Cross CEO Mark Everson). Hollywood typically portrays the intra-office liaison in an equally sordid light. Remember the movie Disclosure? (Demi Moore was the boss. She came on to Michael Douglas. He turned her down. Then she turned around and accused him of sexual harassment.) 

While the headlines and

Hollywood plots may make for great entertainment, the truth is that almost half of us–44 percent, according to a 2007 survey—have dated someone at work. And that should come as no surprise. People are spending so much time at work they often don’t have time to seek romance anywhere else. Common places to ignite sparks between co-workers, the survey found, are during lunch, at the company holiday party, or while burning the midnight oil on a work project. While some office liaisons turn into satisfying long-term relationships and even marriage, they can be risky business. Six percent of us quit our jobs because of an office romance gone awry.

“Couples have to think about how an office romance will affect their careers, how they would handle things if they break up, and whether or not they can or should keep the relationship a secret,” cautions Southwest Florida certified relationship coach Karen Card. “People always set out to act professionally at the office,” says Card. “But romance is not about being professional, it’s very personal. Romantic decisions are made with your heart, not your head. And because your heart is involved you might not make the best decision in regard to your career.”

Bradenton labor law attorney Kendra Presswood agrees. “The risks of engaging in an office romance are great, both professionally and personally. Regardless of whether the relationship works out or not, you and/or your romantic interest risk discipline, transfer to a different location, and ultimately termination,” she says. “In this economy in particular, you do not want to be looking for a job with the black mark of termination on your record. You have to ask yourself, is it really worth it?"

For Sarasota marketing consultant Veronica Brandon Miller, the answer, at least in hindsight, is yes. The first time Veronica, 40, met her husband Jeremy, 38, she hit him up for $1 million. It was 2002 and both were working in Washington, D.C.—she for the Navy League of the United States and he on Capitol Hill as legislative staff for an Iowa congressman. Focused on lobbying for that $1 million appropriation, Veronica tried not to notice that Jeremy was a hunk with dreamy blue eyes. A few months later she heard that the Navy League had hired that cute legislative affairs guy. She decided to stop by his office to thank him for his part in securing the appropriation, which had doubled to $2 million. “I took him out just as a thank you,” she says. “That led to a friendship, and after a month we started dating.”

The two, who were married in 2004, had to keep the office romance a secret. She was senior staff, and he was a director; that meant that she was technically higher ranked in the organization. But because they worked for different departments and on different floors, it was easy to keep the relationship discreet. And the fact that they didn’t routinely cross each other’s path proved fortunate when it came to navigating the inevitable ups and downs of courtship.

“Like many couples, we broke up a few times before deciding to marry,” says Veronica, who is now president of VBM Advancement, a Sarasota-based marketing and PR company. (Jeremy is now director of legislative affairs for Boys and Girls Club of America.) “But since we worked on different floors, we didn’t run into each other every day. That made it a lot easier. I don’t know how I would have felt if I had had to see him every day when we were broken up.”

To her regret, Sue Green (not her real name) knows exactly how that situation feels. She met Joe, a safety maintenance officer at the hospital where she works, when he conducted a fire drill for her department. Sparks flew and the couple started dating. They were open about their relationship, holding hands in the hallways, stealing kisses in the stairwells and sneaking off for private lunches in Joe’s office. Nobody at the hospital was surprised when Joe popped the question, and nobody was surprised when Sue said yes.

But after seven years of marriage, the couple suffered through a less-than-amicable divorce. “We commuted to and from work together and then worked together all day. It was too much togetherness,” Sue says. “And now we have to run into each other all the time. My advice to anyone thinking of dating or marrying someone they work with is, don’t do it.”

Sue and Joe elected to be open with their relationship, but that is not an option for many couples. And hiding a burning new romance can be difficult. According to Card, you need to consider not only the logistics of keeping your relationship secret, but also about how that secrecy will affect your relationship, not to mention how your co-workers and your boss will feel when they find out you’ve been less than honest with them.   

“Keeping a relationship hidden is not emotionally healthy for either partner. When you love someone you want to show it. Turning your love and affection off during the day and back on after 5 p.m. is very hard to do,” Card explains.

Couples facing this challenge can learn a lesson or two from Clarke and Steve Dvoskin. Clarke, 55, now an account executive at Sarasota Magazine, sister publication of Biz941, met Steve, 50, now regional vice president of Comcast, in 1983 when both were working at a small marketing consulting firm in Atlanta. Although there was no written policy about dating or being engaged to a coworker, they wanted to keep the relationship a secret nonetheless.  “Our office was small, just five consultants and two administrative assistants,” Clarke explains. “We didn’t want to be the subject of office gossip.”

The two became masters of deception, coordinating their moves and stories to keep their secret safe. “Steve and I would never leave the office at the same time,” Clarke says. “Every Sunday night we’d have a strategy session to plan what we’d say we did over the weekend. I’d take my engagement ring off every morning and put it in a drawer. Then I’d put it back on when I got home. Nobody at work knew we were together.”

Eventually, just weeks before their wedding, the couple told everyone at work about their relationship. Their boss was so upset he told Clarke that she had to keep her maiden name and that clients must never know that they were married. The couple would even be required to stay in separate rooms when on business travel to keep the ruse going. “It became clear to us that it was time to leave that job,” Clarke says.

Now married 23 years, the Dvoskins look back on their cloak and dagger antics with some amusement. “We could have received Oscars for our performance. But it was a huge relief when we finally came clean with what was going on,” Clarke says.

Risky Business

A labor law attorney offers cautionary advice on office romance.

Bradenton attorney Kendra Presswood sums up her opinion on office romance in three words: “Don’t do it.”

“I really can’t emphasize enough how bad an idea it is to get involved with someone at work. I have seen very successful careers ruined,” says Presswood, who is board certified in labor and employment law. ”Regardless of whether the relationship works out or not, you and/or your romantic interest risk discipline, transfer to a different location and even termination.” 

Acknowledging, however, that people do fall in love at the workplace, she offers this advice: 

·        Keep the relationship out of the working environment. Do not reveal the romantic interest at work or discuss it with co-workers. Do not send personal e-mails over the company’s e-mail system. The employer’s risk for a sexual harassment suit goes up significantly if you are e-mailing each other romantic messages, so your risk of being fired goes up as well.

·        Know your employer’s policies. Understand that, from your employer’s perspective, an office romance can lead to costly lawsuits. Employees can allege sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination. If possible, ask to be transferred to another location and/or taken out of the chain of command of your romantic interest.

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