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Love on the job: The new rules of office romance

You and your co-worker have a secret: love on the job. Can coming clean help or hurt your career?

When their on-the-job love affair tanked, Kevin and Julie, both air traffic controllers in San Diego, whipped out the "How to mess up an office romance" game plan and executed it, play by play.

Sharpening their claws and daggers, they plotted ways to make each other jealous. They formed enemy cliques, and flamed each other with scathing gossip. And when they worked the same shift in the control tower -- a stressful environment in the best of times -- the round, 15-foot room seethed like a boiling kettle with the lid on too tight. They were miserable --and so were their co-workers. Kevin eventually transferred, but not before both he and Julie were reprimanded by management.

Typical end to an office romance, right? Wrong.

The stereotypical office affair that explodes into disaster is no longer stereotypical. In fact, a number of workplace romance myths have evaporated over the past 20 years, according to Dennis Powers, author of The Office Romance: How to Play with Fire Without Getting Burned.

Myth: Most workplace liaisons involve an older, male boss and a younger, female subordinate.


Fact: With the proportion of women in management now approaching half, the demographic recipe for office romances is as varied as for those cooked up at the gym, on the beach or in the personal growth section at the bookstore.

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Myth: Most office affairs are sleazy little flings.

BUZ-Z-Z-Z. (Thank you for playing.)

Fact: In today's corporate-driven society, the office is the most likely place for a person to meet and meld with his or her one true love.

According to Powers, Americans have been socialized into thinking about intimacy and work as separate compartments of life.

"That is simply not true," says Powers, a Harvard MBA who interviewed for his book more than 150 people who had found love on the job. "Given the hours men and women are working, the job now has the greatest opportunities for meeting someone, with the exception of college and universities. If you haven't met someone in college, the job is the next logical place to find your ideal mate."

But the fact that office romances are increasingly kosher doesn't mean they are without career and personal risks. Close quarters, office busybodies and professional competition can still jam up the gears of an on-the-clock courtship. Powers offers the following advice to make sure a hot romance doesn't end in a nuclear meltdown:

1. Know what you want from the relationship. If your philosophy is "girls just want to have fun" and he's ready to rent a church, there could be trouble ahead. Decide in advance whether temporary fun is worth working together later as exes.

2. Check out the corporate climate. What are your company's written and unwritten rules? How will your co-workers react? Maintain your professional image by leaving both squabbles and public displays of affection at home.

3. Establish clear "exit routes" in the beginning. Be candid with each other about how you'll handle working together if your togetherness doesn't work out. And even if it does work out, will you both continue at the same company?

4. Create a joint partnership. Recognize upfront that an office romance carries with it special considerations. Strive for equal decision making and mutual responsibility. Establish priorities and strategies for tackling critical issues -- such as whether to go public.

That's what Steve and Renee did when they worked together at America Online. Both public relations professionals at AOL, the pair decided to keep their personal relations private.

"There were two aspects to the relationship," says Steve, who dated Renee for a year-and-a-half. "The personal part and the business part. We had to figure out how to keep those separate."

In business meetings, for example, the two often had conflicting viewpoints. "We just had to hash that out and figure out how not to take it home with us," says Steve.

With the office rapidly becoming the No. 1 source of date-producing encounters, that kind of maturity and foresight is critical for maintaining both a satisfying personal life and a healthy career.

If you go into a relationship prepared to deal with potential obstacles, says Powers, you can have your career and date it, too.

-- Updated: Jan. 27, 2005

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See Also
Marriage: Your changing tax-life
Play the office politics game
Get taken seriously at work

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