AND NOW, TO KICK OFF THE SPRING SEASON, we present a true fable of modern love:
Last year, a partner in a prosperous Dallas commercial real estate firm found himself attracted to a woman who did the marketing and public relations work for the company. She was beautiful, single, a hotshot salesperson. He was married. Nevertheless, sparks flew, and soon their affair was an open secret.
The other partners decided the relationship was not good for the company. The job performances of both the man and woman were suffering, other sales associates were complaining that she was getting favorable treatment, and besides, there were all the old fears about skirt chasing in the office. Office romance was so-well-tacky.
They couldn’t do anything about the partner, but they could certainly do something about the woman. After talking to the partner, they all agreed that it would be best if the woman was fired. But when that happened, she turned right around and sued for job discrimination. After a series of negotiations, the company realized it had no case and settled with her to the reported tune of more than $100,000. She moved to California to start a new life.
But then the old partner, who started the affair in the first place and who was still unquestionably a big part of the company, missed his office romance. He left his wife, saying he was really in love with his former employee. She moved back, they began to see one another again, and everything was happy ever after. Except for the company. It didn’t do so well and recently disbanded.
Welcome to office romance of the Eighties. Office romance used to be predictable, boss-and-secretary deals, good for a few minutes of gossip among co-workers at the coffee pot. If it got out of hand, the secretary abruptly left, which meant that the boss had fired her. Today, however, office romance is blossoming-not only in the supposedly clandestine extramarital affairs, but in genuine relationships that develop from two people working together. Almost every office now has the standard couple who meet in the hallway, swooning, helplessly attracted to one another like summer insects toward the porch light. Sometimes it works. Of course, it also creates its share of disasters. Like the cup of coffee that gets knocked over on the desk, office romance seeps everywhere, sticky and steamy, impossible to hide for long.
“There has definitely been a change in the emphasis on office relationships,” says Dr. John Batrus, a prominent local business management consultant. “With so many men and women now working together, the office environment practically becomes the place to have sex. With the under-forty generation, the power of the work itself brings forth a sort of erotic feeling. Face it. For better or for worse, romantic relationships at the workplace are developing at breakneck speed.”
“What’s new about today’s office romance is that so many more people are direct about it,” says Dallas psychologist Pat Pearson. “They don’t want to hide it anymore.” And, says Joan Brown, manager of Business Women of Dallas, a firm that places women in secretarial and administrative assistant jobs, “the other thing you have to consider is that the tables have turned about who pursues whom. The women aren’t always the victims anymore. They are more independent, know what they want, and go after it.”
Certainly, as women continue to move into professions that were once the domain of men, as both sexes find themselves working side-by-side and committed to the same projects, the circumstances can be too tempting for some to resist. Besides, name a better place to meet someone. In the AIDS era, where a slight feeling of fear and distaste has filtered into Dallas nightlife, love is bound to rear its devilish head among the cubicles. “Usually the way the office love affair develops,” says local career consultant and writer Taunee Besson, “is that two people feel a great sense of chemistry-not physical, but intellectual. Their professional skills and values all fit. And before they know it, they are more involved than they ever could imagine.”
Office romance has always had a special hold on Dallas. Ever wonder why there are so many Marcuses who work at Neiman-Marcus, but no Neimans? Back in the Twenties, when Al Neiman was discovered having an affair with a model in the downtown store, his outraged wife, Carrie Marcus, forced him to sell out his interest in the company and banished him from the store forever. More recently, the lovely Sandra Ryno, receptionist to former LTV chairman and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer, confessed to federal investigators that, as part of their love affair, Thayer passed her stock tips. Thus Ryno unwittingly helped break one of the most notorious financial scandals in Dallas history. And, of course, there are those famous office love affairs of Judge Tom Cave, who thought it appropriate to try to sleep with females brought before him on criminal charges.
Some of Dallas’s most famous couples began as boss-secretary relationships. After former E-Systems chairman John Dixon married his secretary, Doris, she went on to become one of the most famous charity ball fundraisers in Dallas society. After oil and real estate magnate Irv Deal married his secretary, Pat, she became president of the Junior League of Dallas. Says Julia Sweeney, the popular society figure; “I was with a woman at a big debutante party one time, and she said, ’I don’t know why we spend all this money and go to all this trouble for our daughters’ debuts, when all the men around here end up marrying their secretaries.””
In some ways, the term “office romance” still carries a certain unpleasant taint: the actors in the office romance feel they have to follow a wretched script of secret assignations in out-of-the-way bars, putting on stilted, formal conversations with one another in the presence of their peers, pretending that it’s coincidence they happen to be leaving the office at the same time at the end of the day. And many companies-fearful of those ugly scenes where a woman runs tearful out of her lover’s office or the two get into an argument in the parking lot or one suddenly comes to a standstill because the other has started seeing someone else-traditionally discourage the office relationship. Some companies have formal nepotism policies that state that if two people meet on the job and marry, one has to leave the company. “All the time,” says Batrus, “companies will tell new employees, ’No making love to the help,’ but what can they do? No one gives a damn about what the office handbook says if he or she takes a liking for someone across the room.”
