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Workplace romance: Dating a co-worker can be fun but dangerous
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Workplace romance: Dating a co-worker can be fun but dangerous

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When Michael Cline fell for the part-time title clerk at the Volkswagen dealership in Colorado where they both worked at the time, he played it cool.

“I waited for her to show some signs that she, too, was interested,” said Cline, who worked in sales at the dealership.

Karol Cline remembers flirting with him a little.

“We tried to not be so obvious. We wanted to be grown-up about it,” she said.

They met in 1975 and married in 1976, working together two or three years while they were dating and married before he left for another job.

Theirs is one of the estimated 10 to 31 percent of workplace romances or hookups that end with marriage, according to different surveys.

The others, those that end in breakups — the majority — are the ones that worry company human resources officers and labor lawyers.

“The risks of dating a co-worker are high,” said Karen Michael, an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC.

“You are either going to live happily ever after and get married, or one of you is going to have to quit because rarely do they work out,” Michael said.

“What we see are the disasters ... when relationships end,” said Michael, who also writes a labor law column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Metro Business section. She investigates sexual harassment complaints for employers and consults with companies on workplace anti-harassment policies.

Breakups don’t have to be disasters.

Derek Brooks, while working in downtown Richmond in the financial services industry 20 years ago, said he had a four-year relationship with a co-worker that ended amicably.

“As long as both parties are mature, professional and organizationally separate, I see no problem,” he said.

But broken hearts are not necessarily the biggest worry for employers unless the emotional angst interferes with workers doing their jobs. A bigger concern is what if one person still pursues the other and that attention becomes unwanted. Or what if a spurned party retaliates.

“People are human, and relationships develop. The workplace is often where you meet people,” said Amanda Michael Weaver, an attorney at Williams Mullen law firm. “I think workplace relationships are probably unavoidable.”

But “when people have sexual interactions with co-workers, the concern is that when the conduct is not welcome anymore, the employer could be liable if the relationship turns sour and one party is still interested and pursuing the other. ... That could subject the employer to sexual harassment claims,” Weaver said.

One thing that experts agree on is that supervisor-subordinate relationships, where there is a power dynamic, should be avoided.

“Dating a subordinate employee is absolutely off-limits. Under no circumstances” should they occur, Michael said.

The recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment against high-profile men is an example of how the imbalance of power can be construed by a lower-ranking employee as not having a choice to give in to sexual demands of a boss.

The #MeToo movement and accusations of sexual harassment in recent months have brought down newsmen Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, movie industry executive Harvey Weinstein and numerous others.

Locally, the former chief creative officer of Richmond-based and highly regarded The Martin Agency was given the boot after a workplace sexual harassment complaint. Joe Alexander denied the accusations.

“The further removed employees are — being in different departments, not having to work together on a daily basis — the less concern there is about a conflict of interest from a business standpoint,” Weaver said.

You can’t have an employee approving expense accounts of a person they are dating, for instance, Weaver said.

***

When Jim Tyler and a co-worker at a Richmond bank where they both worked began dating, word was soon out via the office rumor mill.

He was a management trainee and a new Randolph-Macon College graduate when they met. She was a Virginia Tech student working as a bank teller during a yearlong break from her studies. In her job, she would travel around to different banks to cover absences.

Once a couple, company policy prohibited them from working together.

“When I was in the branches, it was always clear that she had to be in a place totally removed from where I was,” he said. “When we married, the audit committee had to know.”

Tyler remembers a co-worker telling him he was nuts for dating someone at the office.

“With all of the dangers involved with beginning a workplace romance, our story is the fairy tale for why co-workers will always be tempted to take those chances,” Jim Tyler said.

Their first outing was as friends eight months after meeting to attend a VCU-R-MC basketball game. She had an extra ticket. VCU won the game, but she won his heart.

As they were leaving the game, a child rushed by them in tears. It turned out the boy’s group from Farmville had unknowingly left him behind. They located a police officer, who took over, but Pam Tyler insisted that they go to the police station with the child and stay until his father arrived, Jim Tyler said.

“I was affected by what a caring, loving person she was to do that,” he said.

They married 11 months after their first date and have been married for 39 years. She became a stay-at-home mom after they had their second child.

***

Gus Spotts and Brianne Whitescarver, both employees of Joyner Fine Properties, are in a workplace romance now and are mindful of the implications.

They tried to keep it private but were outed when a co-worker spotted them together at the State Fair of Virginia.

“I am somewhat of his boss at work. I definitely didn’t want to show interest immediately,” said Whitescarver, whose job as operations manager includes doling out leads that come in to the office’s dozen or so agents. Plus, she was nervous about the age difference — she is 29; he is 25. “I have to make sure I am not showing any favoritism,” Whitescarver said.

“Everybody on our teams is 100 percent encouraging. Everybody wants us to end up together. He is the nicest guy.”

***

The #MeToo movement may be putting a damper on workplace romances.

