Why Office Dating May Be More Dangerous in This Economy

The recession has made companies extremely anxious, increasing the stakes for office romances.

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The vagaries of the circumstances surrounding Mark Hurd's departure from Hewlett-Packard don't preclude a little insight: Workplace relationships are tricky. In fact, they are so complicated that the broadly praised '60s-era TV series Mad Men is based almost entirely on them (and it's now in its fourth season). Mad Men's shenanigans are ancient history—what was acceptable then became indecent decades ago—but there's some evidence that even what was acceptable just a few years ago is no longer. The recession has made companies and executives extremely impatient with employee foibles, and it has upped the stakes for office romance.

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Executives today are much more sensitive to employee decision-making that may suggest they're distracted—that they aren't 100 percent focused on the company's goals, says Robert Goldfarb, a management consultant and author of What's Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?: What Your Manager Wont Tell You About What It Really Takes to Be Successful. "The workplace has become much more judgemental," he says.

While some 60 percent of workers have taken a shot at some kind of workplace romance, according to a Vault.com survey taken earlier this year, office romances have long been tricky ground—fodder for watercooler gossip or, more serious, challenging to workplace organization and even, occasionally, potentially embarrassing to the company. That's the sort of thing that today's overworked and highly focused executives no longer have the patience for. If an employee's actions are polarizing a workgroup or causing it to lose its effectiveness, or if the employee is doing something that could embarrass the company, he or she is at risk, Goldfarb says. "If you're having a relationship and you think anybody in the place might be jealous of that, might be resentful of that, might see it as distracting or potentially risky to the organization, you're better off not having that relationship," he says. "Or, handling that relationship with absolute discretion."

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In the case of HP Chief Executive Mark Hurd's recent exit, it's unclear what his relationship with marketing contractor Jodie Fisher was exactly, given both individuals' accounts that they were not having a sexual relationship, and the company's account that Hurd didn't violate its sexual harassment policies. Although Hurd is reported to have lied on an expense sheet, the company reports the amount was "immaterial." Many have questioned why Hurd was let go. "I have a feeling that wouldn't happened two years ago," Goldfarb says. "My sense is that there's a lot less tolerance for anyone who isn't 100 percent committed to the enterprise."

The executives Goldfarb has talked with are now working under the assumption that the economic doldrums are here to stay for quite a while—that there's no apparent bright light on the horizon—and that has made them more severe in their assessments of their staff, he says. Many face particular difficulties with their youngest employees, who tend to be the most resistant to working long hours and missing family events. They're also the least understanding of corporate culture and may wonder why a company would require them to dress more formally, why they aren't allowed to listen to their iPods during the work day, or why there would be an issue with them openly dating a coworker.

But discretion has long been critical to appropriate office dating. If you're interested in having a successful office relationship, "conduct it way off-site," says Ellen Gordon Reeves, author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview? "You can't go to a local bar ... someone's going to run into you. You need to take a little extra precaution to be discreet and really keep it away from the office," Reeves says.

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Office dating hasn't gotten any simpler in recent years. Whether it's a coworker dating a manager who's making decisions about layoffs, or one partner getting the axe while the other one survives it, the recession has made this more complicated. "People are jockeying for position, and being physically involved with someone adds a layer of complication," Reeves says. "And when people are involved and one person gets laid off—talk about a stressful situation for a relationship, never mind for the colleagues."