Life at Work

Office Mates

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Who needs, eHarmony or J-Date when you've got ye olde workplace?

We spend many hours together. We obviously have some of the same interests (or at least similar résumés). Connections are made across cubicles and over coffee meetings.

Love at work: It happens. And many of us accept that.

According to a survey conducted by Randstad USA, a staffing firm, 31 percent of adult Americans think it is appropriate to date a co-worker. And for some, it works out well.

Take Janice Raybuck, who in two short months will marry someone she met at work in 2000.

Raybuck, who works in catering sales in the Washington area, met the love of her life at her first real job on a dinner-cruise ship, where she had worked part time when she was in college. They flirted, got along incredibly well and dated. Sure, he was technically above her in the workplace hierarchy, but he wasn't her direct supervisor. And she never expected to work there after graduation anyway. But then came graduation and no job. The company needed a salesperson, and Raybuck needed income. So she took the job, and the couple tried to deal with the tricky situation of dating a co-worker.

"At first we tried to avoid each other, but that put a strain on the relationship," she said.

So they began to eat lunch together. And not only that, but she also had the typical reaction most have when they fall in love: She wanted to tell everyone. And of course, her "everyone" included close friends at work. It ended up that Raybuck and her boyfriend had little to worry about. "Pretty much everyone suspected or knew, but no one really cared," she said.

Raybuck left the company after two years, and life with her fiance is even better now. Just think: Now they have two workplaces to converse about.

According to a recent Spherion workplace-snapshot survey, only 36 percent of U.S. workers think openly dating a co-worker would put their job in jeopardy.

Of course, it doesn't always turn out that well. Workers need to be careful.

There are those hugely uncomfortable stories about flings gone awry ("How could I have known he was married?!") and long relationships with co-workers that ended badly ("We had to work together on a project right after she dumped me!").

As one woman wrote to me, her office relationship turned ugly, "especially because we worked directly with each other and this created competition, which led to me taking his job. Obviously, this did not help our personal relationship!"

Or this from another woman: "Our relationship ended when he stood me up for our office Christmas party. Turned out he had two small kids at home (which I knew about) and a live-in girlfriend (which I didn't)."


That sort of situation makes for some tricky ethical issues that arise when intra-office dating isn't handled oh-so-delicately. That's where the Love Contract comes into play.

Jeffrey Tanenbaum is an employment lawyer in San Francisco. About a decade ago, he was asked to draft a "consensual relationship agreement" for an executive at a technology firm who wanted his girlfriend to know she wouldn't suffer if they broke up.

The letter's popularity took off. It showed up on the now-defunct "Ally McBeal" TV show and is often mentioned this time of year in newspaper and magazine stories about dating at work. It just so happens that right after Valentine's Day, Tanenbaum usually has to write "a bunch of them," he said. He added that none of them ever wound up in court. "I'm still a bit bemused by it all."

Some employers have approached Tanenbaum asking that he write a different kind of contract: one that would prohibit employees from having relationships, or at least that would ask them to disclose any relationship to their supervisor. But he doesn't think that's the answer to avoiding litigation or other issues at work. He called that sort of approach "unwise."

"I don't think employers should be in a position of trying to be relationship police and asking employees to come forward and identify relationships," he said. "It either risks invasion of privacy or has the appearance of invasion of privacy."

Such a contract is useful, he said, when a relationship is already having a negative impact on the workplace or if there is a position-of-power situation, in which a supervisor and subordinate date. The contract could provide the company with some legal protection if things go awry. It could also let subordinates know their rights. Otherwise, they may feel compelled to stay in a relationship they don't want to be in because they are unsure of their rights under those circumstances, he said.

Generally, the smart move is to refrain from dating a boss or subordinate. But sometimes, Cupid just gets in the way.

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