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Has Office Romance Become Verboten?

When the economy tanks, so does romance in the office. A look back at surveys of workplace romance finds that fewer people are willing to date co-workers during a poor economy, probably because the stakes--losing your job--are higher.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by Monster on behalf of Spherion Staffing Service, nearly half of respondents would not consider dating a coworker or boss at all, even if that person didn't work in the same department. In 2008, only a third of people were reluctant to start relationships at the office.

"Workers remain fearful that dating in the workplace could jeopardize their job security, a sentiment that may be heightened due to ongoing uncertainty in the economic situation," said John Heins, senior vice president for the company. "When facing an economic environment where mass layoffs, restructuring and unemployment reign, workers appear to be less willing to risk their jobs for love," he said in a press release.

Not in my department
Of those workers who said they would date co-workers, only 24 percent would consider dating someone in their department. Another survey by found that nearly 30 percent said that it was unacceptable to date someone in your department or whom you're working with on a project. The Spherion survey also found that only 10percent of workers would consider dating their boss, and only eight percent of bosses would date someone they supervise. Most people believe that romances between a supervisor and subordinate are off limits and could lead to claims of sexual harassment.

What are the risks of love at work?

  • Dating a coworker could jeopardize your job or your chance of advancement.
  • It can lead to conflict at work, especially if the relationship doesn't last. Who likes bumping into someone who just jilted you.
  • Women may be more negatively impacted than men. The Vault survey found that among women who had been in office romances, 34 percent felt the experience negatively impacted their personal or professional relationships with other co-workers compared to 26 percent of men.
  • It can be a distraction to you and your co-workers, and you can become the source of gossip. Co-workers or subordinates may respect you less. Think of the eye-rolling Don Draper gets from the women in the office.
  • Getting caught in the act. Well, the risk is low. Of the 33 percent who admitted to having a tryst in the office, only 4 percent were caught in the act.
Do companies forbid it?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that most companies surveyed do not have a formal policy for workplace romance. Of the 617 members who responded, 72 percent do not have a written policy and only 14 percent said they have an unwritten policy in their workplace. Only 13 percent do have a policy.

How Should You Handle Romance?
But workers would prefer more guidance on this issue. Almost half of the Spherion survey participants felt that workplace relationships should be governed by formal company policies. Susan Heathfield, human resources expert, has this advice for employees engaged in an office romance from her site:

  1. Know your organization's written and unwritten policies about romantic, sexual, extramarital, or dating relationships.
  2. Keep the relationship private and discreet until you are ready to publicly announce that you are a couple. Keep public displays of affection off limits at work.
  3. Limit the number of people at work with whom you share this confidential information.
  4. If your position and responsibilities require you to work together, attend the same meetings, and so on, behave professionally at all times.
  5. Discuss, as a couple, the potential impact of your relationship on your work. (Will one employee have to leave a department or the company? Will your organization respond favorably to your relationship?) Know your company, and make a plan before the organization requests one.
Have you had a romance at work and how did it affect your job?
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user See-ming Lee ��明 SML
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