When You Find Your Valentine On The Job

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
Photo by Kraig Scattarella

Office romance often brings to mind an adulterous affair or supply-closet rendezvous a la "Grey's Anatomy."

But people who met a soulmate at work are fighting to change that rap, which discourages many from dating a colleague. They tout the workplace as the ideal venue to get to know possible partners.

"The office lends itself to these old-fashioned courting rituals of yore," said Stephanie Losee, San Francisco-based co-author of "Office Mate." "You get to know the substance of the person."

Co-workers use extended time together to decide whether a romantic relationship might work, instead of judging based on a blind date or chance meeting. They also begin with the common interest of their profession or industry. Consequently, more than a third of office romances become long term.

Twenty-two percent of office romances led to wedding bells and 17 percent involved a multi-year relationship, according to a survey by staffing company Spherion Corp. Of those polled, 39 percent had dated a co-worker.

A survey by Careerbuilder.com found that 34 percent of office romances resulted in marriage, and 43 percent of U.S. workers had dated a fellow employee.

"It's only natural to be close to the people you work with. You're spending a lot of time with these people and developing relationships," said Michelle Renaud, a spokeswoman for Harlequin publishers in Toronto. "People may not be looking for (romance) there but it is definitely happening."

Harlequin's annual romance reports highlight a disconnect between what people say and what they do about office romance. While typically less than 1 percent said work is the best place to meet someone, almost 20 percent met their significant other there.

"Unless you're hit by that romantic thunderbolt, that's not going to be your first choice of finding a mate," explained Ann A. Fishman, a New Orleans-based marketing consultant. "It's not what you go to the office for."

Interest in dating a co-worker may even be on the decline. The Spherion survey last month found only 36 percent of people were open to an office romance, down from 42 percent in 2005.

"I don't go into a job looking for that. I figure if it happens, it happens," said Charlotte Kolahi-Koocheki, 23, a product specialist at Yahoo! in Hillsboro, Ore.

And happen it did, when Kolahi-Koocheki accepted a job at a Cingular call center three years ago. During her initial training session, she had to give her e-mail address to a colleague to resolve a customer concern. Soon, she and Nick Philippi were e-mailing back and forth about things that had nothing to do with work. Within six months, they moved in together.

"Before him, my longest relationship was 10 days," Kolahi-Koocheki said.

In fact, the relationship outlasted the job both quit Cingular to join Yahoo! within a month of each other. Now they enjoy a shared commute and seeing each other during the workday.

Office romances often begin as friendship, a solid base for an enduring relationship, said Losee, whose husband initially was a work friend.

Gretchen Johnson, 44, a marketing consultant in Kalamazoo, Mich., always enjoyed talking to her co-worker John when the staff went out for drinks. Pretty soon the two of them were meeting separately for movies or dinner, but not explicitly dating.

"We kept it very platonic for a long time, until it was pretty clear I was going to be moving on" from the job, said Johnson, who married John and now has a daughter with him. "When you date, it's always hard to know where it's going. We did not want the additional layer of having to deal with colleagues."

Some couples find that sharing a workplace helps their careers, giving them an additional perspective on a business issue or another part of the company.

Emily Davidson, communications director for Credit.com in San Francisco, has worked with her fiance at two companies.

"You have such a strong understanding of how that other department works because you have a personal insight into it," said Davidson, 28. "You can form a really strong partnership at work because of being in a relationship as well."

On the other hand, breakups can make the workplace uncomfortable. When Losee stopped dating a colleague after several months, she said, he brought in an oversized painting depicting their failed relationship, for everyone to see.

"Don't use the office for a hook-up; you'll shoot yourself in the foot," she said.

Moreover, when pursuing a co-worker, make sure to take no for an answer, or you could be charged with sexual harassment.

"There's much more awareness in the workplace that it's not acceptable and people can say cut it out," said Zachary Hummel, an employment lawyer at Bryan Cave in New York.

You should also check whether your employer has a policy about romantic relationships most allow same-level dating but prohibit involvements up and down the chain of command. "Supervisor-subordinate relationships are still a huge concern for companies because there's nothing but bad that can happen from that," Hummel said.

Despite the potentially negative consequences, those who found true love at work encourage singles to pursue a romance if it has long-term potential.

Abby Klemmer, 34, opposed dating at work until she realized her colleague Carl was perfect for her five years after they first met at the office.

"How many places are there to meet quality men?" said Klemmer, a technical writer in Norwalk, Conn. "If one comes across your path, you'd better lay the branches carefully across the hole."

She and Carl married, had two daughters, and still work together at the company where they met 12 years ago.

This article was originally published on Thursday, February 7, 2008, by Newhouse News Service.