You eat breakfast together. You share financial responsibilities. You offer each other advice and support. Why not work together, too? Your life and your partner’s are inextricably intertwined. If a position opens up at your place of work and your spouse, sidekick or significant other is qualified, he or she should totally apply, right?
Answer: Probably not.
“Helping and supporting a significant other during the job search and interview process is a must, just not when it comes to getting him or her a job at your company,” says Laura McDermott, spokesperson for ACI, an employee benefits consultant based in San Diego, Calif. Even at a large company, where a couple might work in different departments and have limited interaction throughout the day, office romance can raise eyebrows – and questions. “Someone will see two people walking to the same car together, grabbing a quick lunch together or even out together on the weekend, and wind of the office romance will carry across all departments,” says McDermott. “Once rumors about office love begin circulating, so too does speculation about potential alliances, abuse of power and a host of other workplace gossip and drama that does nothing but distract people from working.”
Firms don’t like distracted workers, but most stop short of banning canoodling between co-workers. According to a 2006 Society of Human Resource Management survey for The Wall Street Journal’s CareerJournal.com, only 4 percent of human resource professionals believe workplace romance should be prohibited and 70 percent said their company had no official verbal or written policy on workplace romance. But among companies that did have a policy, 31 percent forbade workplace relationships outright and 48 percent permitted but discouraged them.
For some people, working with a partner is not an option, due to wildly different education, training and experience. But for many, especially those who met and fell in love at work, it’s a plausible scenario. And it wouldn’t be fair to say that it’s always a disaster.
“I worked for a couple who started a real estate business in 1981, while they were married. Even though they divorced in 1996, they remained partners in business,” says McDermott. “They seemed to have a strong working relationship built upon a mutual respect and desire for success in business. I occasionally saw rolled eyes and other minor hints of a long history. But overall, the work environment was very positive and the co-owners conducted themselves extremely professionally.”
Sharon Greene, freelance arts and media professional in Los Angeles, says that she’s worked in a professional setting with her partner on several occasions and that it’s been fine, as long as boundaries are set and everyone (both the couple and colleagues) understands them.
“My partner is a filmmaker and we both employ one another frequently,” says Greene.
“So far, we have a simple rule that we follow that keeps our working relationship positive and productive: we always know who is in charge. When I am working on her film set, I cede all decision-making to her unless she has expressly delegated something to me. I never pretend to know her mind, make assumptions or serve as her right hand. I am a staff member and I make sure that everyone on the crew understands that I am to be treated that way. When she is working for me the rules are the same.”
Not everyone is so sure that set-up is a good idea. Three in 10 U.S. workers believe that openly dating a coworker would jeopardize their job security or advancement opportunities, according to a 2008 survey of 1,391 employed adults conducted by Harris Interactive for Spherion, a recruiting and staffing company.
Anne Clark, CEO of ACI, believes that too often, work/love relationships end badly and when the dust settles, the picture is bleak.
“Sex and the balance sheet generally don’t mix well,” says Clark. “Husband-and-wife businesses have inherent problems with jealousy, blame and credit, boundaries – the list goes on,” she says. “And when a couple quarrels, both go to the same workplace.” The potential positives of sharing the workplace and home life – discussing work after hours, the willingness to work overtime, no insecurities about workplace dalliances – are more than outweighed by negatives, Clark believes. “I once worked at a company where the boss left his wife and two children for his secretary, a typical soap-opera scenario carried out in real life. His entire department lost respect for him, and they all laughed behind his back about bad choices. She got a bigger workspace, the best raises. He gave her whatever she wanted, and the whole company just rolled their eyes. Eventually it went sour. Maybe someone complained and he was ordered to deal with it, so she was fired or let go. He is still in the same position and has a new secretary.”
At the end of the workday, romantic relationships in the workplace will always pose risks and should be entered into with caution. If you and your partner feel confident enough to walk hand-in-hand into the office, set clear objectives and establish open communication with co-workers. Once you’ve done that? Let love (and spreadsheets) rule.