Kathryn's Blog

Love on the job

Was it just last week that we’d all accepted workplace romances as taboo?  Now it seems that “on the job” is again becoming the place to meet and mate, at least according to this article below…

Love on the Job: Breaking the taboo at Bay Area companies
Stephanie Losee,Helaine Olen

Sunday, November 11, 2007

“We met on my first day of work; we were friends for about 3 1/2 years before we started dating. He grew on me.”

- Esther Pearl, Pixar
“We were all basically 25 and single, and we worked long hours and went out for drinks as a group afterward - the lines between work life and social life were blurred.”

- Jessica Sisto, Virage
“I started joining this group of people at work who would get together at lunch and Dana was one of the regulars. We sat and had lunch every day and talked about what was going on for about five years.”

- Sharon Hanna, Schwab
These are the standard beginnings of every great office romance story in the Bay Area. And there are legions of them. A 2007 Careerbuilder survey reveals that almost half of all American workers will date a colleague at least once. And as the three no-longer-single women above discovered, 1 in 5 such couples will end up married or in some other form of a committed long-term relationship.

You’re not alone if this surprises you. The phrase “office romance” is so stigmatized that its very mention can elicit smirks. But the reality is about as far from its sleazy reputation as one can imagine. Workplace dating is the taboo that wasn’t. Finding a mate on the job has become downright respectable. After all, if Bill Gates can meet Melinda French at the office, what’s to stop the rest of us from doing the same thing?

It’s likely that the greater acceptance of workplace romance has a lot to do with its inevitability, given the changing nature of American society. The most recent figures from the Census Bureau show that the median age of marriage for women is just shy of 26; for men, 27. In 1970, those numbers were 21 and 23, respectively. It follows that the older you are, the less likely you are to marry your college sweetheart. Says Renee Banks, human resources director at Chronicle Books (no relation to The San Francisco Chronicle): “I definitely think it’s a reality that work is where people meet these days. When you don’t meet at college, that’s a pool of people that’s taken away from you.”

After college, the pool of candidates moves to the office, and since Expedia.com statistics show that 40 percent of employees log more than 50 hours of work a week, their personal lives are chopped down to virtually nothing. Work is the place where people spend the majority of their days, make their friends and yes - meet mates. Said Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a New York- and Louisiana-based marketing firm: “People move to New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco for work, so they are disconnected from family and friends. Where else are they going to meet people if not the office? A health club?”

The Internet, you might respond. But even bloggers - many of whom spend their lives online - are beginning to dismiss online dating services as an ineffective way of meeting a significant other. “People my age are sick of the impersonal nature of Internet dating,” says Jessica Valenti, 28, the voice behind the popular blog Feministing.com and author of the book “Full Frontal Feminism.” Valenti is now dating a man she met through work; he hired her to write for the Web site where he works. “It’s nice to be around people who care about the same things as you do. My blogger boyfriend understands if I am on a computer at 2 a.m., and isn’t offended.”

Office romance gets a bad rap because the phrase conjures up images of Christmas party hook-ups and Clintonesque gropings, but potential couples tend to take months, if not years, to recognize and act on the vibe between them. (This is in no small part because of an understandable instinct to protect their paychecks.) As a result, people who form an emotional attachment at work often won’t make a move until they’re absolutely sure there’s something substantial between them that might go the distance, which is precisely why it so often does.

Since office couples are colleagues first and friends second, their relationships turn to romance so slowly that it isn’t a surprise to discover that many couples find that rumors of their liaison precede its actual occurrence. So it was with Jessica Sisto and her husband, Mike Heilmann, who met at Virage in 1999 and married last year (Sisto is now at the Gap and Heilmann at StrongMail Systems). Sisto would cry on Heilmann’s shoulder about her romantic mishaps, so her colleagues concluded they were dating on the sly. “We were just platonic friends,” Sisto said. But when Heilmann was invited to the wedding of a co-worker, he asked Sisto to come with him. They kissed for the first time that night.

They kept the relationship a secret for a year - or so they thought. “There was no company policy against it; we just wanted to keep our personal life separate from our work,” Sisto said. “But when the CEO asked me about a trip Mike and I had just taken, I thought, ‘Well, when the CEO mentions it, you’re keeping up a facade that’s completely transparent.’ “ So Sisto and Heilmann started openly commuting together and making casual references to their relationship.

