Love blooms in the office like flowers in the cracks of an urban parking lot: unexpected, beautiful, probably doomed. Everyone reacts predictably.
The besotted pair assiduously avoid each other's gazes in staff meetings and concoct baroque emoticons through which to express their sentiments via e-mail. Sensing intrigue, colleagues take note of hasty retrievals from the communal printer and mysterious joint absences at the annual off-site. Meanwhile the boss reviews sexual harassment policies and, once the affair goes public, worries whether Stacy showing the receptionist the silk teddy she's bought for a ski weekend with Joel constitutes a hostile work environment.
Even excluding questionable relationships between managers and managed or involving the already hitched, there are many reasons to discourage office romance. First, it is distracting, and not just for those in eros' thrall. Inevitably, confidants are chosen and bombarded with forwarded e-mails for meticulous parsing ("When she says 'us' do you think she means just her and me or the whole account team?"). Innocent conversations about matters of commerce devolve unsettlingly into whispered tales of amorous hijinks. A woman I knew at another publication once described to me a tryst she had enjoyed with one of our consultants on the conference room table. This didn't change my opinion of her (it was characteristic behavior), but I never felt the same about the table.
And, of course, many romances flounder. Breakups leave relations strained between the parties and may cause greater tensions if the office is divided into Stacy people and Joel people. At staff meetings, solicitous friends contrive seating arrangements to keep the former lovers apart. Happy hour becomes happy hours as the two camps lick their wounds at separate T.G.I. Friday's. When Stacy's new gentleman caller collects her for lunch, unease settles over observers like a damp sheet.
But sometimes office romances survive and thrive. Sometimes they become office marriages. And nothing influences workers' feelings about a business in quite the same way.
No matter how convivial a company's culture, no matter how considerate and generous the management, it is still at the end of the day a producer of goods, a maker of money. But when people who meet at work go on to marry and perhaps to start a family, two things happen. The office becomes part of their personal story: the place where it all began. And that story becomes, in turn, part of company lore--a brief, sweetly human digression within the larger saga of growth and achievement. It's a story in which everyone feels at least a little bit invested. We were there. We watched it happen. This is ours.
Out of caution and tact, most bosses distance themselves from the day-to-day progression of such courtships, which is a wise decision. But apart from the couple, the boss's part in this story is often the most important. Everyone recognizes who brought together these people at this time in this place--and then didn't get in the way. Fate's facilitator isn't a bad reputation to have.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at email@example.com.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan