Finding Love, 1990s Style: Cupid Strikes at the Office

Jack, an attorney at a branch of the federal government, was instantly smitten the day he first met Jennifer, an international trade analyst who worked down the hall.

Occasionally, they would work on projects together or go out to lunch with a group of friends, but nothing more. Then a few months ago they officially started dating. Things are going so well they're even talking marriage.

"It was one of those nice, ambiguous things - it just kind of happened," says Jennifer. (The two requested that their real names not be used.) "We've always been friends, but we just started getting along well."

Indeed their office seems to be a mecca for matchmaking. At least 10 couples have met and gotten married in recent years.

With Americans spending more time at work than ever before - and many delaying tying the knot until later in life - it's not surprising that more people are falling in love on the job. Some say it's even one of the safer places to land a mate - the background check is already done, at least in Jennifer's case.

While most businesses have abandoned written policies prohibiting co-workers from becoming sweethearts, much of corporate America is still uncertain about how to handle these water-cooler romances. Some firms decline to comment on the topic.

Still, that's not stopping today's workers from treating the office like a corporate version of Love Connection.

"In the '50s and '60s, you met your mate in college ... in the '70s, it was ... at the discos, but [today] people actually find their life partners at work," says Ethan Winning of E.A. Winning Associates in Walnut Creek, Calif., which offers consulting services on the issue. Most human-resource workers agree it's a lot easier to kindle a romance on the job today, than, say, a decade ago.

For one, women make up nearly half of today's work force, which has leveled the dating playing field. Second, people are working longer hours, and that means less time to socialize away from the office. Consider: 45 percent of Americans work more than 40 hours a week, and 10 percent more than 60 hours, according to the Families and Work Institute in New York.

At the same time, most companies have dropped policies prohibiting employees from dating, after some workers sued for invasion of privacy. Instead, they more often prohibit romance between superiors and subordinates in an effort to avoid favoritism.

"When companies try to become too rigid and inflexible, that causes more problems than treating people as adults ... and essentially stepping in only in very obvious situations," says Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T Corp. The telecommunications giant does not prohibit dating among co-workers, but it frowns on dating situations where one person is reporting to another.

A 1994 survey by the American Management Association found that men are far more likely to date subordinates, while women are more likely to date superiors.

Still, companies aren't exactly playing cupid.

Their biggest concerns are the romances that go sour. Nasty breakups can reduce productivity and hurt teamwork. At the extreme, businesses may find themselves in the middle of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Mr. Winning says that recently he's been mediating more relationship-related disputes between companies and employees as well as between co-workers.

"If things do go sour, it's sometimes hard to maintain your professionalism," says Barry Lawrence, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

But he counters that dating in general shouldn't be an issue as long as the relationship doesn't affect a person's job performance. And, he agrees that couples today are better at being professional about it. "People are smarter about how they handle such relationships today," Mr. Lawrence says.

Except for a few close office friends, Jennifer says no one knows she's dating the attorney down the hall. "People's personal lives and professional lives should be kept fairly separate," she says. "There have been couples who have dated who act unprofessionally, and it gets noticed and commented on."

But trying to hide love in an office is next to impossible. "I have very strict and circumspect discussions with [friends] when they call me at work [and ask questions]," Jennifer says. She and her boyfriend also have unspoken boundaries prohibiting any public displays of affection.

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