Love Among the Cubicles
The on-set romance is a time-honored Hollywood tradition -- from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s to the A-list duo simply known as Brangelina today. After all, spending hour after hour together working on the same project is inevitably bound to inspire a few amorous glances.
But for the non-tabloid set, the workplace has also become something of a singles scene -- now more so than ever, with people working longer hours and a growing number of employers, especially among smaller, entrepreneurial companies, willing to accept interoffice trysts as a cost of doing business.
Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 63.4 million singles in the U.S. workforce today -- and that appears, in part, to be fueling more on-the-job flings. More than 80 percent of U.S. employees have known of a relationship between two coworkers, and 46 percent have engaged in an on-the-job romance themselves, with another 13 percent willing to, according to a new survey by Vault.com, a New York-based career advice company.
These relationships are not just spur-of-the-moment flings brought on by a late night at the office. Half of the 945 people surveyed by Vault also say they know one office couple that eventually got married, while 20 percent say they met their own spouse on the job.
So how are all these cubiclemates getting together? Despite conventional wisdom, men may actually play Cupid more than women. One in four men say that they have tried to set up a date for a coworker -- albeit not necessarily with another coworker -- compared to one in five women, according to a survey by SnagAJob.com, a Glen Allen, Va.-based hourly employment resource.
"There are more men acting like Chuck Woolery than we might have suspected, which could be related to the amount of time we spend with our colleagues," SnagAJob.com CEO Shawn Boyer says. "Over time, we know them pretty well, and we just can't risk the urge to suggest a date to those who are available."
Boyer says that his company's own policy on interoffice dating is fairly lax, minus a provision about no dating within a direct reporting relationship and one where significant others of employees will not be hired from the outside. He's not alone. Just 19 percent of respondents to the Vault survey say their companies have policies about office romances, compared to 34 percent that do not. Nearly half say they aren't sure.
The narrow scope of Boyer's policy is, in part, because he met his wife on the job. "We kept it quiet for a while," Boyer says of his courtship, "because you don't know whether that relationship will work out or not. I think most people keep it quiet for a period of time until you figure out if it's worth pursuing. We were dating for six months before disclosing."
While most involved coworkers choose to remain discreet like Boyer and his wife, on-the-job hanky panky is more common than you might think. According to the Vault survey, 23 percent of people have actually engaged in romantic behavior at the office (although only 3 percent admit to being caught).
While Boyer and his wife did not take their relationship public at the workplace for a while, once they told friends around the office, most people already had suspicions.
Boyer says that his company has not had a problem with an office relationship turning ugly, which he cited is possibly because these employees are adults and have perhaps discussed the possibility of a breakup, like he and his wife did.
"The issue for us was that I wasn't going to go anywhere and she wasn't going to go anywhere," Boyer says, adding that the couple decided they would be professional enough to work together despite a possible breakup.
An office breakup has the potential to turn nasty if the couple does not decide to maintain that same professional level that they had during the relationship. Boyer knows that some of the consequences of an office relationship going south include the distraction this explosive breakup poses for other employees and coworkers taking one member of the former couple's side, thereby splitting the office up. But for some employees who cannot handle being cordial to their ex post-breakup, it could lead to a sexual harassment lawsuit, particularly if the company does not take the appropriate steps to prevent this.
Pamela Elisofon, senior partner at the Elisofon Law Office in Brooklyn, N.Y., says that most sexual harassment lawsuits arise from relationships between a supervisor and employee.
"I get a lot of calls [for these cases], but not all of them are actionable," Elisofon says.
There have to be multiple occurrences for a sexual harassment case to be actionable, Elisofon says, but employers can attempt to avoid most suits by having some discrimination and diversity training, having a clear, written policy about what constitutes sexual harassment, and having a human resources team that is ready to take action to alleviate the problem.
"I don't know that you can really prevent people from becoming involved in a relationship, but awareness is important," she says.
And while Boyer is aware that this uncomfortable post-breakup situation might be inevitable, he's not worried. Instead, he is determined to deal with the situation if and when it arises, because he does not want to enforce a strictly no dating office policy or hinder the collegial atmosphere that SnagAJob.com -- and many entrepreneurial companies -- fosters.
"Do you end up causing somebody to leave your company because they've developed a relationship with a coworker?," Boyer says. "If I found my mate at work, that's more important than my job…. You could be hindering a great relationship with that kind of policy. And then you have people who do end up dating someone at the office anyway and the relationship will take precedence, perhaps at it should, and you may lose good people."