Relationships at the office are tricky. In fact, they are so complicated that the broadly praised TV series Mad Men, set in the '60s, is based almost entirely on them (and it's now wrapped up 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, as the recession has led overworked executives to focus more intently on job performance. "The workplace has become much more judgmental," says Robert Goldfarb, a management consultant and author of What's Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?: What Your Manager Won't Tell You About What It Really Takes to Be Successful.
Some 60 percent of workers say they've taken a shot at some kind of workplace romance, according to a survey by the career management and job-search site Vault.com. But managers today are much more sensitive to employee decision-making that could suggest a worker is distracted—that is, not 100 percent focused on the company's goals, Goldfarb says. No question, an employee whose actions polarize a work group or cause it to lose effectiveness, or threaten to embarrass the company, is at risk. "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," Goldfarb says.
Ellen Gordon Reeves, author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, notes that the potential for disaster grows during layoffs, such as when a worker may be dating a manager who's making decisions about who goes. "People are jockeying for position, and being physically involved with someone adds a layer of complication," she says.
Many executives now work under the assumption that the economic doldrums will last for some time, Goldfarb has found, and they're thus more severe in their assessments of staff. That may be especially dangerous for the youngest employees, who tend to be the most resistant to working long hours and the least understanding of corporate culture. (Why the need to dress more formally? What's the problem with listening to an iPod during the workday?) They're also perhaps the most likely to want to openly date a coworker.
If the heightened risks of an office romance seem worthwhile, "conduct it way off-site," advises Reeves. That said, a serious relationship might eventually require strategic disclosure. When coworkers find out some other way that colleagues are dating, resentment or awkwardness isn't uncommon. People may wonder whether they've unintentionally offended one by criticizing the other, for instance. But if you do divulge the romance, be prepared for some repercussions. When relationships are disclosed, past promotions or plum assignments can prompt concerns about favoritism.
Yes, there are many stories of marital bliss that first bloomed at the office. But the nature of the workplace right now makes it crucial to keep your mind on the job.