It is among society’s greatest paradoxes. It being perhaps the most natural and common act yet one that is still regarded with great taboo and secrecy. Proximity, familiarity, and convenience being the driving forces — it’s bound to happen.
Whoa! I’m not talking about that kind of proximity. I’m talking about office relationships — and they are more common than you think. Why are they so pervasive?
It’s another late night working on a deal, you haven’t washed your hair in days, but then, neither has he. And you both still look kinda cute to one another. You figure, you’ve already seen each other at your worst — days of neglect accumulating in hair and odour.
You figure, you won’t be able to see the inside of a bar for weeks in the hopes of meeting someone on the outside. You figure, you wouldn’t have to explain to her that plans aren’t exactly that but rather expressions of hope at best. You figure, I don’t have to spend those first few dates tossing out discreet trivia to find out if he’s smart.
And then the mix of stress and shared misery work together like an aphrodisiac and you’ve got yourself an office romance.
And while the work environment has at times produced nothing more than illicit and fleeting affairs, it has also been a breeding ground for long-lasting relationships and marriages.
But even the most earnest unions require care and caution in the interest of keeping both the romantic and employment relationship in tact.
I’ve spoken with several office sweethearts and law firm human resource representatives to glean the unspoken rules surrounding these unions. Here are five things you should know when it comes to matters of the heart, or just the libido, at work.
The firm rules are that there are no firm rules.
Although law firms vary in their view of office relationships from tacit acceptance to passive-aggressive discouragement, there are no firms that lay out any policy with respect to this issue.
The reason is very simple. Hooking up with someone at the office is about as unavoidable as prematurely biting into a Tootsie Pop. It also has to do with the fact that we’re no longer speaking about antiquated scenes of an executive chasing his secretary around a desk (not to say that a meaningful relationship never started playing tag around the office furniture).
More and more people begin their most significant relationships at work, meeting their life partners and spouses.
Law firms have therefore been compelled to oblige. It is a kind of social contract. I hand over my life, and you let me treat firm cocktail parties as cheap dates and firm retreats as free romantic getaways.
That being said, firms do have a role to play to avoid situations where bias or abuses of power might come into play. This will usually only be an issue where one lawyer is acting in a supervisory role to another whether it is a senior associate and more junior associate or a partner and associate.
This kind of dynamic can obviously lead to situations of bias, favouritism, and even harassment. Many law firms therefore navigate these situations by ensuring those who are romantically involved don’t work on the same files and in some cases, don’t have offices in close proximity.
Beyond bias, firms also have an interest in keeping work and romantic affairs divided as much as possible in the event that things go sour.
In the worst case scenario, firms want to avoid situations that might constitute harassment. Far more common, though, firms want to avoid situations where couples who break up are committed to a long-term file.
After all, it’s hard to maintain your professionalism when the person sitting across from you has inspired a whole new vocabulary of swear words.
Mostly, though, firms are content to leave the rules lax and rely on the discretion and professionalism of lawyers. They will approach situations on a case-by-case basis, the main advice and expectation being that your romantic relationship should be a non-issue for others.
I spoke with one associate director who felt it necessary to step in and speak to a couple who was hanging out to the exclusion of others both at work and at social functions. But this seemed to be an extreme case of one of those inoperable conjoined couples that makes us all uncomfortable.
Those relationships that have succeeded alongside careers are the ones where others at your place of work would not know that you are in a relationship unless you’ve told them. As long as this is the case, firms seem to be as happy as you are to keep church and state separated.
Keep it on the DL
The most repeated bit of advice from those who have survived office relationships is to keep the relationship a secret until you are sure it is something serious.
Even then, it is not like you want to dress it up like a debutante and have a “coming out” party for it.
More than one couple confessed there were people at their firm who remained unaware of their coupledom until a wedding invitation was circulated or a baby announcement popped up in their inbox.
Although keeping things a secret is often tough in the exuberant first stages of an affair, it is likely best for both your relationship and career. When you decide to date someone at work, interest in your personal life has a way of graduating from the mundane to the status of celebrity gossip amongst your colleagues.
