Fishing Off the Company Pier
it is a truth universally acknowledged that the boss should not date an employee. At best, it's going to make a lot of people nervous. At worst, the experts agree, you may expose yourself to accusations of sexual harassment, legitimate or not. "My best advice is don't do it," warns one lawyer. Another compares starting a relationship with an employee to "playing with nitroglycerin."
Yet at one well-known company--the Princeton Review--dating an employee is not just tolerated. It's condoned. In fact, six of 10 top executives, including the CEO and president of the New York City-based test prep company, are married to people who were on the payroll. More than 40 couples that met at the company have tied the knot. So far, there have been no divorces and no lawsuits--though more than 20 children have been born.
"People you meet at the office are often more compatible. They have similar hopes and dreams."
-Author Mari Florence
While the Princeton Review might be an extreme illustration of love flowering in the workplace, it is by no means the only one. Bill Gates met his wife, Melinda, when she came to work at Microsoft. Indeed, in a recent survey, the American Management Association found that nearly a third of managers had dated someone from work. And those smitten managers reported that their relationships had staying power: 44% of them resulted in marriage and another 23% led to a long-term commitment.
As for the risks, there's some evidence they may have been exaggerated over the years. In her book Sex at Work: Attraction, Harassment, Flirtation, and Discrimination, author Mari Florence asserts that only a tiny number of business owners ever find themselves sued unjustly for sexual harassment. She bases this in part on a report from the American Psychological Association, which found that only 1% of harassment claims are bogus--a statistic some attribute to the large career risk involved in accusing an employer of misconduct, even legitimately.
Far from being the wrong venue to find a match, Florence argues, the workplace is one of the most "natural" places to find love. "The people you meet at the office are often more compatible," she says. "They have similar hopes and dreams."
Entrepreneurs seem particularly likely to fall into office romances because they spend so much time at work. Those long hours present opportunities for chemistry experiments and preclude much time for outside socializing. That was the environment at Princeton Review back in the 1980s, when CEO John Katzman, who was in his 20s, ran operations out of his home. "If you didn't make a connection with someone at work, then you just didn't make a connection to anyone," recalls president Mark Chernis, who found himself connecting with the company's assistant controller, Michelle Korn.
Chernis says that it took him "a few months" of looking for encouragement before he finally made his move. He didn't want to come off as "some sleazy guy who hits on everyone at the office." "It's one thing if you're out at a bar and someone shoots you down," he adds, "but it's quite different when you need to maintain a working relationship with this person." When Chernis finally did ask Korn to join him for dinner one night, he says it was "in the meekest way possible." To his relief, Korn coyly replied: "I was wondering when you were going to ask me."
At first, Chernis and Korn attempted to keep their relationship under wraps, even as--according to co-workers--the denials "took on Clintonian proportions." Once, when the couple took a trip to the Caribbean together, Chernis told everyone at the office he was going fishing on his father's boat. "Everybody bought it," he says triumphantly. Colleague Linda Nessim-Rubin begs to differ: "Everybody knew about that!" she laughs, recalling how the couple returned sporting matching tans.
An executive vice president, Nessim-Rubin finds herself in an odd position at Princeton Review. Yes, she oversees human resources. But guess how she met her husband. Back when the company started, "a lot of us were single and young," Nessim-Rubin explains. Her office romance began when future hubby Joel played a "tasteless" practical joke on her (she won't elaborate)--his misguided way of flirting. To make amends, she demanded that he treat her to dinner at a pricey restaurant with a great view of the illuminated bridges that cross New York's East River.
None of this should be taken to suggest that there shouldn't be any rules. Even the Princeton Review, which recently hired a new HR manager, has some limits. While the company has no policy against interoffice dating--"We'd be hypocrites if we discouraged it," acknowledges Nessim-Rubin--it does frown upon a supervisor dating a direct report. For a time, Chernis and Katzman swapped the management duties with respect to their significant others. At a company with only one principal, however, this can be tricky--if you own the business, delegating your beloved to another manager could put that person in a tough spot.
Author Florence notes that while bosses may date, flings are destructive. And above all, if an employee says no, don't keep asking. That is harassment. The owners of small companies may well perceive a worker almost like a peer, not recognizing--or respecting--the gap in power. But "remember that other people believe their job security and personal well-being rest on your whims," says Florence. "You're the boss, and people look up to you."
Garry Mathiason, an attorney in the San Francisco office of Littler Mendelson (an employment and labor law firm that represents management), came up with a novel way to minimize the fallout. His suggestion: Sign a "love contract." These agreements stipulate that a relationship is voluntary, and that any subsequent disputes will be resolved through mandated arbitration. Though Mathiason admits that the pacts are "about as romantic as a prenuptial agreement," he has drafted more than 500 of them so far.
Despite the warnings from lawyers, Cupid doesn't often listen. "People will date anyway," says Chernis. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. It's had a positive impact on the Princeton Review. "There's no way they could lose me to the competition now," points out Nessim-Rubin. One nonparticipant in the company lovefest (she was already married before she joined the firm) says the atmosphere is both pleasant and professional. "It's not like anyone ever went off in the corner and started getting affectionate at work," executive assistant Suellen Glasser recalls, though there was speculation. For her part, Glasser says she enjoys attending all those weddings.
Another Princeton Review executive, Steve Quattrociocchi, offers this final advice: "Fall in love with someone who's really good at his or her job. Then no one's going to question why this person is getting promotions. My wife Jackie's great at what she does, and that made it a lot easier."