Office romances: Weighing risks versus rewards

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Office romances: Weighing risks versus rewards

When Kwak Yong-duk sat down to dinner with his co-workers in the Seoul Hilton hotel's staff cafeteria, he didn't know that Cupid's arrow would pierce his heart.

A co-worker introduced him to Chung Young-ran, who was about to be transferred to Mr. Kwak's division, the front desk.

"She was shy," Mr. Kwak says.

"He was sharp," Ms. Chung says.

Initially, Ms. Chung was wary about dating a co-worker. She wondered what others would think.

After all, dating a colleague can be fatal to your career. What happens if your partner is promoted and becomes your supervisor? What happens if you help your sweetie with a project and a colleague protests that you're playing favorites? How do you handle the inevitable gossip? Will you be so uncomfortable if you break up that you'll have to quit your job?

A Mr. Kim, who asked that his full name not be used, started dating a co-worker at his electronics firm but soon broke it off.

"Everyone knew they were history," says a co-worker. "They bumped into each other often. It was awkward for them and for us."

Mr. Kim's ex-girlfriend quit a few months later, then left Korea to study English in the United States. "It was dopiyuhak," the colleague said -- running away under the guise of studying abroad.

Because office romances often go sour, some companies have policies barring dating at work. "Your romance may color everyone's judgment with regard to promotions, projects, team building and responsibilities," says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, a consultant at a human resources firm in Massachusetts.

Remember the saying, "Hell hath no fury like a woman (or man) scorned?" If that scorned person is your boss, your life can be hell. If you dump your boss, "the opportunities for torturing you are endless," says Marty Nemko, another placement expert, based in California. Say goodbye to long lunches and hello to longer hours on the job.

If that scorned person is your subordinate, you may be accused of sexual harassment.

To prevent lawsuits, some companies in the United States now require managers to report workplace romances. Both parties must sign an agreement stating they entered the relationship willingly.

But don't write off office romances just yet: One U.S.-based study found that 64 percent of women who had romantic relationships with a boss reported that their work situation improved as a result.

"With professionals spending more time in the office than they did 20 or even 10 years ago, love and the paycheck are inseparable," says John Rossheim, an Internet content consultant.

Although Mr. Nemko cautions about the dangers of becoming romantically involved with a co-worker, he says, "You're more likely to find your valentine at the office water cooler than a bar stool."

At the Seoul Hilton, love gave Mr. Kwak courage. Undaunted by the potential dangers, he pursued Ms. Chung. He courted not only her, but the people around her, taking her boss out for drinks and dinner. He asked colleagues for advice. He convinced the shift supervisor to put him on the same schedule as Ms. Chung.

On a cold winter's night, he proposed to her, and she accepted. The couple married two years ago and recently had a child.

In another successful office romance, a Ms. Park, who also asked that her full name be withheld, met her husband, Mr. Lee, at work. They were working on an IT project that required long hours. "When you work together in a high-stress job, you see all aspects of a person's personality," Ms. Park said.

Four months after they began working together, Mr. Lee told Ms. Park that he liked her. She was cautious. But the more she saw of him, the more she thought, "We get along so well, I could see myself with him forever."

Ultimately she decided that her heart was more important than work. Her employer didn't have a problem with the marriage. Now, if anyone asks her opinion of office romances, she says, "If the person is worth it, go for it."

Joe Yong-hee
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