Why bosses need not fear love among the cubicles
IT’S THE INFAMOUS DISASTERS THAT PRESERVE the chill around workplace romance: Bill Clinton and the intern, David Letterman and his assistant, former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz and the communications staffer. Even here in the real world, there’s no shortage of gossip about the CEO and the underling, shunted to a dreary regional outpost under mysterious circumstances. But what about a 25-year-old marketing manager and his colleague down the hall? They’re around the same age, they’re into the same music and they understand each others’ lives better than any outsider could. Need their employer fear these flying sparks in the vicinity of the serious business of work?
As people work more and marry later, the workplace is now—perhaps more than ever—fertile hunting ground for singletons. Twelve-hour days leave little time for outside fraternizing, and Internet dating leaves many feeling morally defeated. But despite the rise of companies touting work-life balance and professing an understanding of employees’ personal needs, many employers remain squeamish about intra-office love. (Nearly a dozen firms declined to comment for this story.) There are an enlightened few, however, that not only accept workplace dating but also see that permitting it is good for employees and, by extension, good for employers. Companies like Southwest Airlines and AT&T have publicly come out in favour of office coupling, while others like IBM and Xerox have abolished long-held bans on dating among supervisors and staff.
Like the anxious parent of a teenager, managers may be tempted to forbid workplace dating, either overtly through policies or by fostering a disapproving atmosphere within the office. But as Richard Branson argued in a recent column for Canadian Business, businesses should embrace office romance. Accept the inevitable, he urged, but set some guidelines to cope with potentially sticky unions, for example, between supervisors and subordinates, or two employees within a small department. Recent books and studies on the subject seem to agree. There are perks when personal relationships are free to grow at work: happier, more engaged employees, and a corporate culture that attracts and retains staff. Infamous scandals aside, it turns out that companies can actually flourish when love is in the air.
WHEN WOMEN FIRST ENTERED the workforce, company policies generally barred intra-office dating. Employees concealed their relationships, and if they were found out, they were either fired or separated like errant kids caught slugging it out on the playground. And certainly nobody talked about it. “Thirty years ago when I started working, you were supposed to park your personal life at the door,” says Nina Cole, an expert in human-resources management and organizational behaviour at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. “But attitudes have changed, particularly with the young generation.” The latest generation to enter the workforce is “quite matter-of-fact about this sort of thing,” she argues, referring to her 2009 study investigating co-worker perceptions about office romance. “They don’t think it’s a big deal at all.”
It’s hard to know if office dating is on the rise. The last widespread survey (i.e., not the barrage of fickle online polls that appear every Valentine’s Day) was by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2005, in which 40% of people claimed they had dated colleagues at some point during their career. “Where else are people supposed to meet?” says Helaine Olen, co-author with Stephanie Losee of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding—and Managing—Romance on the Job. “College used to be the big meeting spot, then it was through friends, but now it seems that office settings might be in the lead slightly.” Though online dating has become as mainstream as yoga, for many people it is a crushing and fruitless experience. A just-released study in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest determined that the algorithms used by dating sites are fundamentally flawed because they can’t predict important factors of lasting love, like a couple’s face-to-face interaction style and how well they cope with life stresses—both highly observable in the workplace, where relationships can build at a gradual pace. “There’s this idea that people are flippant about office romance,” says Olen. “There’s nothing further from the truth. These are very slow-building relationships.” Which may be why some research has found them to be more successful. In Sweden, for example, a seminal review in 2004 of 1,500 workplaces and 37,000 employees found that the risk of divorce was lower by half among spouses who worked together. According to Olen, the odds of an office date turning into a long-term relationship are one in five. “If Match.com had those odds,” she says, “you’d see them advertised on every bus in Ontario.”
Jaime, who asked that his last name not be used, started dating his colleague six months after meeting her at a large software company in Toronto, where he still works. He was a co-op student; she had just landed her first full-time job out of school. “In big organizations, especially at a headquarters office with 1,000 employees, it’s workable,” he says. “We may work on the same floor but may never work with each other.” He felt comfortable within the corporate culture, which he describes as “really supportive of relationships and camaraderie.” “I’ve heard stories from friends [at the company] that if HR does find out [about an office romance], they won’t make you uncomfortable; they’ll try to make things work,” he says. “The system is truly designed to keep people here and working well, and not losing those investments that they’ve made in their employees.”
Most North American companies don’t have formal policies prohibiting office dating. Rather, it is tacitly accepted and condoned, though rarely encouraged outright. Managers seem to take an approach akin to plugging their ears and yelling “Lalalalalala.” “I don’t want to know,” says Laurie Sproule, a senior manager at a global manufacturing company in Ontario. “As long as it doesn’t spill out and interfere with others, I really don’t care.” Some of the more paranoid or lawsuit-fearing companies in the U.S. require office couples to sign a wavier or “love contract,” vowing that their relationship is consensual and neither will take legal action against their employer (or each other) should the love prove less than eternal. According to Olen, employees generally hate such contracts. “It tends to leave a very bad taste for people,” she says. “They say they feel unfairly singled out, targeted and infantilized.”