In fact, many companies are finally recognizing the futility of preventing the office love affair. In a recent survey taken by the American Society for Personnel Administration, nearly 60 percent of the 547 companies that responded to the questionnaire no longer stressed their anti-romance policies. Even one of the most conservative companies in Dallas. Electronic Data Systems, which still requires its female employees to wear business suits, has practically abandoned its corporate nepotism policy. “I think what upper management has realized,” says one junior female EDS executive, “is that it’s better for the company if EDSers marry one another. That way, the spouses will understand the long hours and the dedication to the job and the camaraderie that we have to have. What better way to make one feel part of one big extended family than for us all to get married?” At Arthur Andersen, the conservative Big Eight accounting firm, local marketing director Pat Harkin says the company’s dating and marriage policy has loosened. “Years ago, there was a strict rule against any office marriages of any kind. Now, if there’s a marriage between two co-workers, the general rule is that they have to work in different departments. That’s it.” Likewise, at American Airlines, says spokesman Al Becker, “we don’t discourage dating. We know it’s going to happen when you’ve got 18,000 people in the Metroplex who work here. And it also makes sense that employees would like one another. They have great joint benefits. They can fly together anywhere.”
A random sampling of Dallas companies, from large institutions like First Republic to small firms, found no policy that prohibited all intra-office love affairs or marriages. But some remain a bit leery. The high-powered law firm of Gardere and Wynne enforces a kind of caste system: partners can only marry partners, associate attorneys in the firm can only marry associates. “Mixed” marriages mean one of the lovers must go. Likewise, if a lawyer marries a non-lawyer in the firm, one-half of the happy couple must depart. “It’s not that you can’t date,” says one of the firm’s partners, “but there are so many rules about who can marry who that you have to go to law school just to understand it all.”
“This whole thing can get convoluted,” says psychologist Pearson. “One of my clients was a man who was a senior executive in a local management consulting firm who fell in love with the company’s accountant. They decided to get married. But she had to be let go because of the company nepotism policy- and he learned he had to fire her. It was far from an easy thing for him to do. But he did it, because he wanted to marry her.”
Despite such roadblocks, the married couple that works together has become a well-documented phenomenon of the last decade. These days firms with the name repeated twice are almost as likely to be run by husband and wife as father and son. William and Sharon Criswell together created the Allied Bank Tower before their business empire (but not their marriage) went bust. Stan and Sue Wetsel run Lambert’s as did their predecessors, Joe and Evelyn Lambert. Stan and Barbara Levenson are the powers behind the ad agency Levenson, Leven-son and Hill.
Certainly, there are built-in advantages to office romances. First is honesty. In the only office romance I ever had, I knew exactly what she was doing and she knew what I was doing. (To figure out if she was starting to like me, I would sneak over to her desk when she wasn’t there and flip through her appointment calendar. At first. I would see other men’s names written down for “evening appointments.” Stunned, I would stagger back to my desk. After a few weeks, when I saw only my name, I realized that the relationship was on its way.) Most couples who meet at the office are friends first and never have to go through that ridiculous and sometimes evasive courting process that takes place at the start of a romance. A close friend, a recruiter for a major downtown company, would regularly confide her problems with men to a nice young executive in the firm, who would in turn discuss his romantic quandaries. “We sort of helplessly fell into one another’s arms,” my friend says. “We knew all the strengths and weaknesses about one another, we were closest friends, and it got to a point where there was nothing to do but start loving one another.”
The other advantage of an office relationship is a couple has a lot to talk about at the end of the day. Don’t take this lightly. Who hasn’t had the tedious experience of listening to one’s date or spouse, during dinner, launch into a forty-five-minute monologue about how ridiculous the people at the office are? You sit there trying to act fascinated while you secretly want to lean over the table and strangle that person for being so dull. With the office romance, you get to go home and trade bitchy stories about the boss. And work can even survive a shattered love. A manager of a chic McKinney Avenue restaurant was once engaged to the owner. When the engagement was called off, leaving its share of hard feelings, the two decided to keep their professional relationship because they both had so much fun together at the restaurant. In an even stranger twist, some divorced couples realize they work together better than they ever lived together. Arthur and Vicki Eisenberg were married for eight years and never worked together a day in their lives. But when they divorced, Vicki started her own public relations/advertising company. And who did she hire to do most of her creative consulting? Ex-husband Arthur. “We’re better friends now than we ever were,” says Vicki. “Don’t ask me why. It’s one of those mysteries of Eighties romance.”
Part of the weirdness of Eighties romance is that some members of the success-oriented yuppie generation find it’s often easier to take the job home than to try to separate work life from home life. Ready for the classic over-achiever’s nightmare? A female financial consultant had been working for weeks on a demanding project with a male partner. At home one night, she vowed to relax with her husband. After a few glasses of wine, the two fell into a hot embrace, and the woman passionately moaned-the name of her partner at work. It was just force of habit; she and the man had never been more than co-workers, but the husband came unglued.
