The holiday season and office parties. Office parties and spiked punch bowls. Spiked punch bowls and a little carrying on. A little carrying on and . . . Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer. Before you know it, there you are: the dread -- and yet all-too-frequently visited -- land of the office romance, the territory that strikes fear into the hearts of executives. Go there and you risk your reputation, your job, your career. All the red lights are flashing: Warning! But is this place really so dangerous? Southwest Airlines thinks not. The airline has about 1,000 married couples on its rolls and gives an annual "Love Award" recognizing the contribution that one special couple makes to the company. Even the erudite offices of National Public Radio are a love nest: Over the years, NPR has produced 60 marriages between staffers. If you find yourself headed down the love path -- or you're supervising others who might be so inclined -- here are the new rules of the road for work and love.
1. Go ahead: Dive right in.
Office romances are a lot more successful -- and less dangerous -- than you might think. And they're also more serious. "These are not flings," says Dennis Powers, a professor at Southern Oregon University's School of Business and author of The Office Romance: Playing with Fire Without Getting Burned . His research says that more than half of all office romances end in long-term commitments or marriage. With approximately 8 million Americans (that's the population of New York City) slated to dip their pens in the company ink this year, those are pretty good numbers -- and much better odds than the success rates for more traditional approaches to dating.
"The conventional wisdom is that it's playing with fire -- and management would like you to believe that," says Janet Lever, a professor of sociology at California State University in Los Angeles. "Looking at the data, however, it's more like playing with matches."
2. Keep it discreet - but don't be secretive.
Taking the plunge doesn't mean letting it all hang out. Successful office romancers agree: Keep PDA (that's public displays of affection, not personal digital assistants) away from the office. Even if you're discreet, don't expect that your relationship is a secret. "Most couples try to keep it quiet, but by the time they tell, the whole office already knows," says Powers. "People still appreciate the effort to keep it out of the workplace, though."
3. Don't cheat. Just don't.
Because no matter how you look at it, stepping out on your spouse with someone at work is just a bad idea all around. It causes drama in the office, and let's not even get started on the drama it causes at home. Case in point: Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer. For all the money that Welch made as the iconic head honcho of General Electric, his divorce settlement with his wife may wind up being the biggest deal of his entire career.
4. And remember: The forbidden fruit is always the most tempting.
"Forget policies that say that if you date, you're fired," Powers advises. "They don't work." When workers are forced to skulk around, intentions become much murkier and the outcomes are far less positive. "From a policy standpoint, it's much more important to train managers in how to deal with it," says Lever. Besides, the corporate benefits of employees romancing one another may be greater than you think: Just ask Southwest Airlines.
Sidebar: Heart V. Head
Unless you were one of the few people still watchingAlly McBeal last year, you probably aren't familiar with the latest evidence of Americans' litigious obsession: the love contract. Not satisfied to seek legal counsel only with prenuptial and divorce papers, people are now signing "consensual-relationship agreements," which are bringing the courtroom into the heart of the process of courting. "The idea behind it is simple," says Stephen Tedesco, a San Francisco lawyer with the firm Littler Mendelson, who pioneered the agreements with his colleague Jeffrey Tanenbaum four years ago. "The big quandary for employers these days is sex harassment. The difference between sex harassment and office romance is that romance is consensual and welcome, whereas sex harassment is not. In this day and age when most people meet their spouse at work, the consensual-relationship agreement is how companies and individuals can protect themselves." According to Tedesco, a love contract "documents the fact that the relationship is consensual and welcome" and lays important ground rules for how the couple will behave in the workplace: If either party is feeling harassed, he or she will promptly tell a supervisor; the couple also agrees to refrain from inappropriate behavior at work (translation: No canoodling in the conference room!). Of course, experts disagree about the effectiveness of the contracts, but Tedesco swears by them: "There's some controversy around them. People ask, 'What's the world coming to?' I say the contract is just a practical tool for documenting the state of affairs."