The case against office romance Love on the job: Career risks accompany the pursuit of your valentine in the same workplace.

WORKING LIFE

February 11, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Call me a killjoy in this season of hearts and flowers. I'm about to make a case against office romance.

Sure, we all know plenty of people who met their spouses at work. And if you spend a lot of time at the office, it can easily become your social life. Some businesses give the wink to workplace liaisons, or even encourage them -- listing company couples in a Valentine's issue of the newsletter.

But as if working life wasn't tough enough these days, office romance adds four extra career risks:

* Conflicts of interest. These are situations when competing loyalties get in the way of your business judgment: You give a plum assignment to your sweetheart, for example, or plan an unnecessary business trip together, costing the company money. Maybe you think you're on safe ground getting involved with someone you don't supervise. Then management starts a new performance review system that requires you to rate each other's work. What do you do?

* Legal liabilities. In some cases, what starts as office romance can turn into a lawsuit involving both the company and its employees. Take the case of a boss who's having an affair with a subordinate and shows favoritism to that person -- for instance, with perks, raises or promotions. Some courts have said that's illegal sexual harassment since the message to everyone else is that you have to sleep with the boss to get ahead.

Sexual harassment lawsuits also can arise when boss-subordinate relationships turn sour, says Freada Klein, a leading Boston-based consultant. In these cases, the boss has typically retaliated -- for instance, by denying a raise or promotion to the subordinate who broke things off. Details of the past affair -- including those cute e-mail messages -- become public record.

* Image problems. For all their efforts to be discreet, two lovebirds are usually the last to know how many people in the office have figured out what's up. Can you handle being the subject of gossip, including speculation that you're trying to sleep your way to a promotion? Whether people disapprove on moral grounds, or are just envious, you may suddenly find yourself ostracized or left out of the loop.

* Emotional tumult. If you're not the type to keep in touch with former flames, picture what it would be like to run into each other on the elevator or in the cafeteria should you break up. What if you still have to work on the same team or (perish the thought) this person starts dating another colleague?

Folks who argue that love at work is a private matter ignore the obvious. When the couple bring their romance into the office -- for example, by having a personal discussion in the hall that disturbs others -- love becomes a workplace issue, says Stephen M. Paskoff, a lawyer in Atlanta. Yet with company rules about dating on shaky legal grounds (a couple of lawsuits have challenged them), most businesses are cautious about taking a hard line, he says.

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