Paper Clips, Staplers And Love

By Anica Wong

April 29, 2011 5 min read

It seems that in Hollywood, office romances always work. "Grey's Anatomy" is chock-full of workplace love affairs and marriages. Viewers followed Jim and Pam's budding relationship in "The Office" and rooted for them as they finally tied the knot. "ER" fans everywhere wanted to be Nurse Hathaway so they could sneak into on-call rooms with George Clooney's character, Dr. Ross.

But can real love be sparked over memos and paper clips? According to a CareerBuilder.com survey done earlier this year, 40 percent of workers surveyed said they had dated someone they worked with. Allison Nawoj, a CareerBuilder spokeswoman, says that this number has stayed pretty steady over the past few years. What has changed, though, is that fewer people feel the need to keep a relationship that they have at work a secret.

"I think it has to do with the fact that workplace relationships don't have the stigma," Nawoj says.

Helaine Olen, co-author of the book "Office Mate: Your Employee Handbook for Romance on the Job," agrees. Chances are your co-workers already know something is going on, so don't attempt to hide anything. "Try to get to your boss before your co-worker does," she says. "You're not asking for permission, but you don't need your boss to find out with a wink and a nod in the elevator."

It's a good idea to keep your superiors in the loop if your relationship looks as if it is on a serious path. Some companies have policies about workplace relationships, whereas others do not. It's best to check with your human resources department for guidance. Though the role of HR may vary from company to company, this department would handle any formal documentation of your relationship. It also could serve as a mediator that offers advice, or the department could step in if the relationship becomes an issue.

Though it may be all hearts and butterflies when you first spy each other over the coffee maker, don't be fooled. There are definitely some things to keep in mind to help you keep your sanity (and your job).

"We always said just because it's called an office romance doesn't mean you conduct it in the office," Olen says. Never ask your co-worker out on a date in the office; if you can't figure out a way to get the person off-site in order to ask, then there might not be a future anyway.

The biggest issue management tends to have with office romances is that they are disturbances to the workplace. "It is really important that (co-workers who are dating) are always acting professional and not letting their relationship distract and not making others feel uncomfortable," Nawoj says.

This also means that you probably shouldn't tell your secretary about the most amazing date you went on the other night and all of the steamy details about what happened afterward.

Another sticky situation can be a boss-subordinate romantic relationship. Although it's easy to fall head over heels for the guy or girl in the corner office, unless you see your entire future with that person, Olen warns, don't go there. "Those are the relationships that are most likely to jeopardize jobs." Plus, she adds, when it is perceived by others that those in the relationship are getting special favors, problems arise and co-workers become frustrated.

So taking into consideration all of this advice and these gentle guidelines, do workplace relationships really work? Are they worth the time, effort and scrutiny from the guy in the next cubicle?

Olen says that of the 40 percent of people who say they have dated a co-worker, 20 to 25 percent say the romance resulted in a long-term relationship (usually longer than two years). The CareerBuilder survey found that the number was slightly higher, at 30 percent. "That is an interesting sign that a lot of time when you do meet someone in the office, it's not just a fling," Nawoj says.

If there's a take-away message to all of this, try to be in that 30 percent rather than in the 6 percent of people who leave their job after a relationship (according to CareerBuilder). Olen herself was lucky enough to land in that magic realm; her current husband had an adjacent cubicle, and they slowly bonded.

"We'll be married 20 years this summer," she says.

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