Next time you’re milling about your office, take a good, deep breath. Do you know what that aroma is that’s mixed in with the bouquet of fresh toner and clean carpets? It’s the scent of on-the-job romance wafting in and around the workplace. For some people, that odor’s as lovely as any expensive perfume; for others, it reeks of desperation. But with more employees working longer hours than ever before and the stigma attached to dating work colleagues rapidly waning, love is definitely in the air.
According to a survey from CareerBuilder.com, the economy might still be struggling, but workplace passion is definitely on the upswing. In fact, 38% of employees claim to have dated a coworker at least once over the course of their career, 17% admitted to having dated coworkers at least twice — and for 31% of respondents, their office love affair eventually led them down the aisle to marriage.
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What was once taboo is now downright commonplace — and it’s clear that younger employees are far less fearful of any negative repercussions being associated with a workplace romance. According to another recent study by employee benefits provider Workplace Options, 84% of employees aged 18 to 29 say they would date a coworker, and 71% say they think workplace romance is a positive thing that improves people’s performance and overall morale. Their older colleagues disagree, however: Only 29% of employees aged 46 to 65 say they’d consider dating someone they worked with, and 90% of those surveyed say that it could actually do more harm than good.
Sure, workplace flirtations can spice up our humdrum daily lives — and some people do find their mates while on the job, with no broken hearts or professional repercussions to show for it. But a hot, exciting mutual attraction can also become a chilly, gut-wrenching mess in which your salary and sanity are threatened if you aren’t careful. Despite the prevalence of office romance these days, even the happiest and most successful ones are often riddled with complications. To borrow a quote from Shakespeare, “The course of true love at work never did run smooth.”
As these 10 individuals discovered, dating in the workplace can be good, bad — and in a couple of cases, downright ugly. Before you get involved with a colleague, consider these people’s stories…
5 examples of on-the-job romance gone good:
1. “The first thing I did before asking (my colleague) Jenny out was to check our workplace policy handbook,” says Maryland native Mark, 45. “Truthfully, I was wary that it might be a problem, but then saw that it was fine as long as we weren’t in a direct reporting relationship.” Sounds like Mark took the advice of Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.com, who noted when the survey was released, “First and foremost, it is important to know your company’s office dating policy. Remember to stay professional and draw a boundary line between your personal life and the workplace.”
2. “I married my husband a year after meeting him on the job,” says California resident Lisa, 35. “We’re in different departments and don’t interact professionally much. When we do, we are friendly but professional, and we don’t act like teenagers at the water cooler. We don’t flaunt it. I think that’s the secret to why it’s been relatively easy for both of us.”
3. “I met my girlfriend Kate at a work retreat,” says Virginia resident John, 38. “We were both recently divorced and had a lot in common. I have gotten nothing but positive feedback in the two years we’ve been together, possibly because our close-knit group of colleagues knows us both so well. People from the company president on down seem to root for us to be together. Sure, there are always people who’ll gossip or wonder if it’s right. But we decided that was a small price to pay for love.”
4. “My partner Lynn and I were introduced by coworkers,” says Florida native Sara, 34. “We were at a joint happy hour thrown by several divisions. That made it easier to date, because people knew we’d met in a transparent social setting. Our colleagues witnessed it all. We are both out at work, which helped, too.” CareerBuilder.com’s survey cites social settings outside of the office as the most common way for coworkers to connect on a romantic level. For the reason Sara noted above, they’re probably the most optimal way to help keep workplace gossip to a minimum, too. The other common ways include: running into each other outside of work (13%), happy hours (12%), lunches (11%) and late nights at work (10%).
5. “The surprisingly positive thing about meeting my boyfriend at work was how we established great communication early on,” says Boston resident Lori, 35. “We made a conscious decision early on to pursue something real. I think the term Jay used to describe our initial attraction was ‘flirting with disaster,’ which is perfect, if you think about it. Flirting in the work place is really dangerous, so it’s best to communicate head-on and decide ‘is this person relationship-worthy?’ If not, then skip it.”
3 examples of office love gone bad:
1. “People do talk about you when you’re dating someone at work, and that bothered my boyfriend a lot,” says Virginia native Kate, 33. “Bill is a very traditional guy, and we work for a pretty conservative company, so the chatter negatively affected us. He didn’t want to be open about our romance for fear of being talked about, and I hated hiding it from others. We couldn’t find a balance. At least we’ve remained friendly.” According to the aforementioned CareerBuilder.com survey, 63% of workers who’ve had office-based romances were open about it. But 37% indicated that, like Kate and Bill, they felt a need to keep their relationship under wraps for their own sanity’s sake.
2. “My mistake in dating a colleague was simply lack of preparation,” says North Carolina resident Lacey, 26. “What happens if it ends? I just dove in and didn’t think about the fact that if we broke up, I’d see him every day, and that would become a colossally uncomfortable drag. I haven’t sworn off office romance — but next time, I’ll be more thoughtful, go slower, and really consider whether it’s worth the risk. It sure wasn’t this past go-round.”
3. “Dating my colleague backfired on me,” says Washington native Seth, 29. “She went a little crazy on social media sites after the fight that led to our breakup. So, our colleagues and mutual friends knew the blow-by-blow details… and that was just embarrassing. You can’t always enforce ground rules when dating a colleague goes south, but you should at least have some to start. Mine now include ‘We both agree to be discreet.’”
And finally, here are two cautionary tales that got downright ugly:
1. “I’d just started working at my company when this seemingly sweet colleague became very attentive, asking me first to lunch and then to go out after work,” says Californian Marcie, 27. “I did, and we had a couple of great dates, which got intimate — followed by him dumping me and no longer even trying to be pleasant. He is a total wolf in sheep’s clothing who ‘plays’ all the new girls at work. No one warned me, and I had to keep working alongside this creep. When I saw him trying his moves out on another new hire, I warned her, which I wish someone had done for me! But I couldn’t take the constant reminder of how badly my office romance turned out, so I resigned and started temping until I can find a new full-time position.”
2. “Never again!” says New Yorker Alan, 48, about his experience with an office romance. “I engaged in what I thought was mutual flirting with a woman 15 years younger than me who worked in a different division. I made a few references to wanting to take her out as soon as my work-crunch period was over. Apparently, she told her associates that I was harassing her. I got called into the H.R. director’s office and — in front of my boss — got reprimanded based on the harassment rumors, which this woman never denied were true. Aspects I hadn’t considered (like me being older and in a higher position than she was) came into play, and it made the situation look much worse than it actually was.”
Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for Match.com since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Visit hiswebsite, follow him onTwitter, oremail him.