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Published: Wednesday, 7/5/2006

Love in the Time of Cubicles

by Hannah Seligson

CTW Features

When even former presidents have done it, chances are you know a lot of people who have had everything from one-night stands to affairs to long-term relationships at the office. Workplace romance is an embedded, and often fascinating, part of our culture. On Grey s Anatomy, the hit ABC dramaedy, the romance between Cristina Yang, the surgical intern, and Preston Burke, her boss, the thoracic surgeon, is one of the juiciest story lines. The media captures the reality of the workplace, which is that between the hours of nine-to-five we are still sexual beings who often act on those desires.

And statistics certainly corroborate that. According to a survey of employees released in February 2005, 58 percent of respondents said they have been involved with a co-worker. It s no mystery why people engage in office romance. Take, for example, Vanessa Ferrari, a consultant in Washington D.C., who is dating a co-worker she met at a previous job. Ferrari says that dating someone at the office has a lot of the same perks as dating someone at your high school. Most significantly it s having a fun reason to get dressed up nicely and go to work every day. Also, since you work at the same place, you automatically know a lot of the same people, have a lot of common experience to talk about and understand each other much better.

However, it s not always all fun and games, and before you start canoodling up to your cute coworkers, David Swink the president of Strategic Interactions, the Vienna, Va.-based human resources consulting firm, advises people to be aware of doing a lot of public flirting and a lot of touching. No one likes PDA and people really don t like it at the office, he says.

Along those same lines, avoid writing scandalous things to each other over company e-mail. Remember, it s all archived and very possibility monitored. The same goes for instant message. You never know who could be opening a conversation that starts with the salutation, Hey Mr. Soft Lips.

Swink s cardinal piece of advice is to have a contingency plan with the person you are dating. A lot of these relationships end and there is a very different dynamic if you have to see that person everyday. Swink says to have an honest conversation about how you ll both act if you break up at work. But for some, like Julie Chen, a research assistant at a non-profit in New York, who is dating a co-worker, the idea of a contingency talk is off-putting.

It would be like making a prenuptial agreement, Chen says. The danger, however, in not having a contingency plan is that you could be at a job for a long time in a very awkward situation.

But forget about how you ll act when you break up, what s the protocol about disclosure to the higher ups? Swink says that if one person reports to another, it would be smart to tell one s boss and maybe even human resources to avoid problems later.

When it comes to your immediate co-workers, Swink advises couples to fully disclose. If you are working on the same team, or project, people are probably going to pick up on the romance vibes, and it takes a lot of energy to keep that big of a secret. It could also undermine trust on the team not to let others know, Swink says.

Another logistical issue to be mindful of is your company s official policy on office romance. Most companies do not prohibit dating with people at the same level, but have policies that prohibit dating between people at different levels, so you need to be aware of what your company s policy is, Swink says.

Chen, like many people who end up dating a co-worker, isn t quite sure about her organization s official policy on office romance. However, she says she taken social cues from her coworkers. I ve heard, and seen, a lot of the younger people hooking up and dating so that made me feel like it s acceptable and congruent with my organization s culture.

What do you if you find yourself in a more murky situation? For instance, you ve hooked up with a coworker, or are casually dating. Ferrari says that was initially the situation with her now boyfriend and found that, while difficult, it was best to act like classy, platonic friends. Based on her own experience, however, she cautions, Try not to be in an ambiguous situation for long, because then you will just feel really awkward all the time, and it is bound to affect your work and behavior.

But with all the cautionary tales, a Vault.com study shows workplace relationships have a fairly high success rate with roughly a quarter of them resulting in either a long-term relationships or marriage, giving credence to the adage, All relationships take work.

Hannah Seligson is a writer based in New York currently working on her first book, New Girl on the Job: How Not to Cry at Work to be published by Kensington Books in the spring of 2007.

Copyright CTW Features



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