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Birds & Bees

Co-Workers Who Take a Chance on Romance

July 08, 2002|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gail Hottenroth and Greg Castro fell in love about a year ago, their romance hatched over more than six years of toiling collaboratively on Speedo products in Los Angeles, pulling 12-hour days, traveling and eating lunch together and meeting crunch deadlines. They flirted, joked and cajoled, nothing more.

But when Castro, a merchandising specialist, announced his departure from Speedo more than a year ago, Hottenroth, a product designer, asked him to take her with him.

"About a week after we left the company, we started seeing each other," said Hottenroth, 37, who opened the company Flash Accessories with Castro, 36. "We have been together for about a year. When we decided we had feelings for one another, we had to do something. I left the company and my boyfriend."

Love connections are made in workplaces everywhere. Many Americans spend a greater proportion of their lives in the workplace than anywhere else, leaving little time for socializing or seeking out romantic partners elsewhere. Despite fears of sexual harassment and of messy breakups spilling over to work, people are still willing to take the risk for love and sex.

"A tremendous amount of intimacy is generated between people working, living, breathing and operating side by side," said Janice Levine, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a clinical psychologist in Lexington, Mass. Co-workers bond through "shared intellectual stimulation, the high of a meeting of minds and stimulation of being creative together under pressure. All of this is a petri dish for a lot of exciting things to happen."

Little is gleaned from the limited, finely honed performance of a first date compared with what the workplace offers: the equivalent of an observation tank where co-workers' character, habits, ethics and personality are revealed.

"You are seeing a person day in, day out, and you are not seeing them on their best behavior always," said Laral Andrews, a software specialist who met her husband, Alessandro Chima, two years ago at a downtown Los Angeles law firm. The couple, who married last month, dated six months before telling their superiors. "You see these people before they get their coffee in the morning after a really hard weekend, and you see them when someone is unhappy with what they did and they have to deal with it."

In an online survey about office romance published in the June issue of Elle magazine, 25% of the more than 30,000 respondents said they had met their current or last partner at work. (A 1994 nationally representative University of Chicago survey found that 15% of Americans ages 18 to 55 met their mate at work.)

Six out of 10 people who took the Elle survey, written and analyzed by Janet Lever, a sociologist at Cal State L.A., said they had had an office romance. Forty-two percent of respondents said they were married or in a relationship at the time of their affair. The survey is not a random representative sample of American workers, said Lever, because it was administered over the Internet and the people most likely to respond probably have had an office romance or have strong convictions about the subject. Still, she said, the numbers are huge.

Romance in the workplace has increased in the last 30 years, Lever said, in part, because the "office incest taboo" has been dissolving since the 1970s, when women entered the workplace in force. Increasingly, the genders work as peers, and companies promote teamwork and informal socializing between co-workers. Also, women and men are marrying slightly later--at 25 and 27, respectively. Then there is that nasty divorce rate. All of which conspires to make the workplace a logical hunting ground for love.

"People become friends first, and the relationship grows out of constantly being around each other," said Lever. "There is a classic psychology article which observed that adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder. People are working together for years, they work late one night and the sparks fly."

Lever said that if office romance were really playing with fire, people might avoid it. However "it is more like playing with matches."

Three percent of survey respondents reported having been fired for their work romance. Four percent of women and 1% of men said rejecting a supervisor's sexual come-ons had somehow cost them a job perk, promotion or a specific assignment. One member of the couple left the company or transferred in 2% of relationships.

Though conventional wisdom holds that dating the boss is forbidden, half of the women who responded to the survey said they had dated their superior at work, and half of those said they dated their immediate boss. Ten percent of men said they had dated a superior.

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