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Juggling Act

Labor and Love : As Workplace Attitudes Have Changed, the Office Romance Is Coming Out in the Open


For months, architects Donna Mueser and Jay Johnston carried on a clandestine workplace romance outside "The Zone."

Afraid their relationship would undermine their work, the pair drew an imaginary five-block zone around the brick building that houses the Boulder, Co.-based firm where they met. When they were within the zone, no hand-holding or kissing was allowed.

Soon the couple grew tired of the charade and decided they were serious about building a long-term union. They sat down with their boss for a heart-to-heart.

"We wanted to tell him, 'We're dating, but we respect working here and we're serious about keeping our relationship separate from our work,' " Mueser said.

Mueser's boss didn't object. Today, Mueser and Johnston are struggling to accommodate their colleagues on the invitation list for their 1997 wedding.

Gone are the days when most employers frowned upon employees who fell in love over the earnings reports or the forklifts. About 84% of the 430 respondents to a 1993 survey on workplace romance by the Society for Human Resource Management said they employed married couples, and 77% said they didn't prohibit co-workers from dating.

In an era in which Americans are spending more time than ever at work, it's not surprising that a growing number of couples are falling in love on the job.

In fact, say some managers, employing a couple can bring certain benefits to a company.

"If you have an employee that is very dedicated, it's usually reflected in their mate," said Gary Brown, corporate director of human resources for Springfield ReManufacturing Corp. of Springfield, Ill. "If you get two people from the same family, you are just doubling up on the dedication and loyalty they have to the firm."

Springfield employs many couples, in part to make the company more family-friendly for its 900 employees, Brown said.

Springfield called on workers' families when it needed a temporary and flexible work force to turn around an unprofitable unit. About 45 women married to mechanics working in other parts of the company accepted the offer and now work part time packaging repair kits for trucks.

The unit now turns a profit, Brown said, and "these employees now share common information, and it strengthens their family life" in addition to boosting their checkbook balances.

Unless a couple is careful, though, tensions in that relationship can spill over into the workplace, disrupting the office and making other employees uncomfortable. Nasty breakups can cause problems for employers. At the extreme, they may find themselves in the middle of a sexual harassment claim.

"One of the biggest issues with love in the workplace is that people fall out of love too, and that can get kind of messy," said Barry Lawrence, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

Couples can also lose their perspective and allow work to become all-consuming, robbing them of their friends and hobbies--and their love lives. This is especially a concern in a family business where both partners work long days and often bring projects home at night.

"We were having a romantic evening with a fire and classical music in the background and he gazed into my eyes and said: 'Did you send out the invoices?' " recalled Donna Partow, who owns Partow Communications in Mesa, Ariz., with her husband, Cameron.

The Partows are one of an increasing number of workers leaving corporate America to start their own firms. In fact, husbands and wives who work together in their own company is the fastest-growing business category in America, up a whopping 90% between 1980 and 1994, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"The biggest thing is that you fall in love with this person and then you spend the prime of your life apart," said Partow, co-author with her husband of "How to Work With the One You Love and Live to Tell About It" (1995, Bethany House Publishers). "Before we started working together, we were giving each other the leftovers and it didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense," she said.

The Partows agree that working toward a common goal has helped their marriage thrive. On the downside: They have a single income source.

Couples who work together in corporate America or in family businesses tend to be happier about both their careers and their home lives, experts agree.

"It's almost off the charts in the level of satisfaction," said John Messervey, president of the Family Business Council. "If there's enough willingness to be open and work through issues, it serves as a wonderful coming together for couples."


Tips for Couples Who Work Together

Couples who work together, either in corporate America or as entrepreneurs, face a challenge to keep their jobs and their relationship in perspective. Here are tips for working together effectively:

* Take time out. Remember to take time away from work. Experts counsel that "the couple that plays together stays together."

* Pursue outside interests. Give each other plenty of time to pursue special interests that aren't related to your career.

* Control your ego. Remember--your partner is not your competition.

* Draw boundaries. Leave work at work. Establish clear boundaries about when you will and won't talk about what's happening on the job.

* Be professional. Keep the bedroom out of the boardroom--leave personal issues out of professional decisions.

* Respect each other. Recognize the differences in your styles. Try not to criticize each other's work, and don't second-guess decisions or judgment calls at the office.

* Work apart: Spend at least part of your workday operating in different spheres.

Sources: Donna Partow and Cameron Partow, authors of "How to Work With the One You Love and Live to Tell About It"; wire reports

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