When we began researching office romance for our current book on the topic, we were warned that we were entering dangerous territory, legal and otherwise. We were encouraging sexual harassment. We were suggesting that the lovelorn become romantic predators, going from job to job in search of a spouse. Our subject was distasteful; stigmatized. When the book was published, we could expect a flood of disparagement.
It is true that we have been deluged, but not with criticism. Instead, we're awash in tales from people who simply want to share their stories of finding love at work. "It's odd," a public radio host observed of the day's callers after our appearance on his show. "They don't have a point to make. They just want to talk about how they met their husband or wife."
Well, that is the point. Far from its sleazy reputation of business trip flings and supply closet gropings, it turns out that workplace romance is one of the last bastions of old-fashioned courting in our society. Yet no one seems to know it.
Surveyors such as the Vault.com and Careerbuilder.com, who run the numbers on this subject every year, routinely report that about half of all Americans will date someone they met on the job at least once, with one in five of those pairings leading to a committed relationship or marriage. If Internet dating services had that sort of success rate, you can bet we would see it plastered all over their advertising. But since no one stands to gain from couples meeting at work, no one stands up for them and, as a result, almost every happy workplace couple we encounter continues to believe they are an unusual exception.
With some forty percent of workers logging more than 50 hours a week on the job, the office has become the village of the 21st century: the place where we spend the majority of our days, make our friends and, yes, meet our dates. Human Resources acts as the gatekeeper and inadvertent matchmaker. Our colleagues--much like the gossipy neighbors of a hundred years ago--steer good pairs toward each other and warn against bad characters. Couples we interviewed for Office Mate routinely spoke of the value of being able to observe each other's behavior over time, getting past first impressions, and becoming friends, all before the first date.
We discovered, in fact, that the vast majority of potential workplace couples were friends for months--sometimes years--before acknowledging or acting on their attraction. They don't make the leap until weighing the risks to their jobs and to a valuable platonic relationship if things don't work out between them.
Take Barack and Michelle Obama. When they first met, Michelle was Barack's supervisor at the law firm where he was a summer intern. Concerned about the propriety of such a relationship, she refused to date the future presidential candidate. Then he offered to quit his job. The couple's first date: A trip to an ice-cream parlor.
As long as there is no fiscal or supervisory conflict of interest, bosses don't object and few co-workers are opposed. Office romance has become so common that it has become part of the lingo at many firms. At Charles Schwab, for example, "schwupples" spend weekends attending each other's "schweddings."
We don't deny that dating at work can cause all kinds of complications. Dating anyone, anywhere, can cause all sorts of upsets, particularly if it ends badly. Our point about workplace romance is simply this: It's ubiquitous. And it works. Instead of shaming folks this Valentine's Day for dipping their pens in the company ink, let's celebrate those who find love on the job instead. If Bill Gates and Barack Obama can meet their life partners at work, why can't you?