SMALL BUSINESS

Office Romances: 5 Things You Need To Know

06/16/2010 12:46 pm ET | Updated Aug 09, 2011

Love really can happen anywhere, even under the fluorescent, unflattering glow of office lighting. Work can be a nonthreatening place to meet potential dating partners and slowly peel away layers of personality and habits. Studies by the Department of Labor show that Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 spend more than one-third of their time at their jobs, so the fact that love often blooms at the office is not surprising.

A recent survey of 8,000 workers, conducted by CareerBuilder in conjunction with Harris Interactive, uncovered the truth about office love: Four out of 10 workers admit to having dated a colleague during their careers, and three out of 10 married their office sweethearts. The survey also showed that employees and companies are much more accepting of romantic relationships in the workplace -- 72 percent go public about their office romances, up from 46 percent in the early 2000s.

Many professionals have outgrown the outdated -- and often unrealistic -- views of love in the workplace that marked it as taboo (and in some cases, possible sexual harassment) and are starting to embrace its inevitability. But while dating in the workplace may seem, at the very least, like a great way to spice up a dull workweek, there are some important factors for bosses and employees to consider about office canoodling. So what's the best way to reduce the drama? Here are five things you need to know.

1. Adopt a "hands off" policy with subordinates.
Experts agree that to stay professional at work, you need to steer clear of managers dating underlings. According to Kristin Bowl, a spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resources Management, when a supervisor and employee are dating, it can potentially "decrease morale in the department and raise suspicions by co-workers of preferential treatment." Even if these opinions are unfounded, they can ultimately compromise your credibility. If they can't resist, you should consider transferring someone to another department. Even though intra-departmental peer relationships are often not frowned upon by co-workers, they can become difficult when promotions and raises come into play.

2. Set intra-office dating policies.
Cincinnati-based career consultant Andrea Kay is largely opposed to dating in the workplace, but admits that because our society is so work-obsessed, falling in love on the job is inevitable. Still, as a business owner, you need to set company rules when it comes to disclosing relationships between co-workers. The Society for Human Resources Management released results from a 2006 workplace romance survey that showed 72 percent of participating organizations did not have a formal written or verbal policy for workplace dating, and only 9 percent did not condone on-site relationships. Many companies now have adopted mandatory "love contracts" to protect themselves against potential sexual harassment suits. These contracts are signed by both people engaged in the relationship to officially disclose it as "consensual" and are particularly important for relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Even companies that have these contracts do not actually use them. In fact, 90 percent of survey respondents said their policy was just to "keep an eye on the situation."

3. Be discreet.
Discretion is incredibly important for people engaged in an office romance, and partners need to think carefully before they speak. Staying quiet about a relationship can be the best idea, particularly when it is in its beginning phase; and announcing it could potentially be a career-compromising moment. Kay recommends that those embroiled in an office affair talk through their concerns and potential problems that could arise from going public. Some questions she suggests: "How are we going to handle this? Should we tell our colleagues? How should we behave around each other?" Being discreet, at the very least, means being professional. There is no excuse for public displays of affection near the elevators or trysts in the copy room. Because employees are likely to gab, you can't give them anything to talk about. If you do, you will not be taken seriously and could end up as the office pariah.

4. Understand the effects on the company.
As we've all heard, half of marriages end in divorce, so the chances of a fledgling -- and potentially fleeting -- office romance working out are not particularly good. So it's important for would-be couples to consider whether to risk their jobs, the company's morale, and more. Does this relationship have serious potential, or are you just heavy "in lust"? It's best to proceed with extreme caution, says Kathleen McKenna, an employment attorney at New York's Proskauer Rose law firm. And remember, break-ups can be miserable, especially when you have to see your ex every single day at the office.

5. Avoid casual dating.
Perhaps the most important rule of office dating is that it can rarely be casual. Because there are so many potential consequences to consider that can affect both your personal and professional life when you get involved with someone at work, you have to think carefully about what you hope to get out of the relationship. Couples should have candid conversations early on about what might happen at the office if the honeymoon ends. A relationship at work is a joint personal and business relationship and thus wrought with challenges. When promotions and pay come into play, the situation can become volatile. Carving out a clear plan and boundaries for the relationship before it starts full throttle may not be romantic, but it is necessary.

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/16/10.

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