Companies are the unwitting matchmakers, putting the Sistos and Heilmanns of the Bay Area together. Their assistance begins when they vet every person who is hired at the company - assembling a group of like-minded, talented people whose references have been checked. Then companies promote both a collegiate and collegial atmosphere by calling their office parks “campuses” and adding lifestyle enhancements to support their hardworking employees. This is a particular factor in the spate of office couples represented here. Google provides its employees not just with the usual on-site cafeteria/health club combination, but with a doctor, a dentist, a dry cleaner, a masseuse, a mechanic, a financial adviser and lunchtime entertainment in the form of book readings. Genentech’s campus has a gift shop, a florist, a hairstylist and an oil change shop. Pixar’s campus has an atrium containing a cafeteria, a separate brown-bag-lunch kitchen, a game room, and tables and sofas where employees can mingle.

Acknowledging that its workers need hardly go home creates an environment where employees feel more comfortable not only doing their everyday chores at the office but also finding love on-site. Office romance is so much a part of the company culture here that it has worked its way into the vocabulary. At Genentech you’ll find “Genen-couples” and at Charles Schwab you’ll hear about “Schwupples” going to each other’s “Schweddings.”

When Esther Pearl was hired by Pixar to be the story coordinator on “Monsters, Inc.,” she joined a department so tightly knit that after working long hours, the employees would extend their time together by going out for drinks as a group. One of the gang was Nathan Stanton, a storyboard artist.

“Nate and I didn’t have anything more than a straightforward friendship, a good friendship,” Esther said. She was surprised when Nate asked her on an actual date years later, while both were still working there. It took her several weeks to say yes. “My only hesitation was that I didn’t want us not to be friends anymore, and when I weighed the pros and cons that seemed like a really silly reason not to have a relationship,” she said.

They became engaged in the summer of 2003 and didn’t feel the need to notify their supervisors about their relationship until shortly before they were married in 2005. They knew many couples who met and continued to work together at Pixar without difficulty, and several married teams had been hired together because of the creative nature of the work. “Pixar basically has a town square feel with lots of places to congregate and chat; they want people to communicate in that way, so not only is office romance not looked down upon, there’s a very supportive atmosphere. As long as it’s not going to get in the way of the work that you’re doing, no matter what you do is not going to be looked down upon, including wearing your pajamas. It’s not an atmosphere of anything other than creative encouragement.”

When Pearl and Stanton mentioned their relationship to a supervisor, it was because “castings” for crews who would work on the next film were going on and they decided the couple didn’t want to talk about nothing but Pixar at home. So Pearl went to her boss and said she preferred not to be cast in the next film with Stanton. They were married soon after, and even though only 25 people were in attendance, so many of the couple’s closest friends are co-workers that several of the guests were from Pixar. They continued to work at Pixar until March of last year, when Pearl went on maternity leave and subsequently resigned. Stanton still works there.

“I think my husband and I censored ourselves more than Pixar would have because of our own fear that working together would mean we spent too much time together. We recently held an Alzheimer’s benefit together and we discovered, ‘Hey, we could have worked together after all!’ “

Pixar, like most of the companies we contacted for this article, would not discuss its workplace romance policy, if any. But if Pearl’s and Stanton’s perception that there is none is correct, Pixar is in the majority. Nearly 70 percent of companies have no policy at all. Sometimes emphatically so. Said Netflix spokesman Steve Swayze: “We like to think of ourselves as rule-averse. We hire adults and we expect adult behavior. Personal stuff is personal, and if it isn’t interfering with work, it’s not worth spending any time on.”

Very few companies ban workplace romance entirely, probably for a very pragmatic reason: Enforcing such a ban is nearly impossible. Says Robyn Zazulia, 27, who met her fiance Alex Rogin, 34, when they worked on a project together at Wells Fargo: “I have a very good girlfriend who worked for a small company of 200 people, but there were very clear rules, explicit rules prohibiting intercompany dating. But nobody followed it; there was a lot of inter-company dating there because they worked together at far-flung places without friends or family around.” And why would companies want to try to outlaw behavior that enhances so many employees’ lives? Each couple interviewed for this story said that they were only one of many at the same firm.