“There’s always that other side to office romance,” says psychotherapist and author Rick Carson. “I have a woman who comes to see me now who is jealous of her husband simply because he works closely with another woman. The husband has told his wife that he thinks this other woman might be a little attracted to him, but that he doesn’t pay any attention. Still, it has upset the wife. She’s called the office a couple of times, and this other woman has answered the phone, and it’s driven her crazy. Office romances might be in vogue, but that shouldn’t make us forget what problems they can cause.”
That’s putting it lightly, Despite all the success stories you might hear now, office romances can be absolutely treacherous. There are still a lot of the J.R. Ewing-style, manipulative office seductions. One of the most successful figures in Dallas commercial real estate is notorious for sleeping with the women he hires. Women come in and out of his life with the rapidity of a Broadway sex farce. The in-house joke in his company is that you can’t get ahead by sleeping with him since he’s already slept with most other women in the company.
No one interviewed for this article could resist passing on their favorite lurid story of lust and scandal in the office. Some of them are amusing: for example, a former sports-caster at Channel 4 was fired because he was caught consummating a few things with a security guard in the station manager’s office. But most of them are sad: one psychologist told me about a well-known executive who, at a Christmas party, was seen by his wife dancing a little too closely with a young secretary. Suddenly, the wife was certain the two were having an affair. She demanded that her husband fire the young woman or never come back home. The secretary suddenly found herself without a job, alone, hurt. She realized she loved him. And to top it off, to save his marriage, he wouldn’t even talk to her.
Ironically, it is the office where people come to terms with the direction of their lives, not merely the direction of their careers. Rick Carson recalls the story of one client, a mild-mannered mechanical engineer, married for seventeen years with children, whose whole life outside of work was directed toward his family and his church. Then another mechanical engineer joined the staff, a young woman who had the same highly specialized interests as the man. They traveled together on work assignments, spent hours talking about their field. Says Carson, “The man told me that relationship was such a contrast to his life with his wife and the kids. He said, ’My relationship with Laura [the mechanical engineer] grew and deepened, while the sameness of my relationship with my wife kept gnawing at me. Eventually, I felt downright deadened in my wife’s presence. I think I’m a good man, with strong values, but before long, Laura and I were enmeshed in a romance that turned my life upside down.’ “
Many intelligent, confident, husbands and wives keep a little secret to themselves: always, no matter how happy their marriages are, they worry that their spouses will have an affair at the office. Wives consider the large pool of single women out there, many of whom carry no marital baggage or concerns about children. They notice that life at home is well regulated, that things are absolutely secure and perhaps, in a way, a little bit boring. And they wonder if their husbands, caught up in the excitement and conquest of their own professional lives, might also look at the office as a way somehow to rejuvenate their personal lives as well.
In truth, many married men do look upon the office as the last bastion where they can, if not exactly have an affair, at least flirt. It’s “safe” in the office; men think they can always get out of the situation whenever they want. Romance becomes just another power game in the life of the office. There are men who refuse to go “out with the boys” because they recognize it can be demeaning to their wives, but who feel perfectly comfortable teasing and joking with women in a way that is almost sexual. Family therapist Carson always warns married people not to discuss rough spots in their marriage with workmates of the opposite sex, because it opens the door a little for a potential affair. “I always tell them to operate with integrity,” he says. “The line between operating with integrity and flirtation is often blurry to the eyes, but is is always clear in your heart.”
But to be fair, women have also joined the game. Some realize that along with the power they have obtained in the office comes the freedom to act like Donna Juan if they wish. Others think, naively, that the way to get ahead in a still male-dominated company is-presto!-date a higher-up man. A friend tells me of a young female executive who has had two office romances in the last five years, both of them leading to engagements. First she fell in love with the president of her company. She broke up with him when she found out he had embezzled some money from the company. But she soon fell in love again, this time with her sales manager at a new company where she went to work. This second boyfriend was married with three very young children. Though she didn’t like the ethics of the first boyfriend, she didn’t feel the slightest guilt at all about interfering in her second boyfriend’s marriage so she could pursue her own feelings. “Well, that’s modern romance for you,” says my friend.
“Often,” says therapist Carson, “two people in an office relationship don’t go through the phases and stages they need to in order to get to a point of true intimacy, where the relationship is really tested. They don’t have to confront the power and control struggles that emerge out of financial worries, or child rearing, or just seeing one another’s stomachs hang out, so to speak.”
But the inescapable truth is that the office has become the new sexual battleground. Today, the famous bromide, “Don’t dip your pen in company ink,” has an old-fashioned ring to it. “I did everything I could not to get involved in office relationships when I first started working,” says a woman I know. “I had heard all the horror stories.”
But then, the third week she was on the job, a cute guy who worked in another part of the office said hello to her in the elevator. And by the time they got down to the first floor, she knew she would go out with him. “Everyone kept warning me,” she says. “And I kept listening. And even when we started seeing each other every night, I had friends saying it was a risky idea to get involved with someone at the office.
“Well,” she says, “when we announced our engagement, all the same friends who had been warning me all this time suddenly showed up and said, ’I knew it all along. You two were perfect for each other.’ And after 1 said, Thank you,’ they said, ’But watch yourself. You know what they say about the troubles married couples have who work together’”