Job search firm CareerBuilder’s annual Valentine’s Day survey out earlier this month indicates office romances are at 10-year low.

The Harris Poll of 809 full-time workers ages 18 and over found 36 percent of workers reporting that they have dated a co-worker, down from 41 percent last year. In 2008, 40 percent of those surveyed admitted to having had an office romance.

“Office romance is experiencing a dip and whether it’s impacted by the current environment around sexual harassment or by workers not wanting to admit the truth, the fact remains that office romance has been around forever and will continue to be,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

Many companies that have had loose polices about workplace relationships are contacting attorneys to find out if they need something more formal.

Steven D. Brown, an attorney in the Richmond office of IslerDare PC, a labor, employment and employee benefits law boutique firm, said his caseload is up.

“I am getting more questions and more requests to do investigations,” Brown said. “Our number of investigations has doubled in the last six months.”

Brown is in favor of what some call “love contracts.”

“What I like to see if you have two people dating in the workplace, I always suggest to clients that there be a consensual relationship agreement,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be long, but it indicates to both of the people involved in the relationship that there is an equal employment opportunity workplace, that there is a sexual harassment policy in place, and that both of the people acknowledge that their relationship is voluntary, consensual, it’s not having a negative impact on the workplace and if it does, at some point the employer may have to decide which of those folks is transferred or potentially has to leave,” Brown said.

Brown said he encourages companies to have the agreements in writing, but many feel like having a conversation with employees is enough.

“I think it’s easier to have something both people sign. Because when it does blow up — and most of these relationships do end at some point and you hope they end amicably — but if they don’t, you at least want to have it documented that you as the employer did your due diligence,” Brown said.

Most human resources professionals consider the documents ineffective, according to a 2013 Society for Human Resources Management report. Rather than encourage people to disclose, they may encourage them to sneak around.

But lawyers who have a front-row seat to messy breakups disagree.

“I think companies should require a love contract. Then there is no question of what is going on,” said Michael, the labor lawyer.

***

Working around someone you really get to see what they are like, said Stacey Zebrowski, who met husband Tony Zebrowski when he came to work at the Richmond Coliseum as an operations coordinator. She worked in marketing. The full-time staff back then was about 12 people.

They crossed paths for the first time on the night of a James Taylor concert in 1991, Tony Zebrowski remembered.

“This is going to really sound silly. I was in the Coliseum. It was my very first event there,” he said.

“I was walking from the Seventh Street entrance to the Sixth Street entrance. It’s really glassy there and the sunlight was shining in. She has on this cool, light blue outfit. I just remember the sun shining on her. I totally remember being struck by her, 100 percent,” he said.

Because working Coliseum events usually meant working late hours, when the workday was over they sometimes grabbed a late meal together.

“That is how we got to know each other,” Stacey Zebrowski said. A month after meeting, they were a couple.

“There were a couple of people in the office that we were good friends with, they knew. We didn’t want anybody else to feel weird. We were very professional at work,” Stacey Zebrowski said.

Both eventually moved on to other jobs, but they have remained together — married for 24 years.

***

Some professions are more likely to have romantic hookups with a co-worker than others. Police and fire departments and hospitals are among them, Michael said.

Ronnie Armstead and Sharon Armstead, both employees of the Richmond Police Department, worked together for years before becoming a couple. She is a detective. He is a second lieutenant. At one time, they worked in the same special investigations unit.

He was out on sick leave recovering from back surgery when his co-workers took turns bringing him meals.

“Our captain asked people to help him out,” said Sharon Armstead, who is known for her cooking skills. “All of us were friends, just work friends.”

A co-worker who knew they both had ended relationships tried to push them together, but Sharon Armstead resisted. She was not keen on dating a co-worker.

“We all knew each other. We knew everything about each other,” she said, emphasizing “everything.”

There was interest there, though. As he recovered from back surgery, she brought him meals a couple of times a week. They started hanging out.

“One thing led to another,” Ronnie Armstead said.

They kept it secret. They were on a cruise vacation when he proposed. Co-workers found out when she posted their engagement on Facebook. They married in November 2014. She moved to the major crimes unit.

“It could cause friction being in the same unit because you get overprotective of your loved one. You don’t want your loved one to go out and do certain things. ... It could be a distraction if you are doing some type of tactical operation,” Ronnie Armstead said.

“She hasn’t fixed a bad dish yet,” he added.

Robert Key, medical case manager at the Health Brigade clinic in Richmond, met Reed Bohn when Bohn volunteered there and later became an employee. They married four years ago.

“We are both huge advocates for social justice. We work for a nonprofit, so that was something. We care about what we do. We are not in it for the money,” said Key, describing share values that brought them together.

When they started dating nine years ago, Key proactively informed their supervisor.

“I wanted to make sure it would be OK because I don’t want to lose my job because I am flirting with a co-worker, the whole sexual harassment thing,” Key said. “I don’t want any of those things to ever be an issue in my world so I am going to dot my I’s and cross my T’s whenever I get a chance.”

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