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Romance Has To Happen at Work

July 1, 1998
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Consider this workplace: Two employees had a long-term romantic relationship. The woman is still unhappy that it ended, and hasn’t completely resolved her feelings. She isn’t shy about sharing that fact. The man, meanwhile, has married someone else and his wife also works in the office. The lawyers (this is a law firm) have been known to talk about their romances in open court. The managing partner moons over his failed relationship in staff meetings. There’s a secretary so interested in other people’s lives that she openly eavesdrops and uses listening devices to catch every detail. And the whole office shares their personal lives with one another in the unisex restroom.

Aren’t you glad you don’t work there? Fortunately, you can’t—it’s the workplace on "Ally McBeal." It’s TV, so it has no bearing on reality, right? Or does it? Television has never been known as a leader of social change, only a reflection of it. I’m not aware of any real workplace quite as lovesick as Ally McBeal’s. But it’s impossible for any office to be chaste when the President’s extramarital affairs are fodder for Jay Leno’s monologue.

Is this progress? Sort of. Generally, it’s better if employees are allowed to be fully themselves at work. If we take off the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, we can admit that it never really worked to ask employees to set aside all semblance of a personal life at the front door.

But we’ve taken the wrong path to get to the right place. I would be all for this new openness if it were borne of healthier attitudes toward love, sex, relationships, and communication. But it isn’t. Instead, it springs from the need to adapt to perverse circumstances.

Ideally, employers would have embraced flexibility and other ideas of the ‘90s because they recognized that employees allowed to be themselves were ultimately more creative, more productive and more committed. In short, they would have invited more of each employee in and drawn from the resulting strength.

Instead, just the opposite has happened. Flexibility and other ideas have been embraced to help employees cope with the fact that businesses haven’t really invited anything in. They have just expanded out and swallowed up much of the employees’ personal time.

In a recent issue of Playboy (I really only read the articles), DILBERT(TM) creator Scott Adams talked about the phenomenon. "Work and home and leisure have melded into one thing. That counts for people who say they have to work all night," he says. "If I go to the office cafeteria at 2 a.m., I’m going to run into some eligible person I have a lot in common with. I won’t if I go home."

Adams isn’t alone in his assessment. Over breakfast one morning, an HR director at a national software firm told me, "Our corporate culture demands that employees be here nights and weekends. They can’t meet people anywhere else. Then when they meet people here, we interfere. It’s a double standard, and it costs us big in lawsuits and other problems. It’s a mess."

There are many explanations—tougher competition, tighter margins, globalization—but a mess is still a mess. Some companies are finding moderate success trying to regulate the mess. But ultimately, we’d be better off if the energy spent trying to regulate were instead spent trying to find a way to give employees their personal lives back. I’m enough of a romantic to think it can still happen. Are you?

Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 77, No. 7, p. 4.

Recent Articles by Allan Halcrow

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