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Working Relationships:
Strategizing Your Office Romance

or, H.R. Wouldn't Want Me to Say This, but Honey, You Put the Motion in Promotion

by Brian Glaser

It's a magical moment when two pairs of eyes meet across a crowded room. But when it's across a company boardroom or row of cubicles, the spell that's cast has an eerie undercurrent of dark magic. Because if those locked eyes become locked lips, you've stumbled into the dreaded yet titilatingly forbidden... Office Romance.

Like running a red light at a deserted intersection in the middle of the night, office dating wrong wrong wrong... but it's so easy to see the upside. Let's be honest: if you've got a demanding full-time occupation, how many other places are you going to meet someone who you know has similar interests, a compatible schedule, and, well, a job?

A Very Attractive Bottom Line

In contrast with the rest of your social world, an office environment will provide a constant stream of attractive dating prospects. Even a company with a low turnover rate will have new people regularly walking onto the field of play. And chances are you already have an opening line: "Hi. Didn't Janine used to sit here? I think she borrowed my stapler last month."

The office vibe is a very particular kind of romantic relationship. For one thing, you're not forcing your love life into a thin margin of late nights and exhausted weekends. And, even though it doesn't get much press, few things are more alluring than watching someone do something that they're really good at. (Ideally, you'll get to see that with your significant officemate.) It's certainly a much more honest view of the person than you get on a regular ol' First Date, and -- at it's best -- it's an easy way to build mutual respect.

As with any kind of dating scenario, getting promoted from "let's just be coworkers" has no guarantees, positive or negative. I've dated people at three separate companies, and have had experiences running all the way from hassle-free fun to "gotta update the resume and get the hell out of here" awful.

What They Won't Teach You at B-School

To help you get more of the former and less of the latter, here's a list of businesslike decision-making guidelines that will help you map out your 90-day plan and get your corporate merger approved:

Maintain Realistic Projections
Dating at work doesn't mean heading out to the "Team Building Off-Site and Margarita Blast" just to liquor up that flirt in Accounts Receivable. If you meet someone on the job, the two of you should move forward (carefully) only if it looks real.

If after spending genuine, significant time getting to know each other you just can't blink away the blue sparks, tell your coworker what you have in mind and gently suggest that you get together outside of the office sometime. I know of two or three happily betrothed couples who met at the proverbial water cooler. But they were very prudent and negotiated their joint venture off the clock.

Size Does Matter
Put simply: big company, good; tiny company, trouble. If the two of you are destined lovers who happen to collide in a 500-person workforce, then thank your lucky stars and think about "next steps." On the other hand, you and your intended may account for 30% of the staff of a small Web startup. In that case -- if humanly possible -- keep it to flirting at lunch until the number of employees reaches healthy double digits.

Here's a simple test to see if you've got enough of a buffer to keep your office affair from really sabotaging your career: if you make no special effort, will you run into this person often? If the answer is "no," then proceed with the decision-making process.

Date a Coworker, Not Someone You Work With
Meeting someone at your company is fine, but dating someone you actually work with on a day-to-day basis is filling out an official request form for Trouble (in triplicate). Let me illustrate it thusly: as nice as it was to smell my girlfriend's perfume from the other side of my desk every morning, catching a whiff of Clinique Happy from my ex-girlfriend was a daily, living, working hell.

Avoid "College Break Syndrome"
Remember that crisp autumn weekend when you came home for you first college break? You met up with your lifelong high school buddies and” suddenly you and your friends didn't have anything in common anymore. A lot of times, there just wasn't much beyond the daily grind of that hard-ass algebra teacher, the other cliques that you and your clique mocked, and the bonding malaise of having to muddle through until summer.

Just because you're not in high school anymore doesn't mean that you've outgrown these social triggers. At the office, you've got the daily grind of that hard-ass middle manager, the other departments that you and your department mock, and the bonding malaise of having to muddle through 52 weeks a year with absolutely no end in sight whatsoever.

So be careful. Make sure you and your close personal colleague have more in common and more to talk about than the dreary politics of your mutual work space. You'd be surprised how many couples really do rely on, "So how was your day, dear?" to get the conversation going. Which leads us to...

No Jive Talkin'
When you do proceed to a joint venture, some talk about work is OK, but don't talk about it too much. You can find yourself blithely wandering onto dangerous ground, especially when you're both kvetching about other coworkers to each other. It can all come back to haunt you in a surprisingly rich and varied number of ways. Particularly true if your relationship ends and someone's looking for a little revenge. When it comes to office politics, sometimes total communication isn't always the best idea!

Love Your Job, Too
In addition to not complaining too much, make sure you aren't just latching onto this person as your inside confidant/comforter because you're miserable at work. Only my honey knew how much I dreaded a certain job, and once I got the ax for being such a sourpuss, it was no fun to hear her talking about the great project she'd worked on with my (former) coworkers.

Moreover, if your job really makes you happy, then it's more likely that you're in the right frame of mind to let someone else in to make you even happier. That's what we call a "win-win" with "signficant upside potential."

Have Fun, Be Discreet
Again, it's just common sense: don't make a big deal of your new-found bliss in front of your coworkers; when you do decide to make an, um, Initial Public Offering, make sure to lay out disclosure ground rules right away. Don't have sex at the office (even at night after everyone's gone, you naughty monkey). And whatever you do, don't let the personal stuff contaminate the work stuff. You are not allowed to snarl at someone who doesn't like your darling's ideas for the big presentation.

Your Work's Excellent, but Your Snoring...

Finally, there's one old standard guideline that must be included in any conversation about office romance: never date anyone you report to, anyone who reports to you, or anyone in between. Agitate for that transfer to Marketing if you have to, but you really, really don't want a fight at the breakfast table to carry over into your annual review.

You can think of workplace romance as being like so many business plans: fraught with peril, but oh so tempting. If you're smart and careful -- and if you both agree to follow a few principles of good business communication -- you just might be able to turn your favorite office mate into a mate outside the office.

Brian Glaser has stopped stealing hearts at the office and now just steals supplies.

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