Does Office Romance Get a Bad Rap?

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Is office romance too hot to handle? You might think so watching the current Red Cross scandal unfold, in which Mark Everson, the organization's married president, was forced to resign because of his affair with a subordinate. But Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen, the co-authors of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding — and Managing — Romance on the Job, argue that offices are happy hunting grounds for singles in search of relationships. TIME's Andrea Sachs caught up with the two journalists on their book tour in New York:

TIME: Why does looking for love in the office have such a bad name?

Helaine Olen: People always hear the horror stories about love on the job. They don't hear how successful it is. When we began to research the book, we were as shocked as anyone to discover that about half of all Americans at some point in their career will date on the job, and one in five of them will end up in a long-term relationship. But that news doesn't get out there. The news that gets out there is when a scandal happens.

Doesn't the Red Cross situation prove that it's still too risky to get involved with someone in your own office?

Stephanie Losee: What this proves is that a leader's personal conduct is more important than any success he has in leading the organization. And I think that is a problem in our society right now. What the board did when they fired him was signal that all of his wins as head of the Red Cross, the way in which he has turned around the organization, the six months of good notices that he had received, not to mention the 18-month investment that the board made in the hiring process trying to find just the right person for the job, was less important than his distasteful personal behavior. There was another way to signal their disapproval than firing him and starting over. They could have sanctioned him. They could have signaled their public disapproval...There are a lot of CEOs out there who lose hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholder money, and they're not fired. But if they have an extramarital affair — goodbye, Charlie.

You each married men who you worked with. What were your stories?

HO: I had this horrific cubicle in the hallway. I was in book publishing, and you know the conditions are terrible, and he had an office and I was terrifically envious of this. He kept threatening to leave, so we became friendlier and friendlier. People actually thought we were dating, but we were not. I was accosted in the hallway at least twice that I can recall by people accusing me of lying about the situation. I actually thought it was sort of funny because for a while I was dating somebody else in the same office. We did not start dating until I left the job. Not because of any principle about it. But as soon as I left, I realized how much I missed him. We stayed in touch and one thing led to another.

SL: What happened with my husband Tom and me is not dissimilar to what Helaine and what so many of the people we interviewed said. We, too, started out as friends. Tom was interested in a romantic involvement immediately. I was not, because he was not my type. So we became very good friends. We were accused of being involved before we were. We were friends for probably three months and then one night we kissed and six days later he asked me to marry him. He proceeded to ask me to marry him a good 20 or 30 times in the following months until I finally said yes. He grew on me.

Is it ever necessary for one person to leave the company?

HO: I think it's necessary if you feel it's too much [togetherness]. About six percent of people ultimately stay together [in the same workplace]. I think ultimately people want some separation. That being said, that doesn't mean they leave the company. A lot of times, people just transfer to different departments or move onward. On the other hand, that doesn't mean they have to, either. I've worked in offices where people stayed in the same place and worked together really, really well.

SL: We've found that a very high percentage of people who work together do leave, but when we asked them why they were leaving, most of it was caused by their circumstances. A lot of the women left the office because, having found a husband and gotten pregnant, they were going on maternity leave. And in another large portion of the couples we talked to, one of them left because they were twentysomethings and the job movement among twentysomethings is very high.

What about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill?

HO: That's sexual harassment. First, no means no. And if you can't take no for an answer, you'd better not be dating in an office. That is non-negotiable. But second, sexual harassment is to a greater extent a crime of power. It's not necessarily about dating someone in the office. One of the things we found very intriguing this summer is that Clarence Thomas' autobiography came out in tandem with the Isaiah Thomas mess here in New York. One thing stood out to us. In both cases, the guys tried to defend their position, their indefensible position in my view, by claiming not that Anita Hill or Anucha Browne Saunders was a slut wearing short skirts and behaving provocatively. In both cases, they tried to denigrate the woman's job performance and claim that the women were incompetent, and this was how they were trying to cover up their incompetence.

What about the idea that feminists have fought for progress in the office and this reduces women to sexual objects?

HO: I would argue the exact opposite. Being able to have an office romance is a sign of equality. If you see yourself as equal and you don't see yourself as a victim, that is precisely when you can have a romance with a co-worker...To some extent, office dating is a sign of women's strength, not of women's weakness.

Say you've decided to take the plunge. How do you express interest in somebody in a safe way?

HO: Just because it's called an office romance doesn't mean you should conduct it in an office. So our first bit of advice is to get it outside. You don't really want to ask somebody out on a date over their desk. Oftentimes these relationships are so enmeshed before they become romantic that you usually have quite a few opportunities of being alone with the person outside the office to ask. Do not in any circumstance use e-mail or IM. E-mail is not your personal property. It is the corporation's property. It is not private. Like a diamond, it lasts forever.

SL: One thing I think is important is not to be coy or cute. People who are afraid of rejection tend to couch their expression of interest in a joke or try to make light of it. I think what they do is they leave themselves more open to misinterpretation. So I think being both subtle and direct is the best way to go. And you have to transmit through your tone, through your voice, and through your body language that you are absolutely willing to take no for an answer so that you both feel comfortable after a no might be given.

And breakups?

HO: The hard one. Our best bit of advice is to talk about the breakup very early on in the relationship. Itís almost the equivalent of a pre-nup. When it is a theoretical possibility, you can actually lay ground rules because you've fallen in love and you can never see this happening to you. And so that's really the best time to talk about how you'll behave. If you break up, keep it out of the office. Whatever you do, don't bring your co-workers into it. Do not have arguments in the office. Do not reveal personal information. Do not engage in vendettas. Certainly do not put stuff on e-mail. Don't cry in the office. Cry at home, don't cry in the office.

What if you fall in love in the office with someone who is married?

HO: A huge, huge no-no. I would say that's probably a bad idea, whether it takes place in an office or not. But certainly in an office, please, please don't go there.