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Advisers Warn of Pitfalls in Office Romances

Times Staff Writer

Gail Reisman and June Baal Bickford want to have a word with those who may be thinking today of sending Valentine’s Day cards, candy or flowers to a co-worker. The word is: Don’t.

Research shows that office romances rarely turn into successful relationships and more often bring professional and emotional woe, according to Reisman.

Reisman and Bickford have formed Interaction Associates, a fledgling Orange County consulting company whose seminars aim at helping men, women and companies adjust to the changing roles of women in the workplace.

Because it highlights the nonprofessional differences between men and women, on-the-job romance is one of the reasons many women have hit a “glass ceiling” and find they are not being promoted beyond middle management, said Reisman.

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Reisman, 40, holds a Ph.D. in adult development and specializes in male/female differences and relationships. Bickford, 53, holds a master’s degree in human development and has worked as a trainer in business etiquette. Both are from Anaheim Hills.

“Sex(ism) in the Office” is one topic, along with corporate etiquette, power and language, that Reisman and Bickford cover in separate seminars for men and women.

Negative Consequences

They define workplace “romance” as meaning anything from flirtation through one-night stands and short- and long-term personal commitments. They list the negative consequences as including lowered work energy and production, jealousy from co-workers, the risk of harassment or third-party discrimination suits, low office morale, misery or awkwardness when the affair’s over and being fired, Reisman said.

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“We say before you even start, really decide if it’s worth it,” Reisman said.

Both said that as individual lecturers and counselors, they’ve heard too many tales of misery from men and women, particularly regarding unrequited affection and harassment.

“One man said his secretary was openly after him. When he discouraged her, she messed up the whole office. It wasn’t a laughing matter. He was too embarrassed to go to his boss because he was afraid it would be treated as a joke,” Reisman said.

Another young man in middle management complained that a young woman who worked for him was having an affair with his boss and had started reporting directly to the boss.

The young man’s “power was taken away. He had become ineffective,” said Bickford.

Often, Reisman said, the stories are tragic.

A corporate supervisor in her 50s started an affair with a man in his 30s who worked for her, she said. “It started out as a mother/son mentoring relationship. That’s why she looked so foolish when it ended.” The woman helped him improve his work, get noticed, and suggested his promotion. But immediately after he was promoted, he broke off their personal relationship, Reisman said.

Suffered Breakdown

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“She had a minor breakdown and had to take time off from work while she saw a psychologist. It took her a long time to regain her credibility afterwards.”

Reisman said there are three needs behind office relationships: the need for love or affection, the need for excitement and the need to exercise or gain power. The second two are dangerous, she said, because of the risk of exploitation.

The workplace has become a breeding ground for romance, particularly in California’s transient, highly divorced society, Reisman said. “The only thing you can be sure of is that co-workers will be there (at work). You’re with these people more than anyone.”

Some people have affairs because they are bored and crave the excitement of having a secret affair. “It gets more exciting the closer you are to being discovered.” These people are often balancing more than one affair and get involved with co-workers again and again, Reisman said.

Others start office relationships because they are stimulated by the camaraderie, the pressure, or by finding themselves out of town on a trip with a co-worker, Reisman said. “I think a lot of the attraction people find is generated by the situation itself and is not genuine attraction,” she said.

When an office romance ends, she said, many women say: “I wonder what I saw in him?”

In the end, office romances always hurt women more than men, according to both Reisman and Bickford.

Reisman said: “What’s the worst thing you can say about a man? That he’s a dirty old man. But how many times do you hear: ‘She’s anybody’s?’ or ‘I wonder who she slept with to get there?’ ”

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Problem of Self-Doubt

Some women who have been promoted by a man they were dating are prone to self-doubt when the affair ends, Reisman said. More than men, women tend to suffer from the impostor syndrome, she explained, and if they achieve through any means other then their own abilities they will never get the self-esteem they need.