Though no one is saying you are as interesting as a Hollywood couple, being public about a work relationship can add unnecessary pressure in the way of gossip and scrutiny.
Furthermore, even though you know this person professionally, you may want to wait until you get to know the person romantically before you break the news.
Let’s face it, even the brightest and most outwardly normal people can surprise you when it comes to matters of the heart. And you don’t want to be painted with the same brush as someone who turns out to be a latent psycho.
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of keeping things comfortable for others at your firm. If you break up, you don’t want others to feel awkward. If you haven’t told anyone, you will have a better chance of maintaining normalcy than if everyone knows you are responsible for your “colleague’s” recent spree of personal days.
Once you’ve satisfied yourself that he or she is a keeper, you may want to consider telling the people you both work with.
One couple I spoke with confessed they did not have to worry about “coming out” after they were caught sharing what they thought was a private kiss on the giant screen at a firm event. So be vigilant until the point you’ve decided to tell people, because a poorly kept secret will often do more damage than the truth.
Some couples admit they were strategic in who they told, making sure their practice group leaders and/or mentors knew first as a matter of respect and then letting the trickle-down effect take care of the rest.
Others were far more casual about it, coming out to their friends and letting those higher up find out through the very efficient gossip mill. In the more casual scenario, most couples admitted that their superiors never acknowledged the union and it was business as usual.
On the management side of things, the responses were also varied.
Some law firm representatives confessed they’d rather not know until it is official and even then, they don’t really consider it to be much of their business.
Others admitted they prefer to be approached, even in the early stages of a relationship, so they can ensure that the couple does not end up in a situation where one lawyer is supervising the other or where they are working together on long-term files.
If you are going to be more calculated in your approach, associates should probably approach the associate director, their mentor, or the department head. Partners might want to speak with the managing partner.
One thing is for sure, as students, if you and your significant other are applying to the same firm or are both vying for a hire-back at the same firm, advertising the fact that you are in a relationship might put you at a disadvantage. More than one associate director admitted they would try to avoid hiring both members of a couple if they were aware of the relationship.
So it seems that office relationships are no longer fated to produce star-crossed lawyers. Firms have come to accept these unions as inevitable — the only caveat to the firm’s acceptance being the expectation of complete professionalism from the beatific couple.
You may think this is obvious, but in speaking with law firm couples, it may be surprising to hear how conservatively couples conduct themselves. The rule of thumb being that, at work, the couple should treat one another as colleagues and nothing more.
And this applies whether you are just dating, life partners, or married with a family. The rules have nothing to do with the legitimacy of your union. The moment you make others feel awkward about your relationship is the moment your career is compromised.
In fact, some couples confessed they are more conservative towards their romantic partner than other members of the firm.
For instance, while many couples told me they would have lunch together, they would also refrain from showing any signs of affection at or near the office. This includes kissing, holding hands, hanging out in each other’s office, and definitely no foot-play under the boardroom table.
Some couples also stated they would maintain this level of professionalism towards their partner at firm social events and firm retreats. Unless the event allows other lawyers to be there with their partners, it should not be an opportunity for you to spend quality time with yours.
Firms may appreciate the fact that you’ve saved them some money by sharing a room, but your room is the only place you two should act like a couple.
Love and Ego Don’t Mix
In perhaps the strictest observance of a code of professionalism, one member of the couple will decide to leave the firm. But this may be more for the sake of the relationship than the career.
While a big consideration is the firm’s perception, staying at the same firm can take a toll on a couple’s relationship, especially if the members of the couple are around or at the same year of call.
Consider these scenarios: you get partnership, your spouse doesn’t; your husband is unceremoniously fired and you have to continue working for a partner who was responsible for making the decision; you get a 25-per-cent bonus and your girlfriend winds up with five per cent.
Although many couples do not start out thinking about these things, as you get more senior, competitive considerations become inevitable. And let’s face it, most lawyers come equipped with a healthy ego.
While love should conquer all, we all know that the day-to-day of a relationship is fragile enough without having to be cultivated in the pressure-pot of a law firm. So, unless you and your significant other are perfectly matched superstars or devoid of ego, one of you may want to consider gracefully bowing out.
Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with Rainmaker Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org