Here in polite and mild-mannered Canada, employers rarely take such drastic measures. “Canadian companies prefer not to go [the contract way],” says Ryerson’s Nina Cole. “They don’t want to deal with office romance because it’s outside their realm or what they feel comfortable with. But it’s probably managed individually on an ad hoc basis.” (For example, if things go sideways or co-workers are perversely affected.) “Most people do behave quite well, especially these days; nobody’s interested in losing their jobs,” says Olen. “There’s a huge incentive to not misbehave.” The fear of stirring even the slightest ripple kept Jaime tight-lipped about his office girlfriend; he didn’t even tell his direct supervisor. “There’s some anxiety when you’re working for a big company like this and you have a great job,” he says. “And any way you can mitigate risk, you’re going to.”
Apart from potentially awkward encounters between ex’s at meetings or in the lunchroom, major problems or lawsuits are rare, and amorous relationships can even have a positive effect on office culture. Studies cite heightened employee job satisfaction and fewer sick days (when the relationship is going well). “Some research has shown that it can help—at least the couple involved—in terms of increased morale and motivation. Maybe they’ll work longer if they work together, maybe they’ll be more creative,” says Cole. “If the couple is happy, they might be less likely to have personality conflicts with other people if on a team.”
At Jaime’s company, as within many large firms where people have put in time and climbed the ladder, married couples are commonplace. These relationships are generally less icky for management since such unions are considered more stable and permanent, though efforts are still made to put distance between couples to avoid favouritism or conflicts of interest. Of the spouses he knows at work, Jaime has observed that they “push each other” to excel in ways that other co-workers can’t. Also, he says, “in such a big company, to know someone in another team can be very helpful; you get to see another world.” Even outside the office, there are benefits to having a partner who is well-versed in your workplace quirks and culture. “It’s really nice to be with someone you can speak the same language with, and get frustrated by the same things and joke about the same silly situations,” Jaime says. (However, he acknowledges this can backfire since work tends to creep into your home life.)
For Piya Chattopadhyay and her husband, Peter Armstrong—who were both reporters for the CBC when they met and courted 10 years ago—working together (their desks literally side by side) was suited to the taxing schedule of daily news. “In such a demanding job, you don’t have the distraction of your personal life,” says Chattopadhyay. “Your personal and professional lives are all tied up, and if it’s a healthy relationship, I think that can benefit employers.” During the SARS scare of 2003, both Chattopadhyay and Armstrong covered the outbreak, working nearly every day for weeks. The long hours were easier to tolerate when “the guy you’re dating is right beside you,” she says. “It was great. We could have dinner together at our desks, and I never felt like I’d rather be with my new boyfriend than at work, or that I was neglecting him.” A few years later when the relationship solidified, Chattopadhyay says there were never worries about having to break the news of yet another cancelled vacation because one of them had to cover a tsunami. Being entrenched in the same occupation within the same institution not only lights up the daily work grind, she says, but also contributes to an informal brand of professional development. “Peter and I sit around a lot and talk about how well a particular story was executed, or what we think about the lineup of a newscast. We have the same kinds of discussions we’d have at a story meeting at work.”
Even if these sorts of direct perks aren’t derived by employee couples, it’s well-recognized that simply working in an open and autonomous environment can spur office morale and staff engagement. Employers might do well to regard fostering a couple-friendly workplace on par with offering gym memberships and maternity leave top-ups—an investment in your staff’s work-life balance. “I would never work for an employer that said you can’t date anyone you work with,” says Chattopadhyay. “Being a reporter means a lot of your life is devoted to the workplace. We are humans, and we do have a life outside of work—or at least desire to—so if you’re asking me to devote so much time to my profession, where do you expect me to meet someone?”
Southwest Airlines, for example, has long accepted that office dating is as unavoidable as it is an important freedom. “It’s inevitable that people will fall in love. We see everyone so often, it just happens,” says company spokesperson Michelle Agnew. At last count, there were 1,200 married couples at Southwest out of a staff of 35,000 (these figures don’t reflect the recent AirTran merger). Their sappy reputation may have grown out of the fact that they fly out of Love Field Airport in Dallas or that their stock exchange ticker is LUV, but over time, the company has realized the benefits of work relationships. “Being able to be close to their co-workers is what makes people enjoy coming to work,” says Agnew. “And as long as people are being appropriate about it and fostering that culture, then we support it.” (The company’s only written policy relating to office couples addresses supervisor-subordinate relationships, in which case one in the pair is generally reassigned elsewhere.)
“I think there’s something to be said for blurring the lines between personal and professional lives,” says Chattopadhyay. “In this fast-paced, don’t-have-time-for-anything world, I don’t believe that your life can be lived purely in silos. For me, I am equally fulfilled and inspired personally and professionally, and that’s good for my employer as well.”