By Nadira A. Hira
February 26, 2008

As promised, here’s some practical advice to follow last week’s musings on finding romance at the office. Watching the Oscars Sunday, I got another little impromptu reminder of the relationship between work and love: In his acceptance speech, 98-year-old production design legend Robert Boyle remembered “Hitch” (as in, Alfred Hitchcock) for giving him his first big film and, yes, introducing him to his wife and lifelong companion. It’s just one more example of how romantic work can be, something that Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen, the authors of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding — and Managing — Romance on the Job, know a little about.

The book opens with a note from each woman on how she found her perfect mate at the office. But don’t get the wrong idea: These aren’t your average chickliteers. Both are, as the book’s site jokingly puts it, “otherwise dignified journalists” who felt passionately that office romances were getting a bad rap when they might actually be the best way to find love. So the two decided to apply their journalistic verve to the topic and share the results in this witty guide to everything from “How to Indicate Interest — Without Indicating Yourself Right Out of a Job” to “When He’s Out of Your Life But Not Out of the Office Next Door.”

It’s help many of us can use. Research cited in the book indicates that half of all office workers have dated an office mate. But then, you probably could have guessed that. As Olen says, “This has been going on since men and women have worked together, since they were sowing crops in the field.” And just because work has gone high-rise and hi-tech, doesn’t mean much has changed in the romantic arena: “The physical community of yore didn’t relocate to the Internet, it relocated to the workplace,” says Losee. “That’s so much more heartening than the possibility that we’re all just sitting in our rooms, plugged in, but completely disconnected from each other.”

So if you’re thinking of making some romantic work history of your own, a few words of encouragement and strategery from our Office Mate experts…

1. Take your time.

Taking it slow is important in any relationship, but it’s crucial when considering a coworker who as could easily be your wonderful future spouse as your insane future ex. And this goes triple for we Yers, who, to put it gently, are perhaps most likely to fall prey to that disaster-waiting-to-happen otherwise known as the happy-hour hookup. (Seriously. Remember “How much is too much at happy hour?”)

“If you jump into an office relationship and turn it into a hookup, you’re not taking advantage of the one thing that meeting someone at the office offers you — the advantage of time,” says Losee. “That’s silly, and it’s just going to lead to drama.” Instead of letting Cupid catch you unawares (or, um, un-sober) at the local watering hole, take the opportunity to get to know your potential office mate as well as possible before pursuing a relationship.

2. Get out of the office.

“Just because it’s an office romance doesn’t mean it’s conducted in the office,” says Olen, who cautions against mooning over your honey in his or her cubicle, or otherwise making yourself insufferable and/or an obvious target for downsizing. This extends to technology, too: Your office romance does not count as office work, so don’t use company tools to carry it out. Because you could find yourself in any number of unpleasant situations, like one Office Mate source, who found herself facing a less-than-sympathetic boss armed with printouts of her instant messenger pillow talk. So try to avoid that.

But doom and gloom aside, knowing your office mate outside of work is ultimately good for the relationship. “You don’t want to be two soldiers in a foxhole, thrown together because you work together,” says Olen. “You want to make sure you have more to talk about than work. And if you don’t, then you should take a strong look at your relationship, because you don’t want to change jobs and realize that you need to change boyfriends.”

3. It’s all about the rules.

The biggest potential pitfall in an office romance is, of course, an office breakup. Any relationship split can be messy, but things can get especially awkward when coworkers part ways. Handle it wrong, and not only can a bad breakup ruin your reputation at work, it can end your job altogether. So our experts say, do yourself a favor and lay down some ground rules at the very start. “It’s much easier to do when you’re first dating, when you’re in love and it’s all very theoretical, than when you’re at each others’ throats,” says Olen.

And even if your partner doesn’t respect the parameters when things go awry, the key is to remain professional and above it all — even if he or she is determined to bring the drama to work and risk taking you both off a professional cliff. But chances are, Olen says, it won’t come to that: “The office romance is the last bastion of old-fashioned courting. Because you were friends, you can remain friends. And you have a different history, because you weren’t always a couple.”

4. Think normal.

Many office romantics suffer from serious anxiety. Can you tell? And if so, whom? And how much? “The first impulse when you start dating someone at the office is to drop out of the office gang,” says Losee, “because that’s the best way you can think of not to divulge anything. But you’re just alienating yourself from your network.” It’s possible, she says, to behave with dignity and intelligence, still be part of the group, and be respected for it. “Besides, they don’t want to know all the details!”

And speaking of details, avoid PDAs. Married couples don’t neck at company dinners, and neither should you. But you shouldn’t stay in hiding forever, either. “Why does etiquette exist?” Losee asks. “To make people feel comfortable. Early on, discretion makes people comfortable. And as a relationship progresses, and everyone’s aware, openness makes them comfortable.”

5. Don’t worry; no one really minds.

Somewhere, somehow, many of us got the notion that office romances were right up there with embezzlement and miniskirts on the list of corporate crimes. Not so, say the Office Mate experts. “Contrary to myth,” says Olen, “most people don’t disapprove. Well over two-thirds are happy for you or don’t care.” It’s a good idea, if you’re considering an office romance, to check if your company has an official policy on dating at work, but the truth is that many companies don’t, and those that do tend to focus on dating subordinates and other potential harassment issues.

That doesn’t mean you should keep your boss out of the loop — after all, you don’t want him or her finding out about your love affair third-hand — but you should go in as a courtesy, not cowering in fear. And believe it or not, many HR professionals are actually supportive of office romances, since nothing builds company loyalty like being in love with a coworker. There’s even evidence that after falling in love, your productivity can increase 20 percent. “It stands to reason,” explains Losee, “you’ve got that buzz on, you’re excited to come to work, you want to impress your honey. You’re committed, and you’re going to produce.”

*****

And there you have it. As it says on my wall, “Work is love made visible.” And despite all the fun that’s been made of my Kahlil Gibran optimism, I’ve found it to be true in more ways than one: I, too, have an office mate, from a previous gig (in the spirit of full, if delayed, disclosure). So what about you? I bet you guys have some office romance opinions to share. Can they work? Are they trouble? Or are we too young to even worry about it, seeing as how many of us still have to find success at work, never mind love? Tell us your thoughts, and your own office mate stories, be they fairy tales or horror stories…

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