What's Going To Become Of The Office Romance?


October 27, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

Last week, along with two women friends, I watched one of those classic Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies in which Kate and Spence meet, spar a little and then marry. In this particular film -- "Woman of the Year" -- they meet on the job: She's a political columnist and he's a sportswriter on the same newspaper. And the chemistry between them is instant.

"Well," said one of my friends after the scene in which Kate and Spence are introduced to one another in their editor's office, "I guess we can kiss that concept goodbye."

She didn't have to explain what she meant. There is scarcely a man or woman I've talked to in this post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas era who, in addition to re-examining the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, has not also considered its impact on another common, on-the-job occurrence: the office romance.

Almost overnight, as a result of the testimony by and about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, every conceivable work-centered relationship has come under scrutiny. And while the fate of the office romance is not on the same level of societal importance as the sexual harassment issues raised, it is, nonetheless, a part of the widening ripple of uncertainty and awkwardness affecting men and women in the workplace.

Some small firms, reportedly, are "banning" office romances. Although, given human nature, I'm not sure how you do that.

Others are trying to "establish a policy" on office romances. "After what we're hearing on TV and seeing on TV and listening to on the radio," one senior partner at a Suffolk County, N.Y., law firm told Newsday, "if a relationship goes sour . . . we don't want to subject the firm to harassment charges or misconstrued intent."

But even without a formal ban-the-office-romance policy, the Thomas-Hill confrontation seems to be having a chilling effect on love in the workplace.

A male editor at my newspaper confirmed this: "I was with some male friends the other night and we all recounted a moment in our lives when we were so struck with someone in the office that we wanted to ask her out. And some of us did. But now we wonder if we would take that first step. And if we did, would it be taken in the wrong way? And that makes me sad because some of the very best relationships I have ever seen, I've seen grow out of the work environment."

As someone who has met at least two important Mr. Rights in the workplace, I agree the demise of the office romance is a saddening thought. Getting rid of sexual harassment is one thing -- and the sooner the better -- but banning office romance strikes me as a clear-cut case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

For a person in search of a romantic relationship, the office setting seems a far better meeting ground than such contemporary matchmakers as computer dating services or personal ads or blind dates arranged through a mutual acquaintance. For one thing, when you work alongside someone on a daily basis, you get a much more realistic view of who that person is.

Indeed, outside of living in a family setting, the office is the place where you are most likely to see how a person really reacts to all the sticky little realities of life. How they respond to pressure. To disappointment. To success. How they handle setbacks and how they handle promotions. How they treat those above them and how they treat those below them.

You get to see whether the sense of humor is real or forced. Whether the charm is intermittent or genuine. You come to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Their faults and virtues. And you get to see them in sickness and in health.

In other words, the office is a good place to observe the qualities in a person that might be defined as character and temperament.

These kinds of observations are difficult, at best, when conducting a romance one or two nights a week over dinner at a restaurant or going out to a movie or party.

And often between people who work together, it is friendship and shared interests that first draw a couple together -- two factors that are generally conceded to be the foundation for a successful relationship.

It was Sigmund Freud, of course, who opined that the satisfying life is made up of equal parts of Love and Work. Of course, when he opined that he probably didn't have the office-romance concept in mind. Although, who knows? Maybe, unconsciously, he did.

By the way, it occurs to me that in real life Hepburn and Tracy had something in common with the couple in "Woman of the Year": They met on the job.

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