Frisky Business: Handling an Office Romance

Posted by Julene Snyder, Constance Loizos, and Polly Schneider Traylor on June 15, 2011
Frisky Business: Handling an Office Romance

Somewhere, very soon, in a small office or a large high-rise, two pairs of eyes will meet-then lock. A lunch date will follow, or perhaps drinks, and suddenly the workaday grind will become a heart-stopping romance, filled with excitement, drama, sex (if you're lucky), and danger. The simple truth is that as long as humans work in close proximity to one another, sparks will fly. The not-so-simple truth is that business affairs can have a dramatic impact on your company or even your career. Below, seven stories of professionals who followed their hearts, only to find themselves in surprising places and compromising positions.

1. If You Date the Boss's Boss, You Can Kiss Your Job Good-Bye

The flirting began after Linda*, a young vice president for a division of CBS, gave a presentation at an out-of-town convention. Maybe it was something the confident VP said, or the way she said it, or how she looked-but something caught the eye of Matthew, a top CBS executive who was in the audience. After the presentation, Matthew approached Linda and began his pursuit. "He was in my face everywhere I went," she says.

Back at the company's New York offices, Matthew started calling her to chat and ask for advice about the business. "It was flattering. And it was comforting to know that the guy in charge thought I was doing a great job," recalls Linda, who was one of the few women in CBS's senior ranks at the time. Before long, the honcho, who had seldom been seen on the floor where Linda worked, began appearing at her office. Linda says that her immediate supervisor, Bill, seemed particularly annoyed by all the attention Matthew was lavishing on her. But despite the bad vibes, Linda jumped into a romantic relationship with Matthew. When he wanted to meet on Sixth Avenue late one afternoon, Linda admits, she got a rush from the risk of being caught in broad daylight.

As Bill's irritation grew, Linda decided it was best to come clean with him and ask for his advice on how to handle the situation. She told him about the romance but assured him she wasn't encouraging-and was uncomfortable with-the extra duties Matthew was giving her. "[Bill] was very fatherly," she says. "He said he would take care of it. But the way he took care of it was to fire me at the earliest opportunity. I'd been there for eight years and was doing a great job, but none of that mattered." Linda threatened to file suit and wound up with what she says was a nice settlement.

Looking back, Linda blames herself for not seeing the real problem with dating someone so powerful-it sent a signal to her boss that she was getting favorable treatment from the top brass. "It's too bad," she says, "because in this industry people already think that women sleep their way to the top."

2. If Everyone Is Doing It, You Can Kiss Your Company Good-Bye

The Silicon Valley headquarters of an Internet company was buzzing when it was announced that it had bought a Web portal. But not because of the supposed synergy of the tech companies involved in the merger: "The company was known for its good-looking men," says Emily, then a 27-year-old technical manager. "The attitude was 'Ohhh, fresh meat.' "

At the new company, a high-speed Internet provider, intraoffice romance became as routine as intraoffice mail. "For three straight years, everybody I dated came from work," recalls Emily. But, she says, she never went as far as the employees who were caught in flagrante delicto in a senior VP's office. When management sent a memo to employees after a raucous party, demanding they "remain professional, even after office hours," no one paid much attention.

Employees considered the free-love atmosphere-along with the on-site chef and the slide that ran from the second floor to the first-part of what made the cutting-edge company destined for greatness. But, in fact, the love fest became a serious drag on productivity and a factor in the company's eventual demise. "I would guess most people spent at least 10 percent of their time at work discussing their love lives," Emily recalls. "Everybody was messaging one another all day, doing postmortems on who did what to whom over the weekend."

Even decision making at the firm seemed more a product of office romance than sound planning. Employees knew that if they needed one particular VP's approval, they would get faster results by going through one of two assistants he was sleeping with. And business trips often had little to do with business. "At one point an exec asked in a meeting if all of our business trips were based on who was dating whom," says Emily.

As the firm disintegrated, the sexual playground became more of a battleground, marked by petty bickering over broken relationships. "There'd be snide comments from coworkers and occasional stalker-like behavior," Emily says with a shudder. Meetings became more like couples therapy. The company eventually went bankrupt. Analysts laid blame on rudderless management. They can add romance-obsessed employees to the list.