Because professional women are still a novelty to some men, she said, some relationships arise because of men who do not regard women as professional peers and still expect them to be mothers, wives, daughters or lovers.

On the other hand, some women who are divorced and re-entering the job market have said they are specifically looking for single men at work, she said. Because most men at work are married, they are usually disappointed, Bickford said.

Instead of starting an office romance, Reisman suggested people join the Sierra Club, a reading group, initiate group activities with office friends and cultivate same-sex friendships. “There’s nothing to stop people from using co-workers to fix them up” with friends from outside the office, she said.

In the ‘50s, before the woman’s movement, the sexual revolution and the Pill, companies commonly had rules against fraternizing on the job. But strict rules were replaced by informal acceptance as long as the office romantics did not draw attention to themselves, Reisman said.

But it is naive for couples to think they can hide an affair, said Bickford. “It’s impossible. They stay longer at the desk, take longer lunches. There’s the touch as you pass, the starry eyes across the table. . . . “

Confuse Colleagues

In addition, people in love swing erratically from ecstasy to depression, confusing their colleagues and sometimes creating a burden of extra, undone work.

Once in a while, co-workers can carry off a one-night stand if both have the attitude that it is work as usual the next day, Bickford said. “But it’s so rare. . . . Most of the time, the woman loses her credibility.”

Women can be the harshest judges of other women’s behavior on the job, Reisman said. “Some say we worked very hard to get here and you’re tearing down the image of women as professionals.”

Some companies are already reinstituting informal guidelines, programs or counseling regarding office relationships, said Reisman.

But most “don’t want to deal with romance until it comes up,” Bickford said. “It’s a mistake. Management should decide what the rules are.” Otherwise, employees who might have decided not to enter a relationship may end up brokenhearted or fired.

It is still more common to fire the woman who is discovered in an office affair, they said.

Recently, the head partner in a law firm discovered his son-in-law, another lawyer in the firm, had left his wife for the office secretary, Reisman said. He followed his first reaction and fired the secretary. It did not dawn on him to punish the son-in-law for deceiving his daughter until a few weeks later; then he fired the son-in-law, Reisman said. “That shows you how ingrained it is.”

It’s rare, but office romances are not always disasters, they said.

There are types of office romances that actually improve office morale, Reisman said. One is the “cute young couple” who are clearly in love. “It’s fun. Workers enjoy their youth, their innocence and beauty. One manager said: ‘We don’t need this, but it’s cute and we’ll get invited to the wedding.’ ”

The other case is that of the lonely widow and widower who suddenly blossom when they find each other. “Everybody’s happy for them.”

In both situations, the romance is mutual and doesn’t threaten co-workers, she said.

In the other cases, Bickford said, they would prefer that women go into situations with their eyes open and be aware that they will probably be the losers. “If they understand the risks, there are ways to handle it,” she said.

Must Deal With Gossip

They should prepare themselves to deal with innuendo and office gossip and how they will face the person the next morning or when it’s over.

Those who are not romantically involved but appear to be should change appearances, Reisman said. They should leave the office door open, stop flirting or working late and make sure the relationship is strictly business.

Third parties should ignore the office romance unless their jobs are at stake. They should not be allowed to be drawn in as a confidante or a cover, nor should they perpetuate gossip. “If you stay neutral, you can never be blamed,” Bickford said.

Both men and women need to relax if they feel they are being “pursued” by a co-worker. The best approach is to complain assertively to the offender. Reisman and Bickford also suggest keeping a log of events to buttress a claim of harassment in case the “unwilling” employee is later fired.

In any case, Reisman said, companies need to be clear about what they expect. She recalled one secretary who was fired when higher-ups discovered she was having an affair with a vice president of the company. She waited six months, saw a psychologist and obtained documentation of mental distress, then sued them for discrimination.

Management, said Reisman, offered to restore her job. She turned them down and “settled for a fortune,” she said.

The next day, she said, they wrote guidelines for office relationships.


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