GOSSIP GIRLS

04.03.13

The Sexist Truth About Office Romances

Men do it for love. Women do it to get ahead. That’s the outrageously biased way people judge office romances—and another example of women getting a bum deal, writes Peggy Drexler.

Joanie was a graphic designer in a small creative-services firm. When she started dating Scott, a good-looking and well-liked manager in another department, she wasn’t surprised to find her romantic life the topic of office gossip. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about the relationship. But, then, in her office, everyone had an opinion about everything anyone else was doing.

What did surprise Joanie, however, was that so much of the gossip seemed to be negative chatter directed exclusively at her. Co-workers who would normally ask her to lunch began to exclude her from their outings. There were smirks in the halls. People who Joanie barely knew would ask her about Scott’s whereabouts, almost in a mocking way. For Scott, meanwhile, work was business as usual. No one treated him any differently, made comments, or asked prodding questions about how he’d spent the weekend. “It was almost as if I was being punished,” Joanie told me. “Except for what, I don’t know. Dating Scott didn’t get me any special treatment. I certainly wasn’t sleeping my way to the top, or otherwise affecting anyone any more than he was.”

According to a recent survey of 8,000 workers by the job-search website CareerBuilder.com, four out of 10 employees have dated someone at work; 17 percent have done it twice. It makes perfect sense: There are more singles in the workforce than ever before, spending more than half their waking hours on the job. With co-workers there’s a familiarity and commonality, not to mention proximity and convenience. There’s often plenty to talk about. Although the CareerBuilder survey also found that 72 percent of workers who have office relationships don’t try to hide them—compared with 46 percent five years ago—interoffice dating, even among colleagues on equal levels or in different departments, is not without complications or negative reactions. And though both men and women who take part in office relationships are judged, women, it seems, bear that judgment far more.

A 2009 study published in the Western Journal of Communication found that most employees have negative perceptions of workplace romance, even though so many of them have taken part in it themselves, and largely direct their annoyance or anger at the woman.

Most researchers believe there are three primary motivating factors behind dating someone at work—love, ego, and job—and that how or whether colleagues accept an interoffice couple depends on what they view as the motivations behind it. As it turns out, those perceived motivations appear to vary depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. The WJC study found that in most situations, employees believe that women are motivated by job—the prospect of some employment-related advantage—while men by the less professionally threatening love or ego. Which could help explain why Joanie’s co-workers viewed her, and her relationship, with distrust, while largely letting Scott off the hook.

“I could tell Jessica resented me in particular, even though Jake was the one who was picking sides.”

More so than males, female employees in an office relationship, even a lateral one, are more likely to be suspected of using their relationships to get ahead and of being loyal to their romantic partner above all else. Christine and Jake, two associate-level architects in a large firm, had been dating for three months when they were assigned to a project with a third co-worker, Jessica. Christine and Jessica had vastly different aesthetics, as well as ways of working. Christine didn’t intend to use her relationship with Jake as an advantage to getting things done at work—nor did she believe he was giving her special consideration—but the fact is that whenever there was a disagreement between the three, he always sided with her over Jessica. “I could tell Jessica resented me in particular, even though Jake was the one who was picking sides,” Christine told me. “And I don’t know that I blamed her for feeling that way, even though I never asked him to do that and it certainly wasn’t why I started to date him in the first place.”

Whether favoritism between couples at work is real or perceived may not even matter. One of the biggest reasons employers tend to discourage interoffice affairs is because they generate gossip—and gossip wastes time and fosters distrust and dissatisfaction. Women, meanwhile, are more likely than men to be the targets of that office gossip, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Sex Roles. That might explain why office gossip about a romantically involved couple would tend to target the woman over the man. Even those who are not dating superiors become subject to accusations of favoritism from co-workers when it comes to promotions, restructuring of teams, or financial bonuses. They become easy targets for those colleagues inclined to use office gossip as a means to undermine, or get ahead themselves.

Arianne and Brendan were both supervisors of their own departments at their financial advisory firm. Neither reported to the other, though they often worked together. After Arianne and Brendan had been dating for six months, Arianne’s boss called her into his office. Some of Arianne’s female reports had complained that Brendan had been treating them differently—at the behest, they suspected, of Arianne. It was untrue, but hard to convince her boss, or her reports, otherwise. She had, of course, complained about them to Brendan. But she hadn’t asked him to take on her battles, and she didn’t believe that he had—only that it was easy for her disgruntled reports to say that he had. The perception was all that mattered.

That’s not to say women who date within the office always keep separate their personal and professional lives. Another reason women may feel the repercussions of office romance more deeply than men may be attributed to basic differences in gender. Although both men and women are emotional beings, women report feeling negative emotions more often than men, including anxiety and sadness, and to a more intense degree, according to a Florida State University study that looked at gender and emotion. This study also found that women express their feelings more readily than men and are more likely to talk about their feelings, specifically angry ones, with others.

As Joanie and Scott’s relationship progressed, and their colleagues eventually realized that it had nothing to do with them, the gossip died down. But not before Joanie had learned an important lesson. “Even if I could separate my professional life from my personal life, I realized it might have been too much to expect everyone else to,” she said. “I couldn’t just carry on as if things weren’t different, because the truth is that they were. I’d made my bed, so to speak.” Though she had the right to date whomever she wanted, she’d made a choice to date someone at work. “And if I had to work harder to prove that my love life wasn’t impacting my work life?” she asked. “Well, so be it. Working harder isn’t the worst thing that can happen.”