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CAREERS / ETIQUETTE AT WORK | CHAPTER 3: ROMANCE

Can Cupid and Career Coexist?

November 04, 1996|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Love can bloom wherever people are planted in close proximity, and the workplace is a veritable hothouse.

But in these days of increased sensitivity to issues of sexual harassment, romance on the job has become downright incendiary. Here are some love-and-labor problems and possible solutions.

Dear Ms. Work Wise: I am hopelessly smitten with someone in the accounting department but I'm not sure how this person feels about me. I'm worried, because my employer has a strict policy about sexual harassment. How do I show my interest without coming off as some sort of creepy lecher?

--Eager but Cautious

Dear Eager: Just don't do it! That may sound hopelessly naive or strait-laced, but experts agree that the graveyard of previously promising careers is filled with people who stepped over the line either intentionally or innocently. Sexual harassment cases are taken very seriously nowadays by most corporations.

What you can do is try to be a platonic friend to the object of your affection. Suggest something harmless, like lunch with a group of co-workers. Unless you are a complete dolt, you should be able to discern whether there is any chemistry without making overt moves. But be sensible. Inviting the person out for a drink, however innocent, could be misconstrued as sexual harassment.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: A co-worker and I have been dating seriously but discreetly for several weeks. Our boss spotted us together in one of our less discreet moments last week, and now he wants to transfer me to another department. Is this fair? Can he do this?

--Caught in the Act

Dear Caught: Most companies do not prohibit employees from dating and will allow married couples to work together. However, your boss has every right to reassign you to another department for pretty much any reason (not counting racial or sexual discrimination, which are illegal) unless your employment contract states otherwise.

Many employers worry about the distractions that an office romance can bring and fear the fallout should the relationship disintegrate. There are concerns when one half of a couple supervises the other half, or if one is in a position of special trust, such as an assistant to the chief executive. All of you should sit down and have a professional, unemotional discussion. Tell your boss that you respect your jobs and the company and want to be productive workers. Promise to separate your relationship from your job. You could try negotiating a compromise that would place some physical or professional distance between you and your beloved. Perhaps you could promise not to share projects or responsibilities. Who knows? A little distance could be healthy.

Interestingly enough, getting married would provide you with some job protection. A company cannot go so far as to fire workers simply because they have married one another, even if the firm otherwise forbids nepotism. That qualifies as marital status discrimination under California law.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: My male boss has become involved with one of my female co-workers, and everyone in our department feels that she is getting special treatment. We're all terribly uncomfortable with the situation and don't know what to do.

--Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Between: This is intolerable and bordering on sexual harassment. You need to complain en masse and do it fast.

Of course, how you do this is a very tricky matter because chances are at least one of the lovebirds will be left behind with a bad case of resentment. Seek out others who feel as you do and meet with your boss' supervisor. Don't allow your complaint to be taken lightly as a bad case of gossip run amok. Explain how the discomfort you all feel is affecting your production and harming the company. Explain how your right to complain about your boss is being infringed. And once the situation is resolved, get back to work.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: My spouse and I work only a few feet apart all day long. At night, there's not much left to talk about. Should I get a new job or a divorce?

--Too Much of a Good Thing

Dear Too Much: Both of your solutions sound a bit drastic. Surely there is some middle ground.

Start by setting limits and then stick to them. For example, resolve to talk about work only when you are at work. Save the home front for family and for each other. Bringing work projects home probably can't be avoided, but don't do it every night.

Be professional. Don't criticize each other's work or work style, and keep your personal issues out of your business decisions.

Develop some hobbies. A shared hobby would give you something else to talk about besides office gossip. Separate hobbies might make you more interesting to each other and would give you some breathing space.

Some people have a strict rule to never lunch with their co-worker spouse to avoid getting sick of each other. Others make a point of lunching together as a way to reconnect as a couple rather than as worker bees for the corporation. See what works for you.

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