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What Taboo?

Catching your employees making goo-goo eyes at each other--even at you? Office romance is on the rise and, believe it or not, most say there's nothing wrong with that.

Lately, dating within the office has become more common among co-workers. The pattern appears to have been influenced by the juggernaut dotcom industry, where tons of young start-ups have cultivated a new, easygoing and more liberal company culture. What was not long ago deemed taboo is now tolerated and, in some cases, even encouraged. But will this open-minded approach to office dating progress to a higher level, with entrepreneurs courting employees?

Take, for instance, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates. There's much to be said when the planet's wealthiest man weds someone on his payroll. Sure, Melinda Gates never worked directly with her hubby, but the rule of not getting your bread where you get your meat still applies in this case, especially with the stigma of Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill embedded in office folklore.

Yet Mari Florence, author of Sex at Work (Silver Lake Publishing), says venturing into uncharted waters is part of the entrepreneurial make-up. "[Entrepreneurs] tend to be greater risk-takers by nature, so you find in many start-ups a breeding of an 'anything goes' ethos."

Nowadays, the workplace has truly become an intimate extension of the old singles' bar and hangout. Paul A. Falzone, author of A Singles' Guide to Finding the Right One (PAFCO International), explains that enough women have entered the work force in just the past decade to make them nearly proportionally equal to men and thus create the opportunity for increased socializing. He adds, "With the mounting work hours most start-ups keep, entrepreneurs and their employees are finding the only social relationships they have time for is with co-workers."

The communal brew of employees who go out for drinks after work and who share common interests can also lead to sparks. "You're in a pool of other like-minded people with the same skills and passions as you," says Florence. "How are you not going to find somebody in your own line of business who you may find attractive?" She also points out people are generally viewed in their best light while performing at work-including entrepreneurs. "There isn't this perception anymore of the entrepreneur in a big glass corner office who is inaccessible to everyone. Interaction becomes less formidable," she says.

According to an American Management Association poll, 74 percent of its members approved of office romances, while 21 percent believed dating between a supervisor and employee wouldn't be a problem. Although these numbers continue to rise as office couples become more widespread, many start-up leaders are still reluctant to pursue romantic relationships with their own employees, deeming the potential fallout more pressing than anything else. "I find myself attracted to people in the office, just like anyone else, because I'm human," explains Joe Cha, CEO of San Francisco-based XUMA, a custom application service provider. "But the cost to the organization could be great and it's better for everyone to know I'm 100 percent focused on the business and there's nothing else distracting me."

Florence contends employees naturally look to their leaders to set precedents. "Problems with relationships between an entrepreneur and a staff member aren't necessarily about the relationship itself. It's about the perception from their peers who may feel threatened and the actual power the relationship may or may not have," she says.

The 30-year-old Cha agrees and believes crossing the company line can make staff uneasy and negatively affect morale. He adds that the pressure builds when you hire the most qualified people, who may also be the type that would appeal to you outside of work. "We foster a culture that's supportive of hard work, and, as a result, attract vibrant, passionate people. Those are very attractive traits to many entrepreneurs," he says. "In effect, you're creating your own monster."

Yet with all the reservations entrepreneurs may hold, they've learned to tolerate their employees developing romantic bonds with one another. A recent Montana State University study found 80 percent of respondents reported having an office romance with a co-worker at one time. "We don't encourage it, nor do we admonish it. But it has naturally grown and taken on a life of its own," says Cha. Enough so, in fact, that some flings have even resulted in marriage.

For peers, the open and supportive atmosphere at XUMA has also allowed employees to develop a healthy balance between being open with their office relationships and maintaining their professionalism. Cha has found their sincerity to be refreshing and rewarding. "If people find happiness personally and professionally at the same place, it's all good," he says.

The movement among dotcoms and other start-ups to be more open-minded and forward-thinking in their philosophies may be an indicator of what will become widely accepted in tomorrow's corporate world. The overall success of the employee-courting culture could determine how quickly the notion of entrepreneurs taking part in the dating scene progresses. Yet Cha remains content in admiring from afar. "These things take their natural course," he says. "I'm personally not in any real rush."

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This article was originally published in the October 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What Taboo?.

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