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Workplace Is Fertile Ground For Romance Companies Coming To Accept That Employees May Pair Off

Mon., Feb. 13, 1995

Chris and Roger Gamelin met in a hallway at Steelcase Inc. Both employees, he was installing furniture, she was on her way to the cafeteria. One thing led to another and 12 years ago they married.

They are still married and still at the company where Roger has worked for 30 years and Chris, 20 years.

More couples like the Gamelins are cropping up at companies across the country. With corporate cost-cutting forcing employees to spend longer hours at work, colleagues are increasingly dating and marrying, observers of the trend say.

And disappearing guarantees of lifetime jobs mean fewer employees are letting companies tell them how to conduct their private lives.

Although employers have mixed opinions and varied policies on office romance, they are recognizing it’s a fact of work life.

“Who has the time or energy to go out after work anymore?” said Mitchell Marks, an industrial psychologist with Delta Consulting Group.

The Society for Human Resource Management found in a survey of member companies that 83 percent employ husband-and-wife couples. Seventy percent said they permit and accept dating, while only 1.5 percent opposed it.

Academics who study office romance estimate three in five employees have had at least one affair with a colleague; as many as 40 percent of couples are said to have met at work.

It used to be that many companies tried to impose rules prohibiting romantic involvement, usually requiring one of the couple to resign.

Now, “the concept of re-engineering is re-engineering romance,” said N. Elizabeth Fried, a management consultant.

At AT&T; there are more than 8,000 married couples among the 250,000 U.S. employees, said spokesman Burke Stinson, who describes the company’s policy on office romance as “benign neglect.”

“The reality is that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and a good place to meet a second spouse is the workplace,” said Stinson, who met his second wife, Nancy Smith, at AT&T.;

AT&T; changed its approach to office romance in the 1980s, about the time the company began a major restructuring that involved layoffs and a shift away from a paternalistic approach to workers.

But legal experts say companies now walk a fine line between not invading employees’ privacy with policies regulating romantic behavior and leaving themselves open for sexual harassment claims when a romance goes sour.

“It’s an evolving and increasingly important issue for companies to consider,” said Jonathan Segal, a labor lawyer and partner with the Philadelphia firm Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. “Companies are revisiting the issue.”

Like AT&T;, many firms in recent years have eliminated policies against employees becoming romantically involved, Segal said.

That is, with one notable exception: supervisors dating or marrying subordinates. Any time a supervisor is involved with an employee it could later be argued in a sexual harassment suit to have been non-consensual, Segal said.

Furthermore, romantic involvement between supervisor and subordinate could suggest to employees that the way to advance in the company is through sexual activity, Segal said.

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