Chances are you’ve gotten it on with a colleague. According to a 2011 survey by the job search website CareerBuilder.com, four out of 10 workers say they’ve dated a colleague at some point in their careers. Three in 10 say they married the person they dated at work. Of those who said they dated a colleague, one in ten said they did so during the last year.
The office seems to be a hotbed of romance — and a more effective one than dating websites or the corner bar. Helaine Olen, coauthor with Stephanie Losee of "Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding–and Managing–Romance on the Job," says the workplace is where most people find love these days. “The office has turned into the village of the 21st century,” she says. “Where else do you spend 12 hours a day?”
And fewer workers are keeping their romances secret. CareerBuilder found that 65 percent of workers who have office relationships are public with them, compared with 46 percent six years ago. The survey of 3,900 workers was conducted for CareerBuilder by Harris Interactive.
While people are more relaxed about office dating than they were in the post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas 1990s, workplace romance is still fraught with peril. Worst-case scenario, says employment attorney Kathleen McKenna of New York’s Proskauer Rose law firm: A boss-underling affair that goes south and results in a sexual harassment suit. Such suits are based on either a claim of a hostile work environment or a charge that there was f-me-or-you’re-fired quid pro quo harassment.
Which brings us to our first rule of office dating: Avoid a supervisor-supervisee relationship. Especially for the person in the supervisor’s seat, such a relationship is “criminally stupid,” says McKenna. “You might as well put a sign on your forehead that says, ‘Kick me here.’” McKenna acts mainly as a defense lawyer.
Edward Hernstadt, a plaintiff-side employment lawyer with the New York firm Hernstadt Atlas, agrees. An employee can make a claim that she (it’s usually a she) wouldn’t have dated the boss if she hadn’t felt compelled. “The supervisor will say, ‘I just asked you to go on a date,’” says Hernstadt. “But the subordinate will say, ‘I felt I couldn’t say no.’”
If a supervisor and a subordinate just can’t resist each other, McKenna recommends that they sign what she calls a “cupid contract.” They should spell out in writing the fact that both are engaging in a consensual relationship. If the company has a sexual harassment policy, they should make it clear they understand the rules.
Helaine Olen agrees. “Set some ground rules you can use if the relationship flames out,” she advises. “It’s like a prenup for an office romance.”
Olen also suggests that the senior partner in the relationship step up and report the romance to the human resources department. In so doing the supervisor should volunteer to take the hit if the company decides the pair should no longer work together.
It’s far preferable to find someone outside your department to date. Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, a career coach who has worked with companies including Merrill Lynch, Pfizer and Citigroup, recommends looking for love at office philanthropic activities and social events like softball games rather than in the neighboring cubicle.
Another piece of perhaps obvious but valuable advice: Pause before you plunge. “Stop and think about yourself in relation to the other person,” advises Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of 16 books on dating and romance.
“If you’re in heavy lust, you’ve got to slow down.” Kathleen McKenna agrees. “Think about the fact that 50 percent of marriages don’t make it,” she says. “The batting average for other relationships is much worse.”
One more piece of advice: Consider how you would feel if you lost your job. Everyone who has experienced heartbreak knows that proximity to an ex can be unbearable. All too often, say experts, failed office romances result in one person leaving the job–willfully or not.
“The possible consequences here are not just the loss of the person you’re gaga over,” says Schwartz. “It could mean the loss of your livelihood.”