3. If You Think Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Try Breaking Up at Work
Shona would be the first to admit that she had a thing for powerful men. But it wasn't just Joseph's position as an executive VP at a California bank that she found alluring. He was good-looking, too, and Shona, a lending officer in her mid-twenties, was ripe for the plucking. "I was young. I was on the rebound, and when he suddenly propositioned me over drinks, I thought, 'Why not?' "

Shona and Joseph, a married man 15 years her senior, spent their first year together enjoying the illicit nature of their romance, leaving separately for lunch and then meeting at restaurants. They eventually let their guard down and started flirting in front of colleagues. Gossip about their affair moved up the ranks, and soon Joseph's boss pulled him aside. "He was too valuable to be disciplined," Shona says, "but he was told, 'You've got to be discreet.' "

The incident added to Shona's doubts about dating a married man. Meanwhile, she started going out with a guy who didn't work at the bank. When she told Joseph, he blew up. "He became mean and told stories that didn't make sense, like that he thought I had talked to people at the office about our relationship, that his wife knew, and that he couldn't stand to lose me. It started getting scary."

Shona attempted to assuage him by meeting his many demands, like downplaying the relationship at work and even talking with his wife and denying any romantic involvement. But nothing seemed to calm him down. "The whole situation at the bank was exploding," she says, "and I wanted out of the relationship." And that required Shona to come to terms with a stunning realization-she would have to quit her job. Leaving the bank was the only way to escape Joseph's rage; moreover, she felt her reputation had been damaged despite having received stellar performance reviews.

Shona went on to get an MBA and began to work as a marketing manager at a blue-chip food manufacturing company in the Midwest. Reflecting on her experience, she offers this advice: "If you're going to get involved with someone at work, understand the ramifications of that romance's possibly ending, which can be far worse than breaking up with someone outside your place of business."

4. When the Charge of Romance Turns into a Charge of Sexual Harassment
The first contact was innocent enough. In the break room at work. Eric, an employee at a West Coast lending company, merely recommended a particular brand of cold medicine to Alicia, a sniffling coworker. She responded with a thank-you, and within days, a steamy email flirtation had erupted. "We started having lunch together and meeting for drinks or dinner after work," Eric recalls. "She was very exotic. I was immediately smitten."

Alicia had told him at the outset that her husband was abusive and that she intended to get a divorce. But as she continued to return home to her husband night after night, Eric began to question Alicia's story. So he confided in a close friend at work. "He told me that Alicia had pulled this on someone else prior to my arrival at the firm, and that she'd gotten the guy fired," Eric says.

Eric dashed off a letter to Alicia, accusing her of being dishonest and ending their contact. Days later, the firm's HR director called him into her office. "Alicia was there and had with her the letter I wrote. She was using it to position me as a stalker," he says. "She said that I'd created a hostile work environment for her, that I'd been sexually harassing her."

HR launched an intensive investigation of Alicia's claims, requiring numerous meetings between Eric and his boss, who dug into the particulars: How long did the relationship last? How serious was it? Did he ever force himself into Alicia's life? Desperate to put an end to the inquisition, Eric provided HR with all of his and Alicia's mostly racy email exchanges. The emails had violated company policy prohibiting the use of office property for personal reasons. Still, says Eric, "I felt like I needed to make crystal clear that this had been a mutually consensual relationship, down to the day before I'd written her that last letter." The email record ended the controversy. Eric admonishes anyone who is romantically involved with a coworker to document everything.

5. The Price You Pay Can Go Beyond Your Reputation

Rochelle had been working at a real estate office in a large city for two years when the firm's president introduced her to Andy, a former business-development specialist who was new to the industry. When the president asked if she would show the handsome recruit the tricks of the trade, Rochelle was "giddy. I was a complete goner from the get-go."

For two weeks, the broker, who had been briskly selling $1 million-plus homes in a red-hot market, took Andy to look at properties and meet her clients. That led to late-night dinners and, in Rochelle's eyes, true romance. "I phoned my mother and told her that I was dating her future son-in-law," she says.

