Loosening the reins on work romance

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Friday, February 01, 2008

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When Halle Reese Smith, a senior writer and project manager at Xerox, started dating one of her co-workers in another state, she tried to keep their relationship on the down low, confiding only in her closest colleagues. She did such a good job over the course of two years, that when Smith eventually asked for vacation time to get married — to the Xerox employee — her boss learned about the inter-office relationship for the first time.

In hindsight, Smith sees the covertness as unnecessary. “I was being overly sensitive,” she says. “I wanted everyone to view us as professional people.” But these days, for a generation less accustomed to compartmentalizing work and personal lives, office romances have stopped serving as fodder for sexual harassment lawsuits and become more of an accepted reality in many workplaces.

“You have a lot in common with your co-workers,” Smith explains. “You’re in the same industry and speak the same lingo. Work can be conducive to building relationships, both friendships and romantic.”

Even so, employees should still approach inter-office romances with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution, says Lisa Kinsley, general manager of human resources at Portland-based McMenamins. While the Northwest pub and hotel chain doesn’t have an anti-fraternization policy on the books, employees are told that job performance should never become compromised by personal relationships, no matter what.

“We’re not going to regulate or create a policy on the birds and the bees,” Kinsley says, “but we’re going to insist that you’re professional. If you can’t be professional and make good decisions in the workplace, you will be held accountable.”

While many companies have relaxed their standards and rarely prohibit certain types of relationships, most still specifically ban supervisor-supervisee dating. Kinsley says that to her knowledge, no McMenamins employees have entered into such a relationship, but she thinks that any supervisor dating a subordinate would be taking a serious risk. Xerox distinctly prohibits supervisors from dating their subordinates, Smith says, but colleagues working at the same level are free to date each other.

These days, Smith faces a new challenge, the result of a successful office romance. Her husband now counts as one of the 2,000 employees in the Wilsonville Xerox office. “It’s almost like we work at two different companies,” she says. “Sometimes we commute separately, with other co-workers, and I won’t see him all day. So it’s not hard to be married to a co-worker.”


LUCY BURNINGHAM


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