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Office romance hasn't slowed

Companies should manage budding love, not outlaw it

The Associated Press

ASHLAND -- Remember the old advice about never getting romantically involved with anyone at work?

Fuhgeddaboudit.

Practically everyone else has, said Dennis M. Powers, a professor of business law at Southern Oregon University and author of The Office Romance: Playing with fire without getting burned.

His research has found that people are working so much their best chance to meet someone special is at work. Most office romances turn into marriage or long-term relationships. And faced with this situation, many companies have decided to quit trying to outlaw office romance and manage it.

What surprises me is despite the warnings, people continue to still do it, Powers said. I found these couples were taking the relationship -- once it got firmed up -- over that present job, but not their career.

It comes down to human behavior, said Dan Rees, a professor at Western Maryland College and a counselor who advises businesses on workplace relationships.

People have even more of a basic need to attach than to achieve, he said. Thus you are having more and more relationships at work.

With women accounting for nearly half the middle management positions in the country, there are a lot more opportunities for equal status relationships -- the easiest kind for managers to deal with.

Amy Nobile, a publicist for Ketchum Public Relations in San Francisco, met her husband, Paul, when they worked on a project together for Hill & Knowlton in New York in 1991.

We were friends almost a year before anything developed, she said. It allowed us a safe environment to get to know each other without any pressure. You also get opinions of other people. Are they honest? Are they dependable?

You're not at a bar. You're not taking that extra step you normally take to go on a date. I would have conversations with him and get to know him without that pressure of a one-on-one situation.

Though sexual harassment has gotten a lot of attention since the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the Paula Jones lawsuit against President Clinton, Powers found that it hasn't been a huge problem in relation to office romance, especially at companies with good policies and practices.

His book notes Equal Economic Opportunity Commission statistics that less than 5 percent of sexual harassment charges come from broken love affairs.

He adds that AT&T has seen 8,000 couples meet and marry at work out of 115,000 employees, and yet the company has dealt with only about 20 sexual harassment lawsuits in the past year.

A 1998 Society of Human Resources Managers survey of 617 members found 24 percent reported they had a sexual harassment complaint resulting from an affair that ended badly in the past five years. The survey also found 55 percent of office romances ending in marriage.

Only 13 percent of respondents to the SHRM survey said they had a written policy on office romance and 14 percent had an unwritten policy. And only 12 percent of managers had been trained to deal with a romance that goes sour.

Employment lawyer Jo Tucker, a partner in Morrison & Foerster in Irvine, Calif., thinks the numbers are probably higher, given her own experience with clients.

She said companies need more than just a sexual harassment policy to deal with this, especially in the sticky situation of the boss dating a subordinate. Other workers may feel discriminated against. Morale and productivity can suffer. And a sexual harassment complaint may erupt.

Besides establishing a written policy to get the rules out in the open, she recommends training managers to deal with these situations.

They are not going to see this issue from your policies, she said. You need to see the lightbulbs go on as they go through the training.

Strategic Interactions of Vienna, Va., has gone from training the FBI how to negotiate with crooks holding hostages to training managers how to prevent sexual harassment claims. Trainers act out an office romance gone sour and put it to the audience to deal with it as a manager.

Many times what the manager will say is that this is a personal issue, don't let it affect the workplace. That isn't a helpful response, said SI president David Swink. They need to provide help to the employee who is not taking no for an answer. People have to be able to have open and honest communication around a romance in the workplace.

Despite the potential problems, Great Neck, N.Y., real estate lawyer and commentator Rosalie Osais still urges women to use their sexuality as a tool to get ahead.

Her Osais Foundation surveyed 12,000 women and found 10.8 percent admitting to having sex with a supervisor and 64 percent of those women saying it helped them advance their careers.

It may sound very underhanded, but you know what? Osais said. That's the way the business world works.