Amid the buzz about the upcoming fall TV season, fans of The Office were happy to learn that the first couple of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Jim and Pam, will be expecting their second child when the show kicks off again in September. What is it about these Scranton sweethearts that has captivated millions of viewers for seven seasons? Perhaps that they represent a time-honored tradition we've all seen, and in some cases, engaged in, ourselves -- the office romance.
Today, Americans spend about 10 times more time working than they do "socializing" during an average day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Translation: We are a nose-to-the-grindstone society that is too busy to meet anyone. So when it comes to seeking out a potential mate, it makes sense that people are just as likely to look over the next cubicle as they are across the bar. In fact, 59 percent of people now admit to having had an office romance at some point.
Some bosses actually like playing Cupid. Take our own Richard Branson, who once officiated an employee's wedding ceremony -- 35,000 feet in the air, aboard a Virgin America flight. His low-cost competitor, Southwest Airlines, encourages interoffice mixing and boasts hundreds of married couples on the payroll. At startups and small companies, especially, close-knit staffs with lots of personal interaction are bound to result in at least a few hookups.
But not all cubicle courtships end up like Jim and Pam's small-screen fairy tale. When two colleagues become involved, things can get, well, a little awkward. Gossiping by the water cooler. Shameless making out at the company holiday party. And then there are the breakups, which can pit one side of the office against the other. For employers, the scenario can not only cut into productivity and professionalism, but can even have legal consequences, if a manager becomes involved with a superior, for example.
So is it better to simply embrace the inevitable and let those crazy kids tempt fate? Or does a boss have a responsibility to crack down on canoodling? We asked our resident group of hopeless entrepreneurial romantics -- our Board of Directors -- to weigh in.
Tom SzakyFounder: TerraCycle
"This is a funny question, as we have had a few office romances in our various offices. My guidance to our team is that if you are going to pursue a colleague, do so seriously versus casually. The problems come if you break up and things get tense making working together a challenge. So be serious and try to date someone in an different department. And most importantly, don't go after interns."
Rob DyrdekPresident, Dyrdek Enterprises
"I feel like office romances are a recipe for disaster. Even if you have two completely consensual, responsible adults, feelings and emotions are at some point going to rear their ugly heads. Now, I've seen cases where romances have become marriages and it was a great thing that went onto last forever. But I would say that's one in a million. So, especially for your own sanity, if you're caught in a potential office romance, I would do everything you can to avoid it. Because if it doesn't work out the way you expected, then now you've got to see this person nonstop, you've got to go to events with your new significant other and see this person. Or vice versa, if you're all caught up and you get played out and she keeps rolling in with new big buff dudes and you're just sitting there like, 'Oh man, I had her once, back by the water cooler in '95.' You don't want that."
Warren BrownFounder, CakeLove and Love Café
"You can't stop love, lust or anything in between. Doesn't matter the setting -- people drawn to each other will find one another. And that can be a good thing! We don't need to throw a wet towel on love. Inappropriate behavior isn't always part of office romance. But it's risky, like getting too involved with a neighbor. If it ends, it's just one 'ugh' moment after another. And if sneaking around is part of the thrill in the relationship, be careful, because a lot more than hearts can be broken."
JJ RambergCo-Founder, GoodSearch.com and Host, MSNBC's Your Business
"They are inevitable! At my first job, I for one spent a lot of time on my company's internal mail system flirting with a cute guy in the London office -- who later became my boyfriend.
"While many big companies try and discourage office romances, at a small company, it seems silly to have any sort of policy around this. If people want to be together, they are going to find a way to be together. What you can do, though, is have an honest conversation with your employees about how they are expected to behave at work -- both if things work out between them and if they don't. In the end, if their romance (or the end of it) affects their job performance, then you can treat that the way you'd treat any issue that affects their performance.
"All of that said, if you are nervous about any legal issues around this (the danger, for example, of someone rightly or wrongly claiming sexual harassment), I'd consult a lawyer who specializes in HR issues early on in the life of that budding romance!
"One other thing. If there is a romance in your office between a boss and a direct report, you should pay a little extra attention to make sure that the boss is still treating everyone on the team fairly."
Gary WhitehillFounder, The Relentless Foundation and New York Entrepreneur Week
"Although this is a double-edged sword, I believe everything happens for a reason -- so go for it. However, the cold reality is that most romances are just flings. Be cognizant that following your heart may force you to sacrifice your hard earned career and personal credibility in one way or another."
Clint GreenleafFounder and CEO, Greenleaf Book Group
"For better or worse, they're going to happen. Businesses should protect themselves against the often bitter and dirty ending that comes, but when your employees work together that much, it's not something that can be stopped. All this said, it's best to not fish off the company pier, if you can avoid it."
Phil TownInvestor and Author of Rule #1 and Payback Time
"Between single people or married people? Either way, there is nothing more entertaining to an entire office than watching two people sneaking around, thinking nobody notices. The impact of a good office romance on productivity and general morale can be truly amazing.
"The very best office romances, in my opinion, are between a miserably married, middle-aged, overweight boss and his 23-year-old personal assistant. The guy starts working out like crazy and gets second-degree sunburn playing beach volleyball on a 'business trip' in Florida. His wife starts calling the office 14 times a day trying to find him. The assistant is promoted to a level of total incompetence and then, when its over, gets fired. He, of course, gets promoted sideways to someplace harmless where he can finish his career doing useless things at the expense of the shareholders, who don't mind because they don't know about it until the sexual harassment lawsuit shows up in the 10Q. After that, things go back to normal office gossip -- until the next one."
Rieva LesonskyCEO, GrowBiz Media
"Well, considering I met my ex-husband at work, I would be a hypocrite to say office romances are a no-no. But if you have employees dating, you need to make sure supervisors aren't dating people they supervise. Other employees will likely feel slighted and assume preferential treatment is going on. While I think it is smarter and wiser for a business owner to avoid office romance, it is hard to have such strict rules, especially when we spend so many hours at the office. So if you must, you better be super careful. There are so many lawsuits waiting to happen in this scenario. But, hey, it did work for Bill and Melinda Gates."
Rob AdamsDirector, Texas Venture Labs at the University of Texas
"I've never had one so I'm not qualified to comment!"
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 8/2/11.