To date, or not to date

Love can conquer the minefield of office politics - if you can follow the rules.

Drawn together by work for a public-relations firm, Jeffrey Joseph and a female co-worker fell in love over mediocre Thai food and a lobbying campaign for the tobacco industry. They dated secretly for three months before revealing their relationship, then glowed as their close-knit co-workers chattered happily.

In all, it was a picture-perfect workplace romance - until Mr. Joseph pulled the plug. The breakup devastated his co-workers. "Everybody was on eggshells," he recalls. His assistant, who was close friends with his now ex-girlfriend, became flustered when the new women in his life called and left messages. "She would pick up the phone and know what was going on and feel awkwardness and loyalty," Joseph says.

He and his ex-girlfriend each considered quitting, but preferred another solution: "Both of us thought at one point that it would be better ... if the other person left," says Joseph, now a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association.

It could have been much worse. Some office relationships explode into lawsuits and ruined lives, especially if a boss sets his - or her - eyes on a subordinate. In that case, "my personal advice would be to try to not get involved," says Glenn Rissman, a Florida employment attorney.

Good advice, and some veterans of office romance might extend it to all dating between co-workers. But, like much advice about affairs of the heart, it's impossible for many people to follow. In a new survey, two-thirds of 734 executives polled said they had harbored a secret crush on a co-worker, according to, an online executive job-search service. One reason: An office is the perfect environment to get to know a potential love interest.

"It provides context as compared to meeting someone at a bar or over the Internet. They must be a pretty good egg if they got into your workplace," says Melissa Forth, who works for 3M in Minneapolis and once dated a co-worker while serving as a law clerk.

Plenty of people think Ms. Forth is onto something. Forty-two percent of 1,169 workers surveyed in January said they'd consider dating a co-worker if they were single, according to an online Harris Interactive survey commissioned by the Spherion Corp. Another 24 percent said they were neutral on the idea. Even so, a large number - nearly 40 percent - said openly dating a co-worker would jeopardize job advancement and even lead to job loss.

In another poll, 81 percent of 558 human resources officials surveyed said that workplace relationships are dangerous because they could lead to conflict in the workplace, according to a 2002 report by the Society for Human Resource Management and

If you can't resist the charms of a co-worker, attorneys and relationship specialists say there are a few ways to keep yourself out of legal - and emotional - trouble. The guidelines are different, however, depending on how you're connected to the object of your affections.

Some employers forbid romance between bosses and subordinates out of concern that they'll be hit with sexual-harassment suits if things go sour. But 75 percent of the human resources officials surveyed said their companies have no rules against fraternization.

Regardless of whether a company has special policies, bosses still should be cautious. Enter the consensual relationship agreement, perhaps better known as the "love contract."

The San Francisco law office of Littler Mendelson has helped employers draw up the contracts, a kind of prenuptial agreement for supervisors and employees who want to date. The wording "puts it out in the open that there's no duress, no coercion in this relationship," says employment attorney Paula Champagne. "The whole idea is to try to protect the company in case the employee later says, 'I had to do it to keep my job, I felt pressured,' and then files a sexual-harassment claim."

The contracts, of course, are no guarantee that an employee won't successfully launch a lawsuit. Regardless of the existence of a written document, bosses can still face personal liability in the wake of a relationship, although employees often target the deeper pockets of firms themselves.

Aside from legal issues, workers tempted to date their bosses should worry about whether a relationship will hurt their careers, says Ruth Houston, a New York City author and expert on infidelity.

"If it ends badly and you were involved with someone in your direct chain of command, very nasty things can happen," she says, especially if your boss is married. "No matter how hard you work, some of your co-workers will always be convinced you got your raise or your promotion as a reward for sexual favors, rather than that you worked hard and earned it."

Since there's less risk of sexual-harassment claims, employers rarely discourage romance between peers. But identical job titles won't ward off flapping tongues. To keep the rumor mill from kicking into high gear, dating co-workers should watch out for PDAs - public displays of affection, says Andrew DuBrin, a psychologist and professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"What bothers people a lot is when [co-workers] act like two lovebirds, always hugging at lunch, playing footsie under the table, blowing kisses to each other," he says. "You should be professional about your appearances together." Even frequent instant messages can send the wrong message, he says. "If the love of your life is in the office, you still have to be productive."

On the other hand, a captivating office romance can actually improve morale, as workers at a Washington, D.C., firm found about a decade ago. Two employees fell in love, and two dozen co-workers watched and cheered as the man surprised his girlfriend with a song and a marriage proposal.

Who was this happy couple? Jeffrey Joseph and the woman he'd broken up with earlier. They had rekindled their love affair to the delight of their office mates. Eight years and a few jobs later, they're still married, with two children.

"These romances," he says, "are going to blossom."

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