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It’s too easy to say “Holster your libido” when it comes to office romances, although it’s true that abstinence is the only way to guarantee you’ll never get into romantic trouble at the office. “Don’t get your honey where you get your money” is certainly the standard to which you should aspire. As one lawyer put it, “Leave the office and take a cold shower!” I’ve heard story after story about romances gone bad, and sometimes they involve spectacular bad judgment. The partner married to a fellow partner who’s pregnant, while he’s having a romance with a female associate in another department at the same firm. People bragging about how many summer clerks they’ve “nailed.” As one author says, “Texas football coach Darrell Royal once said that when you throw a forward pass there are three things that can happen, and two of them are bad. It’s even worse with office sex—there are many, many more bad endings than happy ones!”
Bad idea or not, office romances are rampant. Studies show that 80% of people have either had an office romance or know of one (and my hunch is that the other 20% aren’t watching too carefully). And a third of all dating relationships start at work. Any large organization that tells you, “Oh, everybody here is just friends” is probably ignoring a bit of hooky-dooky at least once in a while. So it’s kind of like saying, “Make sure you always get eight hours of sleep.” It’s a good idea but most of us have quite a time trying to live up to it. If you and/or the person you’ve got the hots for is married, there’s absolutely no question that an office romance can be nothing but disastrous, not only on a personal level but also to your reputation. But if you’re single, it’s tough to overcome temptation at least sometime in your working life.
For one thing, who’s your applicant pool? People climb Mount Everest “because it’s there.” People wind up dating people at work “because they’re there.” After all, you’re at work for most of the day. You see the people you work with more than you see your family and anybody else outside the office. And you know some valuable things about them. Number one, you see them in their “natural habitat”; that is, not under the pressure of a dating situation. And number two, you know they’re gainfully employed and you know “each other’s schedules, and you know what they do and you understand it,” as one recruiting coordinator pointed out.
Other than presence, pressure at work often makes for sexual tension. As one attorney from Shartsis Friese in San Francisco says, “Sexual energy in the office is inevitable.” That doesn’t mean you have to act on it—and the wiser course is not to do so—but there’s no denying that it’s there. I’ve heard story after story about junior associates working around the clock on a deal or a case, and suddenly, that person they wouldn’t have dated on a bet is the most enticing thing sinc... well, since Elmer Fudd sat in the life raft with Daffy Duck and hallucinated that Daffy was a roast turkey.
On top of that, it turns out that studies have shown that half of all workplace romances result in either marriage or a long-term relationship. Those aren’t terrible odds.
The reason people tell you to avoid office romances is because they’re fraught with peril. I once saw a cartoon in the New Yorker. It showed a bunch of guys at a board meeting. The chairman of the board is pointing to a chart, and saying, “Gentlemen, the upside potential is tremendous. The downside risk is jail.” The downside risk of office romances is that if it turns sour you could lose your job and/or your reputation, and/or you could cost your employer millions in a sexual harassment suit. Let’s face it, there are only two things that can happen when you date somebody: either you get married or you break up. Most of the time you break up. And workplace breakups are the worst.
What I’m going to do in this section is talk about what to be aware of before you take the plunge into an office romance, and if your assessment after that is “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” I’ll talk about the way you should conduct an office romance. And then we’ll wind up talking about a couple of other little romance-y things. Let’s go!
What to be aware of before you “take the plunge” into an office romance
If your office has an anti-fraternization policy, it doesn’t have teeth—but it does tell you how they feel about such things.
Many lawyers pointed out to me that different offices have different cultures when it comes to dating. I’ve heard about places where coworkers marry, divorce, and marry someone else in the firm, and the general attitude is “It’s nobody’s business.” But if your office has an anti-fraternization policy—and your perception of the culture is that interoffice dating is frowned upon—it’s not going to do your reputation and career prospects any good to be seen dating somebody at work.
Think about this: what happens if it blows up? Will you have a “boiled bunny” situation on your hands? Will you be out of a job?
The sad and sometimes vicious aftermath of a failed romance is difficult enough to deal with in your personal life. At work, it’s ten times worse. The reality is this: If things go bad, you should expect that one of you will have to leave the office. (If you’re at different levels in the hierarchy, things could be even worse, as I’ll talk about in a minute.)
Apart from the threat to your career, consider the toll it can take on you personally. Close your eyes for a moment, and visualize any romance you’ve had in the past that resulted in a break-up. (Happy thought, eh?) Now think about how things would have been if, after the break-up—whether you were the breaker or the breakee—you had to see that person every day. Yikes!
Now it might be that you are both sensible grown-ups and you both accept that when it’s over, you let it go, and you don’t mope around the office. That’s the best-case scenario. The problem is, you can’t guarantee it. Fatal Attraction is the worst-case scenario, where Michael Douglas tried to call things off with psycho Glenn Close and she boiled his kid’s bunny. That was actually the nicest thing she did. So the fact is, even the best-laid plans—and people—can go wrong, and you’ve got to be prepared for that.
