In an around-the-clock, team-based, fast-paced business environment, work becomes play. Collegiality becomes intimacy. Intimacy becomes, well, intimacy. Before you know it you’re not just office mates, you’re soul mates.
Like Joe Sikoryak and Laura Arendal, who met three years ago at the now-defunct “UnixWorld” magazine. Sikoryak’s boss played matchmaker, urging him to send Arendal an e-mail: “Want to get together this weekend?” Monday morning they walked around the small office, telling people they were officially involved. Now they’re engaged.
“I saw how he acted in public, and he saw me, and by the time we got together we really trusted each other,” Arendal recalls. “Working together made it possible for us to get together.”
Office romances are dangerous and inevitable, risky and routine.
When you’re working twelve hours a day, six days a week, there’s not much time left to have a life. So keep this edition of Starter Kit next to the company manual, for those times when the sexual tension starts to crackle in your office. Use it to avoid the pitfalls, preempt the gossip, cope with the breakup. And remember, as Phaedra in New York put it on the Women’s Wire: when it’s all over, “it’s a fantastic lesson in learning how to cope with someone who makes your teeth hurt.”
There are few rules governing love and work, and plenty of hazards. Where can you go for guidance? Traditional etiquette advisers such as Miss Manners advocate a look-but-don’t-touch policy. Very wise, not very realistic. We asked three workplace-relationships experts — Andy Erdman, Martha Langelan, and Deborah Tannen — to take us through the stages of hypothetical but typical office romances. Here are their suggestions for dealing with the facts of life at fast companies:
(Also, take the Fast Company “Rating Test” to see what your rating is when it comes to dating.)
Gary and Jane work as sales reps for a netware-services provider, covering the Southwest. Traveling together four days a week, they slowly realize they’re attracted to each other. After closing a deal they’d worked on for months, the exhilaration is almost physical. Jane has always believed you shouldn’t go out with someone from the office, but she wonders: Can she make this work?
Erdman: Office love can be tricky. It’ll be really awkward if it doesn’t work out — how are you going to feel when he starts coming to work late because he spent the night with the aerobics instructor he dumped you for? And given the typically uneven power structure at most workplaces, it’s often the woman who has more to lose if and when things go bust. Caveats clearly stated, however, I still don’t think office romance is a bad way to go. My general advice is to proceed with caution, but proceed.
Arlene takes on a senior marketing position at a D.C. investment firm where Frank is a partner. Frank is unmarried, Arlene newly divorced. They develop an easy, albeit professional rapport. Frank asks Arlene to dinner. Arlene, who’s still trying to come to terms with her divorce, says she’s busy. Can Frank ask again?
Tannen: One of the luxuries of seeing someone you work with is you don’t have to go out on a date. The whole notion of asking someone out on a date is a little outdated anyway. You hang around together at the coffee machine, move on to lunch, and maybe graduate to having a dinner — which is more loaded than a lunch.
Langelan: It’s cool to wait for a few weeks and try one more time. The first time, make it kind of general: “There’s a play at the Kennedy Center. Would you like to go?” If the answer is ambiguous, then the second time be more specific: “Would you like to go Saturday night?” If she says she’s washing her hair that night, you should take no for your answer.
Even though she’s being indirect?
Tannen: It’s a big loss of face to go on record as being interested in someone and being directly rejected. It’s typically American to think that the solution is for everybody to be very direct. People should do a better job of being indirect. If what we want doesn’t meet with a positive response, we can take it back.
How can Arlene say no and still keep a good working relationship with Frank?
Langelan: Tell him you like him and you think he’s a great guy, but you have a rule that you don’t go out with people from work. And if you have gone out with someone from work, that relationship is probably more widely known than you’d suspect. So say that being with someone from your work group was difficult. Tell him that you don’t want to do repeat the mistake.
At what point does asking her out cross over into sexual harassment?
Langelan: The third time. I hate to say that, because it’s a somewhat arbitrary rule. The third time is when people start to feel pressured.
Frank is used to getting his way. Even after Arlene has refused three times, he won’t take no for an answer. How can she muzzle Frank without getting human resources involved?
Langelan: Be very matter of fact about it, and don’t get angry. Focus on the behavior — tell him you like him as a colleague but he needs to respect what you say. And no means no. It’s only when you’re pushed and pushed that you need to go to a full-scale, “I’m filing” confrontation.
We’ve Merged: Should We CC?
Ricardo and Sara meet for dinner on a Friday night — and spend the entire weekend together at Sara’s place. Now it’s Monday morning. Should they keep their new relationship a secret?
Langelan: Trying to keep it a secret is one of the stupidest things you can do because people will find out. Couples think they’re being discreet, but they’re viewed as dishonest. So be open about your relationships. And it’s a good idea to bring it up with your supervisor. You’re not asking for permission — just casually say, “By the way, Ricardo and I are dating.”
Charlie and Sally, who work as computer-systems troubleshooters in Boston, travel to Atlanta. After a late night dip in the hotel swimming pool, they end up in bed together. They continue the affair when they return to Boston. Charlie, however, decides to break things off with Sally. How can he continue working with her?
Erdman: This is a sticky situation. I know. I’ve been there. Following a breakup I once found myself showing up for work each day a few calculated minutes after the morning rush. I didn’t want to end up in an elevator with her: “Good morning. Sorry for dumping you. Could you hit 14 for me? Thanks.”
What you have to do is face this problem and deal with it. Your overall approach should not be one of avoidance.
Langelan: Breaking up is one of the downsides of having a dating relationship with someone from work. Because you can’t not see him. The first step is to avoid getting into a drawn-out, three-month breakup. Be quick about breaking it off.
It’s typical to have a lot of anger. Lay out some specific ground rules on how to deal with each other at work. Talk about the occasions when you have to be together, and figure out what you’re going to do from now on. You should also agree that there will be no verbal back-stabbing. Tell people, “Charlie and I have broken up, and we really don’t want to talk about it.” And you shouldn’t talk about it. Because if either one of you starts confiding in coworkers the entire organization can be affected. People start choosing sides, you get polarization and productivity goes into the cellar.
The PhD’s of Love and Work
Andy Erdman, formerly a columnist at “Fortune” magazine, is pursuing a PhD in theater and film studies at the City University of New York. He moonlights as eMale, answering questions about men on “Women’s Wire,” an online magazine for professional women.
Coordinates: Andy Erdman, http://www.women.com ; click on “Question Authorities”
Martha Langelan is the author of “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers” (Simon & Schuster, 1993) and president of Langelan & Associates, a Washington, D.C. firm that consults to corporations on sexual harassment and conflict intervention.
Coordinates: Martha Langelan,firstname.lastname@example.org
Deborah Tannen, PhD, is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “That’s Not What I Meant!” and “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” For her latest book, “Talking from 9 to 5” (William Morrow and Co., 1994), Tannen went behind the scenes at dozens of corporations to see how men and women interact. She has credibility: she met her husband at a conference.
Stephanie Williams (email@example.com) is an assistant editor at “Self” magazine, where she writes about health and psychology.