The companies that do have a written policy on office romance commonly prohibit supervisors and subordinates from being romantically involved in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest and charges of sexual harassment. For example, Schwab restricts management or supervisors from having a close personal relationship with employees they supervise. In the event such a relationship forms, the parties are required to report it to their superiors or to human resources. Said Sarah Bulgatz, Schwab’s director of corporate PR: “They can work together - absolutely - as long as one is not the direct or indirect supervisor of the other.”

Nevertheless, as we found when we did the research for our book “Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding - and Managing - Romance on the Job,” there is an enormous disconnect between the attitude of HR directors toward office romance and the paranoia of corporate attorneys and public relations departments when it comes to discussing the topic, which may be why people believe that companies frown on interoffice dating. In the example of one company we contacted for this story, an executive said that in-house counsel would not allow him to discuss the firm’s office romance policy on the record. We had intended to interview a young female employee of one of the company’s subsidiaries, but when she sought permission she was told she couldn’t even voice her opinions on the topic - let alone talk about her own experiences dating colleagues - if we said where she worked. Which means that it’s fine to date the people you work with, but talking about it could get you fired.

Chris Edmonds-Waters, head of HR for SVB Financial Group, a diversified financial services firm of 1,600 employees in San Francisco, says companies should stop being afraid of talking about office romance, whether within or without the company. “It’s good corporate hygiene,” he says. “All companies should have a policy on workplace relationships and should communicate that policy because it guides people’s behaviors and gives them a resource to use if they run into a sticky issue. It’s the fair and right thing to do.”

Policy or none, managers who find couples forming where they see potential risk occasionally ask them to sign a legal document pioneered by a San Francisco law firm called - you can’t make this stuff up - the “love contract.” According to Stephen Tedesco, a partner at the firm of Littler Mendelson, they do “steady business” writing contracts that confirm there is a romantic relationship between the two parties, that it is consensual, that no offensive conduct has occurred and that they agree to conduct themselves in a professional manner. Says Tedesco, “The love contract does prevent someone from rewriting the past if the behavior goes from non-offensive to offensive.”

It also guards against the possibility that an office romance - particularly between people who are highly placed - does not become fodder for a claim of sexual favoritism in response to the sort of behavior made famous in the early 1980s by William Agee, CEO of the manufacturing conglomerate Bendix. Agee hired a fresh grad from the Harvard Business School named Mary Cunningham and proceeded to promote her up the ranks so quickly that a national scandal ensued. They later married. Thanks to a 2005 California Supreme Court ruling, co-workers who witness such favor-granting are free to file a third-party claim of sexual harassment.

But outside of such blatant misbehavior, colleagues have no problem with co-workers who couple. According to a new survey from Yahoo! HotJobs, almost half of the respondents said they don’t really care if two co-workers become involved. If anything, they approve; 56 percent say they support colleagues becoming romantically involved, as Jennifer Taylor and Eliza Laffin discovered. When Jennifer Taylor was hired at Macromedia in the spring of 2003, her boss kept talking about a colleague named Eliza. “You and Eliza are going to love each other,” the boss would say. “You’re from Vermont; she’s from Vermont; you went to Brown; she went to Brown - you’re just going to love each other.”

Says Taylor, now 35: “I don’t think she realized how much we were going to love each other.”

In spite of their supervisor’s cheerleading, the two colleagues initially kept to their corners. “Eliza is super smart,” Taylor explained. “I was kind of intimidated by her. She had been at the office longer than I had and I was the new kid on the block, so I was afraid of crossing her. When you’re curious about someone but also afraid of them, you give each other a wide berth.” But after working together for a few months they filled in the details of the long list of commonalities their boss had described. They had grown up 45 minutes apart and gone to rival high schools. They had been at Brown at the same time while Laffin was completing a combined bachelor’s-master’s program. In San Francisco they owned apartments a block and a half apart.

“It’s amazing we didn’t meet earlier,” Taylor said.

At the office, the two friends would sometimes get signals that they didn’t know how to interpret. They were scheduled to go to a business conference in Los Angeles, and the assistant who arranged the travel asked if they wanted to share a hotel room. “We had gone from giving each other a wide berth to being inseparable, but it was before there was something to pick up - right before we admitted having feelings with each other.”