If a romance ends badly, and you’re walking around openly heartbroken, your reputation will suffer because people will perceive that you’re out of control. If you’re right as rain but your former inamorata is walking around weeping, you’ll be perceived as a heel. Either way, it doesn’t do your image any good.
The watchword here is “look before you leap.” Don’t jump into an office romance without acknowledging what might happen down the road!
An affair with someone married can’t end happily.
This was the only hard and fast rule that I heard from everybody I interviewed. “If you’re married, keep your pecker (or feminine equivalent) in your pants,” advised one lawyer. Enough said.
If you do conduct an office romance, here's how to do it
Nothing destroys a career faster than a badly-handled romance. The key words in that sentence are “badly-handled.” If you’re single, your romantic target is single, and you decide to leap into the arms of Eros, here’s how to conduct yourselves to minimize the fall-out:
To tell or not to tell? It’s not as big a deal as you think.
When people get together at the office, one of the issues that comes up is: should we tell anybody? I heard opinions both ways. Some people say, “Don’t tell. It’s your own business.” Other people say, “Tell. They’ll find out anyway.” Most people say, “It doesn’t matter whether you tell or not. Everybody will know anyway.” It’s what people call “water-cooler osmosis.” There’s something in the air, and eventually people will put the pieces together and figure out what’s going on.
If you work in an office with an anti-fraternization policy or a culture that is firmly anti-dating, you should absolutely not tell anybody at work. Not even one person (because once you’ve told one person, you’ve told everybody. You can’t expect anybody to keep that secret). In any other kind of office, you want to be discreet. I’ll discuss the elements of discretion in just a second. But the way to be discreet in terms of telling people is that on the one hand you don’t want to send out engraved invitations, or a “send all” e-mail announcing your relationship. On the other hand, don’t lie when people ask whether you’re seeing each other. Admit it but then stay low-key about it.
What gets a lot of people in trouble with office romances isn’t the fact of the romance, but the way it’s conducted. The watchword here is discretion. What does that mean?
Do not conduct a romance with somebody outside of your rung on the ladder at work.
Many people told me that some of the biggest problems with office romances come about when one of the romancers is more powerful than the other. I’m not saying such romances never work out; on rare occasions they do. But the downside risks are significant, as we’re about to discuss. So the rule of thumb is this: if you’re an associate, confine your romantic applicant pool to other associates. Stay away from partners, support staffers, and summer clerks. If you’re a summer clerk, stick with other summer clerks. Why?
If you date “above” your station, you’ll be the target of gossip and political controversy.
You don’t want to get the reputation of trading sex for advantages at the office, because it will stick with you forever.
Keep your mitts—and everything else!—off the clerkship meat. If you date “below” your station, you’re risking a sexual harassment suit for your employer. And you’re engaging in conduct that most people view with extreme disdain.
When the “power thing” comes into play in a romantic relationship, there’s plenty of opportunity for trouble, particularly in the supervisor/supervisee realm. Virtually every employer has rules forbidding that kind of relationship, and they take them very seriously, unlike rules against dating between coworkers of equal station. If you are a summer clerk, be aware that if you get into a fling with a secretary at work, your employer will back the secretary and not you if the romance ends badly. While romances out of your station can occasionally end well, the risk just isn’t worth it!
LAWCROSSING CAREER ADVICE
Recruiting coordinator, large firm: "The junior associates at our firm are all over the summer clerks. We tell them not to. We tell them they're endangering their careers, and that if the summer clerks they fool around with don't get hired back, the firm could be looking at a sexual harassment suit, a 'woman scorned' problem. But they ignore it. They view summer clerks as a notch on their belt. We ask our incoming summer clerks to send in a picture and a short bio. When the photos start coming in, the junior associates will come into my office to flip through the pictures, and they'll ask, 'Does she really look like this?' or 'Why didn't we hire anybody hot?' It's hard to take somebody seriously as a professional after you hear them talk like that. And picking up the pieces for broken hearts can be tricky. It's hard enough to move up the ranks here, without having a black mark against your name because you can't control your libido."
Don’t have more contact with your honey at work than the work itself demands.
If you are constantly stopping by your sweetheart’s desk, e- mailing him or her, or you spend a lot of time on conversation behind closed doors, people will know something’s up. If the two of you are in different departments at the same firm, people will notice if one of you pops up in the other department when you’ve got no business reason to be there. As an attorney with Dickinson Wright in Grand Rapids, Michigan recommends, “Don’t rub your romance in people’s faces. Don’t spend more time together at work than you would if you weren’t seeing each other.”
No PDAs, even if you think no one’s looking. And watch for subtle cues!
If you engage in a quick smooch at the copy machine when you think no one’s looking, if you give them a quick little smile or a wink, somebody's going to smoke you out. It takes tremendous self-esteem to conduct an office romance well, because you shouldn’t get—or offer—any little reassurances at work.
Even if you were only friends—which you’re not—you might engage in conduct that people will misinterpret as romantic involvement. Make a point of avoiding that, too. For instance, if you help your girlfriend on with her coat, you’re just being chivalrous—but people will assume you’re dating. If you go to a firm function and get into your boyfriend’s car to leave, people will think you’ve got a thing going on.