As Andy struggled at his new job Rochelle played the role of the supportive girlfriend, even giving him some of her best clients to help him get established. "Real estate is all about whom you know. I know lots of people in this city; he didn't. I was looking at the relationship as a long-term proposition, an investment," she says. Andy thanked her with extravagant dinners and concert tickets.

After four months of dating, however, Rochelle began to suspect Andy's motives. Even after giving him clients worth about $40,000 in commissions, Andy kept asking for more, making Rochelle fear that he was using the relationship for leads rather than love. When she got the nerve to tell him she couldn't afford to give away more of her business, he became petulant. "He started acting like a child and suggesting that I was greedy. It was crazy." Rochelle ended the relationship when she discovered that Andy had begun cold-calling clients she'd introduced to him. "I was furious," she says. "And if I hadn't gotten mixed up with him, I'd be a lot further along in my house payments."

6. Losing Your Job Is Nothing Compared with Losing Your Entire Department
For more than a year, Candace, a 25-year-old brand manager at a consumer packaged-goods company, enjoyed the benefits of being part of a smooth-running six-person international marketing group. Her team's collaboration led to new partnerships, new products, and a 36 percent increase in the brand's annual market share. Then Candace, who oversaw a $2 million marketing budget, began to date Jason, the handsome, older team leader.

As Candace and Jason began to spend more time together in the office, other team members figured out that a romance was under way-and they were less than thrilled about it. The delicate balance of power among team members had shifted in Candace's favor, making her suspect. Prior to the affair three members of the team whom Candace had mentored would regularly come to her with questions about Jason. But now the three more or less avoided confiding in either of them. "The team was upset because the equilibrium had been altered," she explains. "We stopped doing things as a group, and that created a separation between us and them."

The distrust among team members turned to disgust as the couple engaged in a very public, two-week-long breakup. Behind office windows in full view of the team, the lovers quarreled and screamed while their coworkers ducked for cover. One teammate, Carl, foolishly stepped into the middle of the fray by saying things that suggested he had taken Candace's side. His relationship with Jason quickly soured, leading Carl to quit the firm. "Everyone on the team stopped talking to one another. Everyone retreated into their own camps," Candace recalls.

Desperate for advice on how she should deal with the crisis, Candace confessed everything to the HR manager, who later called in an irate Jason to discuss the matter. The upshot? The entire international marketing team was, in the words of management, "reorganized." Jason was sent to Europe to launch an overseas division. A few months later Candace was transferred to another supervisor, after which she left the company altogether. The remaining members were moved to different departments.

No one was more surprised than Candace at how one bad relationship could alter the careers of six people. "Everyone was disillusioned," Candace says. "I was thinking that it was such a waste. I felt responsible, but I didn't foresee this outcome when we started dating."

7. Sometimes Dishing to Coworkers Is Better Than Going Undercover

Melody and Jonathan did what most smart, levelheaded people do when they have an office romance: They kept their mouths shut. They promised each other they wouldn't tell anyone at work, even after a few too many at the bar.

They were peers in a New Jersey-based publishing company. Staying undercover seemed like the best way to protect their careers. "We thought it could be uncomfortable because we worked in the same department," says Melody, a project manager in her mid-twenties. If her boss knew, Melody feared she'd be written off as a flake and perhaps penalized. And she cringed at the thought of coworkers gossiping about her romance as if it were a soap opera.

As the romance grew more serious, relations at work took an unexpected turn-the duo started to feel isolated. When colleagues wanted to know what Melody had done over the weekend, at first she would make up a plausible tale. But that started to feel sleazy, so instead she tried to avoid chitchat. That, in turn, left her feeling supremely frustrated. "Here I was in the midst of the most important romance of my life and I couldn't share it with friends at work," she says.

The couple managed to keep things hush-hush for two years, until they decided to marry. "When we got engaged, we figured it was time to tell people," Melody recalls. "Some people were shocked, and others had had an inkling that something was going on. But there were no negative repercussions."

Melody now realizes that she could have handled things a lot differently. Once the romance became serious, it would have been fine to tell her colleagues and supervisor. She and Jonathan didn't work together directly, so there weren't any real work conflicts. "It would have been more fun if we could have let people know," Melody says. "We just didn't know how."

This article is excerpted from the March 2006 issue of MBA Jungle

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