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    Workplace affairs suffer cutbacks

    Workplace affairs suffer cutbacks

    Posted on 12/02/2010

    Monica Sallan and her fiance Emmanuel Gunaratnam met at work and started dating last year, but didn't tell anyone because of fear they would be criticized by the boss and co-workers. Now the couple are engaged and after going on the record, co-workers and their boss are supportive.

    As workloads increase in a downsized economy, employees are spending more time together in offices, and it's natural for the sparks to fly. Office romance is so widespread that experts say employers are becoming increasingly tolerant of employee affairs. But new surveys suggest the flames of love aren't burning as brightly in the current down economy, with many believing it's not worth the career risk of having an affair with a co-worker. Here's a Valentine's Day look at changing moods and attitudes on love in the office.

    With Valentine’s Day approaching, romance is in the air, but the recession has dampened enthusiasm for workplace flings by overworked and undersecure employees, some new surveys find.

    In a fragile economy, more than a quarter – 26.8 per cent – of U.S. workers said they’re less likely to risk having an office affair this year, according to a survey of 1,050 workers by job site Vault.com.

    What are they worried about? In another survey, 73 per cent agreed with the statement that “dating a co-worker could jeopardize job security or advancement.” As well, 75 per cent said they agree that workplace relationships can lead to conflict at work, and 62 per cent said they believe office romances are a distraction from job performance, according to the survey of 790 U.S. workers by job site Monster.com.

    Part of the reason may also be sagging libidos. An Ipsos Reid survey last fall found that 15 per cent of 4,383 Canadians polled agreed with the statement: “The economy has affected my love life and I have less intimacy or sex as a result.”

    That’s is not to say that romance might not be more likely to heat up this year.

    Vault’s new numbers are in stark contrast to a similar poll last February – when companies were making wholesale job cuts – which found 80 per cent of respondents saying they were less likely to take romantic risks at work, all citing the recession as the reason.

    “The shock of the economy is no longer there,” says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, career services expert at Vault.com in New York. “Last year, the interest in romance fell off a cliff. But the main place most people are to meet a person is in the office. Now people are saying their personal lives are still important.”

    However, caution is still the watchword. Just 3 per cent of those responding to the Vault survey said they were willing to take more risks this year for the sake of a workplace fling.

    It was their little secret
    Monica Sallan met Emmanuel Gunaratnam her first day on the job at a provincial ministry office in Toronto a couple of years ago, and he seemed special. “We had everything in common; we’d joke and I loved talking with him,” she recalls.

    But she didn’t even think about pursuing anything at first with Mr. Gunaratnam, a Web developer. Fresh out of university, “it was my first job, and I knew I had to fight to make a good impression with the boss and co-workers to get my three-month contracts renewed,” says Ms. Sallan, who works in information technology.

    Little by little, however, he started to make moves. By Christmas time – with the gift of an iPod from him and an invitation to a family dinner from her – they had turned their friendship into a dating relationship.

    But they didn’t let on at the office. “I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was still on short-term contracts and I was really scared I’d lose my job,” Ms. Sallan says. “So, for a year, we went to enormous lengths to make sure no one in the office suspected.”

    The efforts they took extended to leaving at separate times when they were going to meet for lunch or commuting home together. Even when they took a vacation together, they told co-workers they had gone to different places.

    At the office, “I started volunteering to take on extra work to constantly keep myself busy and make it a point not to spend time with Emmanuel in the office,” Ms. Sallan says. “We were co-workers during the day and had our romantic relationship in the evening.”

    No one knew until last month, when they got engaged to be married in August.

    Now, after going on the record, “I’m glad all the hiding is over. I’m glad everyone knows,” Ms. Sallan says.

    She’s found co-workers and their boss supportive – “as long as we don’t play footsie” between their adjoining cubicles, she says.

    Together but separate
    Couple: Don and Jane Campbell, Ottawa

    Togetherness: Have been married for 21 years; have worked for the same companies since 1989.

    Current employer: IBM Canada Ltd.

    Company policy: Employees who are related, whether a spouse or other relative, should not be assigned to positions in the same department or be in situations where one directs the other.

    How it works: “We’ve always made it a point to work in separate departments, but, both being executives at IBM, we occasionally go to the same meetings and work together on projects in which we both have the same customers. So we have a rule that what happens in the office stays in the office; we don’t discuss business at home,” Ms. Campbell says.