Don’t use your secretary or a colleague as a confidant.
Maybe it’s a woman thing, but I know that I spend a lot of time with my close girlfriends sifting through our romantic relationships. “Gee, should I say this to him?” “Here’s what he did, what do you think?” that kind of stuff. If you do the same thing, make sure that your confidant is not somebody that you work with. You don’t need the details of your romance traveling the jungle drums at the office. It will impact people’s perception of you in ways that are unfair, so don’t let it happen!
Don’t disclose sensitive information to each other.
It’s kind of unfair. The thing that brings you together in the first place is everything that you have in common at work. Now I’m telling you that once you’ve hooked up, you should keep your work under your hat. Well, that’s not entirely true, but you still have to be sensitive to confidential information. Don’t let your romantic feelings cloud your professionalism.
LAWCROSSING CAREER ADVICE
Female summer clerk at a large firm. She gets into a hot and heavy romance with a senior associate who happens to be on the hiring committee. She leans on him for information about what goes on in the hiring committee meetings. She turns around and blabs what he tells her to other summer clerks, and people quickly put together where she got her information—and why. The managing partner calls him into his office, and says, "What were you thinking about? What goes on in hiring committee meetings is confidential!" He sheepishly responds, "But I told her not to tell."
The summer clerk is not given an offer, and things get so uncomfortable for the associate that he leaves, as well.
Don’t let your romance interfere with your work.
If you’ve got love (or lust) on your mind, it can be hard to focus on your work. But you have to. You’ve got hours to put in and billables to produce. I know it’s really, really, really hard to accomplish, but don’t let your romance dominate your time at the office. And when you’re at employer social events, I’ve stressed to you the importance of taking advantage of getting to know other people at work. You can’t spend that time gazing into each other’s eyes and sharing private jokes. Think of employer social events as work, and save the canoodling for later on!
Realize that no matter how carefully you try and disguise an office romance, sometimes it’ll come out anyway.
One lawyer told me about “Two associates who are dating but who go to extremes to keep it from everybody else at work. They never go out together at places where there are lots of people, they don’t tell anyone at the firm, and they avoid each other at the office. One day they go for a hike in a mountain range near the city where they live and work. The trails are pretty extensive, and they go way out and find themselves in the middle of nowhere when it starts getting dark. They can’t get back in time, and they are forced to call for help. The authorities wind up sending a helicopter to pick them up, and the press picks up on this. The press sends its own helicopters, films the rescue and then has a camera crew at the place where they drop the two law firm lovers. Their secret was out in a big way!”
If you find out that other colleagues have a thing going on, keep it to yourself.
Maybe it’s not your romance that’s the issue—it’s something you stumble upon at work, sometimes literally! Whether you hear about an office romance or see evidence of it yourself, don’t say anything. Don’t answer questions from others about the romance. Just say, “I don’t really know,” and change the subject. Passing along personal information about people, even in response to questions, is really bad. It makes you look like a gossip, and that hurts your reputation. Even if you know about romances, even if the participants tell you about it, it’s still none of your business. Keep the secret!
LAWCROSSING CAREER ADVICE
New associate, large firm, office Christmas party. Somebody says, 'Hey, have you seen Partner Fred?' and the associate says, 'I thought he was here.' The associate goes to the partner's office looking for him. He knocks on the partner's door, opens it—and sees the partner and the partner's secretary getting after it on the desk. The new associate promptly closes the door and goes back to the party. When the fellow partygoer asks, 'Did you find him?' the new associate shakes his head. The look on his face suggests something's up, and a close buddy says, 'What's going on?' The new associate says, 'You can't tell anybody ...' and tells him what he saw. Within a day, the item is all over the office. It winds up being political suicide. The new associate leaves the firm.
Stopping an unwanted romance in its tracks—how to handle people hitting on you at work.
If you’re an attractive woman, remember that the men at work aren’t monks. You’ll be likely to get as much male attention as you do in every other part of your life. If you want to avoid office romances—bravo for you!—you use the same strategies you’ve used all of your life.
LAWCROSSING CAREER ADVICE
When you’re new at work, introduce your spouse or boyfriend/ girlfriend to people at the office and talk about him/her frequently. This is the social equivalent of tomcats marking the furniture. You’re indicating “I’m not interested in romance,” and in doing so, you’re actually making men more comfortable around you because there won’t be any potential dating tension.
Don’t send conflicting signals by commenting on the pathetic state of your love life or by flirting. If you routinely find people coming on to you even though you’re not interested, go to your law school career services director and sit down and talk about it—and see if there’s something about your communicating style that you need to change, for your own good!
Turn down opportunities that smell of a come-on. Don’t go out for drinks with just one man. If he suggests a casual after-work drink, say, “Let’s see who else is available too!”
If somebody from work asks you out, come straight out and tell them, “I’d love to go out but I have a rule that I don’t date anyone I work with.” Then—make sure that you don’t!
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