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Find Cupid in the next cubicle


Christine Laming, 29, of Rochester Hills, Mich., and her husband, Gerald Laming, 30, met when Christine began working at the Island Def Jam Music Group where Gerald worked. They started dating quietly and were engaged a year later.
Christine Laming, 29, of Rochester Hills, Mich., and her husband, Gerald Laming, 30, met when Christine began working at the Island Def Jam Music Group where Gerald worked. They started dating quietly and were engaged a year later. "We're together all the time, some people would go nuts, but we get along great," Christine said. (Knight Ridder / The Spokesman-Review)
Margarita Bauza Knight Ridder

Moments after Christine Conte’s boardroom introduction, Gerald Laming leaned over to a co-worker and disclosed, with a pained look on his face, that he wouldn’t be able to resist her charms.

Conte had been promoted and transferred to a job in Troy, Mich., from her job in New York a week after Sept. 11.

She was now alone and in a strange city. Gerald, 30, was more than willing to help her feel comfortable. He quickly started finding excuses to come by her desk. She did the same.

“We had a little courting going on in both directions,” says Christine, 29.

Gerald and Christine Laming’s story – one that led to their marriage in 2003 – is a sweet tale of love. But the fact that the couple met at work doesn’t raise the eyebrows that it used to. More Americans than ever are meeting their loves in boardrooms, cubicles and workplace venues.

The issue is a delicate one for employers who, during the Navy Tailhook and Anita Hill scandals in the early 1990s, were so paranoid about workplace harassment lawsuits that many adopted iron clad no-dating policies.

Employees took great pains to not date their co-workers, and if they did, they made sure to keep it from their employers, experts say.

Dating at work has increased since the days of Anita Hill, and experts say it’s a natural development of demographic changes in the past several decades. People are waiting longer to say I do. The number of unmarried women ages 20 to 24 more than doubled, from 36 percent to 75 percent, from 1970 to 2003, according to the U.S. Census.

For women ages 30 to 34, it more than tripled, from 6 percent to 23 percent over that time period. (The census didn’t track unmarried men until recently.) In 2000, the U.S. Census reported that 53 percent of men and women in the United States ages 20 to 34 were single.

At Plante & Moran, PLLC, a Southfield, Mich., accounting firm, dating among co-workers is common and hard to ignore, says Bill Bufe, human resources director. Each year, the 1,400-employee company hires about 100 entry-level and 100 experienced staff members.

New hires spend a lot of time training and working together, and it’s common for them to end up dating.

“If you told me 25 percent of the entry-level folks here are dating each other, that wouldn’t surprise me,” Bufe said.

Even though Plante & Moran allows dating, the company cautions against it, Bufe says. Company policy also considers supervisor-employee relationships inappropriate.

“Sometimes these relationships can affect promotions, evaluations and work assignments,” he says. “And the employers’ absolute nightmare surrounds supervisory positions.”

“It’s not the dating itself, it’s the breakups,” he says, adding that people have left the company after a break-up. “There’s a lot of naivete that goes into this. People think they like each other; they’re excited about the relationship. It’s harder to think about what happens down the line.”

The Lamings say they would have cut things short if their first date hadn’t gone well. They knew on that date that they would seriously date, if not marry. She had dated once before at work but ended it after a first date. Gerald had never dated a co-worker.

They purposely kept it quiet. So quiet that the engagement on Sept. 19, 2002, surprised most of the co-workers in their 30-person office – except for a few women who got to see the ring before he got down on one knee. Gerald proposed at dinner before a work trip to New York.

Gerald’s supervisor, Lloyd Hummel, says other employees know Gerald and Christine are married because it’s a small office, not because they act like smitten lovebirds.

“They know they have to keep it professional and as long as they do, I have no problem with it,” says Hummel, manager of market and distribution at Universal.

As Hummel sees it, the only problem with the arrangement is that if one leaves, he will more than likely lose the other.

But there are other important themes surrounding office love.

Michigan State University professor Mike Roehling, who consults with companies on workplace issues, says office romance can have a demoralizing effect on everyone else.

“In smaller, professional offices, when a relationship develops, it causes shock waves,” Roehling said. “Jealousy and other things come up. When it comes to such close, interpersonal things, there are usually layers of reaction to it.”

Employers’ biggest fear is harassment lawsuits that could result from relationships that turn sour.

Still, workplace dating isn’t going away, employers realize. As a result many companies are morphing with the changes and adopting policies that fit the current climate. Companies are asking employees to tell before engaging in a relationship, as a way of protecting the employer. It lets the employer know the relationship was consensual and frees the employer from possible lawsuits, he says.

These policies will more than likely continue spreading across workplaces, says Mario Almonte, a public relations consultant with Herman Associates in New York. He speaks about workplace topics.

“People will date no matter how hostile the environment,” he says. “You can’t prevent people from hooking up, and this generation doesn’t see it as forbidden.”

Almonte also predicts that there will be more attitude shifts on this subject in the future.

“There will be a moment when something big, like Anita Hill, will happen,” he says. “Then they will develop policies again to protect themselves.”

Either way, employees who are thinking about dating a co-worker should think about it long and hard, he adds.

“Few of us are that dumb that we say, what’s the big deal?” Almonte says. “We know what havoc it can play at work.”

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