By Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D. What's your advice about starting an office romance? The idea of having a relationship with someone at work seems natural enough. But we hear so much about the pitfalls of acting on our attractions.
Getting involved with a co-worker is partly a matter of opportunity: Given the long hours most people put in at work today, the office is a logical place to meet someone. But other elements figure in, too. Workplaces can be intense, intimate environments. The deep bonds that develop in the crucible of work, along with stress (and the need to find release from it), can eroticize relationships.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Some office romances live happily ever after. Sexual tension can even fuel productivity, as people try hard to impress the objects of their desire.
Indeed, if a recent poll is any guide, relationships and romance are alive in the American office. Four out of every 10 employees who answered a Spherion/Harris Interactive survey taken in January say they'd consider an office romance. About the same percentage say they've already had one.
But many among the 1,500 employed adults in the survey—4 out of 10, again— worry that such relationships can jeopardize job security and advancement. Why this fear? Two reasons, I think. The first is psychological. Romance with a colleague can feel forbidden or incestuous, creating an air of secrecy that elicits guilt. A focus on the pitfalls can be an expression of feared punishment.
At the same time, we all read about the ill-fated liaisons that regularly make headlines. So there are real dangers. Sexual harassment law rightly protects an employee from the unwanted advances of a superior, for example. Thus, if you're attracted to someone who reports to you, first borrow a page from Nancy Reagan's book: Just tell yourself no. Even if you think your advances are welcome, keep in mind that it's risky to make the first move.
SOME COMPANIES also have rules forbidding all workplace love affairs. My own position on this: Office romances will occur, so rather than puritanically trying to outlaw them, management should focus on intervening when relationships develop that unfairly alter the playing field.
So what should you do if you're drawn to someone at work? Try to be honest with yourself. Does the allure arise from the other person's power? Or your power over him or her? (And if you're feeling the attraction even though you're committed to someone else, are you just reacting against the constraints of that relationship?) It's hard to overrule your emotions, but try to anticipate the consequences—including whether both of you can remain at the company if you get involved. I know many executives who are happily married to people they met at work, including some who ignored conventional wisdom. But remember that if there's any reporting relationship between the two of you, the less powerful person will be the one asked to change jobs or leave. And don't think you can keep the romance a secret. If just one other person knows, eventually everyone else will, too.
Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.