Their first date was after Laffin’s 35th birthday party, six months after they met, when Taylor asked if she could take Laffin out for a drink after the dinner. “It was then we acknowledged what was going on and we’ve been together ever since,” Taylor said.

“I’m so thankful that I live in San Francisco and that I work in high tech at places like Macromedia and Adobe (Adobe acquired Macromedia in late 2005) because they’re so accepting. We’re not just an office couple; we’re a queer office couple.”

At first they kept the relationship under wraps so that they could see where it was going. “But after a while we started to get excited about telling people,” Taylor continued. “We told someone on our team and she was really excited. Telling our boss, we said, ‘Remember when you said we’d love each other? Well, we do!’ And she was thrilled.” A year after their first official date, Taylor and Laffin gave up one of their neighboring apartments and moved in together. When they noticed they were bringing work home too much, Laffin moved to a different business unit in the company that drew more on her strengths, and they continue to work at Adobe without a hitch.

Such ease can continue for years and years after a couple meet, marry and remain working for the same employer - especially if they treat their situation with respect. Marvi and Gary Choy met at Genentech back in 1991, when Gary moved into Marvi’s department and she was asked to train him. They worked side-by-side wearing white jumpers in a clean environment for three years, taking care to keep public displays outside the department and marrying in 1994. Marvi moved to a chemical-free department after having their first child in 1995; they are both still working at Genentech. “We’d never show affection even now, and when we got married we didn’t say anything officially, but they knew.”

The benefits of all this discretion? Their supervisors make it possible for the Choys to schedule their vacations at the same time so they can take longer trips as a family. Then there’s the daily couple time. Says Choy: “We have one-on-one time in the car because we carpool, and my boss would sometimes say, ‘I have to come late to work because my husband and I have to have a meeting since we haven’t talked in a week. You’re so lucky.’ “

In a city where single women chronically complain about the shortage of available men, the matter-of-fact acceptance of workplace relationships by Bay Area companies offers unattached workers a new way to look for love. And interestingly, it’s just as effective for older singles - men and women, gay or straight. When Careerbuilder.com broke down its office romance stats by age, they found that the numbers of workers who said they have had an office romance is virtually the same from ages 25 to 64. Schwab’s Sharon Hanna, 56, is living proof. She had met Dana Jones, 52, back in 1990 when Jones joined the department where Hanna worked as a supervisor. They were lunch-break friends for years before she launched into a dinner-party-giving phase immediately after breaking off a relationship. “One night the date I’d invited for myself was a total dud and after the party my girlfriend said, ‘Ditch him; the interesting guy at the dinner was Dana!’ That was a pivotal moment; until that moment I was oblivious.”

They had been friends for so long, Hanna didn’t know how to initiate the transition. “Dana was still in platonic mode, but now I’m starting to get butterflies,” Hanna said. “It was absolutely one-sided for quite a while, but I didn’t say anything. It was excruciating. I’d go to work and hear his voice somewhere and I’d get a tingle. It was maddening; I felt like a teenager. And since I had a very strong feeling that an office romance was the wrong way to go, this was red lights going off everywhere - warning, warning, warning.”

Hanna bought a GPS for a backpacking trip and claimed that she didn’t know how to use it. Says Jones: “I, of course was intrigued by this - she was a friend, a colleague, but as a computer support person I had something to prove by showing her how it worked.”

Soon after that, Jones invited her to Burning Man, where they became a couple. Not that their close-knit office gang noticed. “What was so funny is that our colleagues did not have a clue,” Hanna said. “We were kind of an unlikely couple just in the fact that I appeared a bit more conservative than Dana. Even when we went to Burning Man nobody thought a bit about it.” After a year, they told certain intimates about their relationship, but they kept it under wraps to the rest of the department for nine years, until the day they eloped. That night, they e-mailed wedding photos to the entire department with the subject line Sharon and Dana XOXOX. “People told me afterward that it was one of those e-mails that everyone opened at the same moment and there was an audible collective gasp,” Hanna said. “Our bosses, our co-workers, they were all really happy for us. The other day somebody said, ‘You know, when I first knew you guys I thought you were the most unlikely couple in the world, but after I got to know you, it makes sense.’

“If we hadn’t met at work we would never have gotten together,” Hanna added.

And that’s the ending of every great Bay Area office romance story.



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