We spend more than a third of our waking hours at work -- more, probably, if we’re young and energetic and looking to get a leg up on that career ladder. Being thrown together for long hours with like-minded people -- and really, if you’re working 9-, 10-, 12-hour days, it’s hardly surprising when cross-cubicle romances spring up. Depending on the survey you read, it’s estimated that between 38 and 59 percent of people have gotten involved with a coworker at one time or another. “With downsizing such a frequent occurrence people feel they need to stay ahead of the competition by being more dedicated to their careers than ever, leaving little time for socializing outside work,” notes Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, MD.
Sometimes it works out great: Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn -- all met on the job. And sometimes it doesn’t: Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
An office romance can put a little extra zing in those endless workdays, and maybe lead to something more. But you should definitely keep it under wraps, at least until it's a full-blown, we use the L-word relationship. But first, you need to know a few things:
You have to keep it on the down-low
It’s really nobody else’s business if you’re sleeping with a coworker, so don't attract undue attention. A little discretion can prevent you from becoming fodder for the office rumor mill. During a four-month stint at a men’s magazine in New York, Danae carried on a fling with the editor-in-chief without anyone being the wiser. “I felt like I was basically a guest in his office, and I didn’t want to create any situations that might blow back on him after I left, so we were very discreet,” she says. “We never left together, never arrived together, didn’t have lunch together. I didn’t hang out in his office. After hours we were having this crazy hot romance, but during the work day, you’d never suspect we even knew each other.”
Keep your office relationship out of the office
As hard as you try to keep your relationship under wraps, the longer you’re together, the likelier your secret is to get out. Having a few lunches together, lingering too long at the at his doorway -- people are pretty good about putting two and two together. “It’s inevitable that people will discover your relationship,” says Cohen. All the more reason not to let your romance spill over into the workplace, even though it started in there. “At one point I was dating a guy who was always running into my office to talk about our relationship if there was something wrong,” recalls Audra, the New York City publicist. “Finally my supervisor said to me, 'this is inappropriate and unprofessional.'”
Consider the potential repercussions
No one wants to think about the end of a romance when it’s all hot sex, champagne and roses in the beginning. But if you’re smart, at least consider what your working life might be like if the relationship doesn’t lead to a diamond ring. Cathy, an interior designer from Orlando started dating one of her team members after joining a design firm. “He was telling me he loved me, that he saw a future with a family with me,” she recalls. Then she discovered he was married and carrying on another affair with his secretary. She ended up heartbroken, embarrassed and unemployed. “All of his friends had been lying for him so I wouldn’t find out,” she says still incredulous. “Twenty or 30 people knew about this, and not one of them said anything to me. I ended up leaving the company because I felt so betrayed by everyone around me.”
And keep it peer-to-peer. “If you’re having a relationship with someone who’s senior to you and it doesn’t work out, it won’t be the senior person who takes the hit; it’s the person who reports to him or her,” says career coach Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “The company will protect it’s more valuable resource.” Of course the flip side, having a steamy affair with someone junior to you opens up the potential for a sexual harassment suit. But some things are meant to be temporary. "If you both agree there’s nothing there and you’re just having casual sex -- and you’re comfortable with the situation -- then go for it,” says Cohen.
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