    Insight: “The toughest part about being a couple in the office is that people assume you think alike. We regularly remind peers that they must get our opinions independently and we don’t have the same viewpoints,” Mr. Campbell says. “It’s important that our relationship isn’t the first thing that we represent in the workplace.”

    Employer attitudes about togetherness in the office has shifted dramatically since the 1950s, an era when many companies had anti-nepotism policies that prohibited relatives or couples from both being on the payroll. That meant that if a couple working together got married, one of them had to leave the company, says Toronto-based human resources consultant Melanie Van Slyke.

    “Today, employers are tending to cut more slack to office romance and accommodating people by moving them to other jobs if their relationship creates a conflict of interests, because they realize that, given the amount of time people spend in their workplaces these days, it is natural that relationships will happen there,” Ms. Van Slyke says.

    Now, according to the Vault survey, 74.6 per cent of employees work in companies that do not have a policy regarding office relationships.

    Risky business

    What are the dangers of becoming romantically involved with a workmate?

    Risk: If you split, one of you may have to leave your employer.

    Reason: Co-workers often find it difficult to work together after a breakup. There may also be continuing office gossip about your split that can deflect attention from your work accomplishments, says Sheree Morgan, president of Match-Works Matchmaking in Vancouver.

    .......................................................................

    Risk: Becoming involved with a superior or underling could cause conflict or an abuse of power.

    Reason: When one person in a relationship has authority over the other, it raises the threat of abuses of power, favouritism or conflict of interest. And if things go sour, your work relationship goes sour as well.

    ......................................................................

    Risk: Relationship poses potential limit to advancement.

    Reason: Promoting one member of a couple to a position of authority over the other creates a conflict of interest. When considering promotions, employers may decide it’s just easier to promote someone else to avoid a problem, says independent Toronto-based human resources consultant Melanie Van Slyke.

    .....................................................................

    Risk: If it creates a conflict of interest, There may not be room for both of you.

    Reason: The main way employers avoid conflicts is to separate couples, by switching one to another job or department or account. But in slimmed-down workplaces, there may not be many options – and if your employer can’t find one, one of you may be put on the street, warns Ted Mouradian, a consultant for conflict resolution company Mouradian Group in St. Catharines, Ont.

    Acting smart

    Employees

    Cover yourself: If you start to date someone from your workplace and are unsure whether there are rules, ask your manager or human resources department.

    Go public: Hiding an affair in confines as close as an office may be futile and can be tiring. Be discreet Gossiping or spending too much time together on office time will divert attention from your work accomplishments.

    Avoid public displays: Affectionate gestures don't belong in the workplace.If it ends, make amends Even if one of you leaves the company, you never know when you might cross paths again professionally.

    Employers

    Write guidelines: Develop a policy on potential conflicts of interest if couples or relatives work together.

    Publicize the rules: Put policies on employee information sites, and inform all new employees during their orientation.

    Train managers: Conflicts can generally be readily resolved by moving an employee to a new role or department.

    Provide support: A romantic breakup can cause severe emotional stress. Be sure staff members know about support services such as an employee assistance program.

    Sources: Job site CareerCast.com; HR consultant Melanie Van Slyke; Rubin Thomlinson LLP

    By the numbers

    35: Percentage of Canadian employees who have dated a co-worker at some time during their careers. (source: CareerBuilder survey of 720 Canadian employees)

    29: Percentage of Canadian employees who married a person they dated at work.

    67: Percentage of employees who say they see no need to hide their office relationships. 

    54: Percentage who said the same in 2005. (CareerBuilder survey of 5,231 U.S. employees released Tuesday.)

    29: Percentage of employees who say they feel uncomfortable knowing about co-workers’ office relationships.

    9: Percentage of employees who say office romances are never acceptable.

    60: Percentage of employees who have had an office romance at some point in their careers.

    64: Percentage of employees who said they would be interested in having one if they had the opportunity.

    40: Percentage of women whose office romances were with someone with a higher job status. 

    12: Percentage of men whose relationships were with someone of higher job status.

    31: Percentage of employees who admitted to an office tryst. 

    6: Percentage of employees who said they have been caught in the middle of a tryst in the workplace.

    theglobeandmail.com