Trysts of the Trade

Sara Peck

The situation had reached a stalemate, leaving only two options in his mind: compromise, or wait it out. They would only be living together for two months while both of them were interning full-time, he reasoned, so it would be prudent to shut up and wait for August to come to a close rather than be confrontational. “Because there was an expiration date, it made it easier to deal with,” he says of his troubling living situation. The problem was that the pair was more than just roommates with some issues; they were co-workers as well as lovers, tenuously straddling the divide between romantic co-habitation and silent conflict.In-office relationships, even those unwarranted and unwelcome, have become increasingly common despite the widespread reiteration and retooling of dating and sexual harassment policies in the corporate world. Love, it seems, the kind in your heart or the kind in your pants, comes with consequences. Relationships, even when wrapped in business casual attire, are never as carefree as they seem – especially when entangled in university policies. Dan (name has been changed), a fifth-year senior, spent the past summer living in Virginia with his girlfriend slash co-worker while he worked at a NASA research center designing sound-resistant insulation for airplanes. He had first met her in wintertime, when he took a quarter off to intern at the same facility in lieu of McCormick’s Co-op Program he had originally planned on. After quitting Co-op, Dan found a paid internship at NASA and decided to create his own Co-op program. At the intern orientation, he met her.She was a student from the University of Florida, a fellow intern who was also living with a family in the area, which made rendezvous pretty difficult as their relationship bloomed. Dan asked her to dinner, and eventually they were spending nights and eating lunches together. “I’m really horrible at long-distance communication,” Dan confesses. “I hate the phone.” So, the pair separated when spring rolled around, only to reunite in the summer when Dan returned to NASA without a couch to crash on. He asked her to live with him. “I flew down there with no expectations,” he says. “But after a while, we started to get back into the swing of things and it was great.”The problem was, they had to keep it a secret.But the reason wasn’t Northwestern. Six hundred of McCormick’s co-op students take classes before their jobs begin, the rules of which don’t cover in-office relationships or sexual behavior, says Helen Olosoro, assistant dean of the program. Because the students are paid for their work they are not at the mercy of NU, but of their employer’s own codes and policies regarding dating and sexual encounters. Co-op goers also do not pay tuition to NU or receive credit (it is called “administrative credit,” Oloroso explains), which also exonerates NU from responsibility on the job site. Through the Co-op program, the University routinely refuses to sign certain agreements that ask the University to take responsibility for any physical, financial or other damages incurred by a student while interning, which means any bad behavior on the job is out of the University’s hands. “We can’t be there to police the student’s behavior,” says Oloroso, who has worked with co-op programs since the 1980s.Medill, by contrast, is one of NU’s schools that does enforce dating rules on its Journalism Residency internship program, possibly as a response to some after-hours relations between students and higher-ups. Lacey (name has been changed), a 2009 Medill graduate, dated a fellow reporter at her JR site for nearly a year with the green light from the entire newsroom who she says found the relationship “endearing and sweet; they liked us together.” She met him (a 30-year-old divorcee) in typical journalistic fashion, covering early election polling. “I knew he liked me when he let me have my own byline on a story we were working on together,” Lacey says, laughing. “That’s how journalists flirt.” Though she’d stepped out with a few other reporters in the first two months of her internship, Lacey combed the publication’s dating policy and personally confronted her editors about the budding relationship. They were more than supportive, she says, nor was she breaking any written rules. “I obviously took my professional life very seriously, and I wouldn’t have thought about it if he was my editor or if it had to be a secret.” So, they kept their laundry aired (even on Facebook) for the last month of her internship and slightly less than a year after.Shortly after Lacey returned to campus, Medill sent out an email sternly informing students that dating and other relations while on JR were strictly prohibited. “I got really nervous,” she says. “I thought that (former program coordinator) Mark LaMet might think less of me or that I’d get in trouble for it, even though my editors totally supported it.” Lacey says the relationship didn’t affect her professionally whatsoever. “If anything, it helped me because my editors knew me more,” she says. “I can’t see why Medill would have a policy against it unless there’s a clear conflict of interest, like the person is your supervisor. It didn’t complicate work for me at all.”Lacey currently freelances for the newspaper where her tryst blossomed, the only occupational setback being that her ex still works there. Lacey doesn’t regret the affair; she’d do it again, and thinks that it happens more than Medill – or employers – would like to think. “I hear of it happening fairly regularly,” she says. “I mean, you’re all by yourself and you’re working 40-plus hours a week; it’s all you have.”But for others, attention, sex or companionship are wholly unsolicited. For Diana (name has been changed), a Northwestern senior who interned at a production company in Los Angeles for the summer. Working in an office of mostly young males, Diana started to attract the unwanted yet “not really creepy” affections of one of her bosses. He was around 28 years old, a Conan O’Brien type, single (or so she thought). It wasn’t the stuff of made-for-TV movies-ass-grabbing at the water cooler or steamy cubicle confrontations. Instead he invited her to parties at his house, since she was new to L.A. He Facebook-chatted with her, constantly reiterating “let me take you out,” though she constantly declined. One day, when they were out shooting on Hollywood Boulevard, a young woman came up to him. He introduced her to the crew by name only, though she later “said something to the effect of ‘when we first started dating,'” she says. Diana was shocked-though she didn’t feel seriously wounded by his behavior, he certainly wasn’t acting like a single guy.About two weeks before her internship ended, he had stopped talking to her completely – online, after work or in the office. He was also in a Facebook relationship with the woman from the shoot.A study conducted by the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., found 35 percent of companies have no formal policy on in-office relationships and “relations,” if you catch the drift. These are murky waters for an inexperienced, often temporary employee such as an intern, who may be ignorant to or confused by office dating taboo. Some companies openly discourage dating, just not in print. Dating is allowed about half of the time, though employers might restrict boss-subordinate humping to prevent “extra benefits” on the job. Others seem to turn a blind eye if you keep your mouth and legs shut while working, though 28 percent of those polled in the survey said they got busy on company grounds such as the conference room, the boss’s office, the bathroom, an elevator and a supply closet. But even the old pros aren’t on their best cubicle behavior – a CareerBuilder survey found 47 percent of polled workers had been involved with a co-worker, hinting maybe no policy is the best policy.As the summer wore on, tensions arose between Dan and his girlfriend, though they worked in different areas of the center that employed thousands of people and 150 interns. Lunches were often eaten together, a
nd after worked Dan says he struggled to find personal time. “At the end of the day, I had no interest in hanging out with her. I just felt like, ‘I’ve seen you all day long, can’t I just do my own thing?'” Dan suspects she resented the secrecy she had made mandatory in their relationship. “It was an odd, secret relationship. When we were home, I got confused and she got frustrated. I didn’t know what she wanted, but I think she wanted me to show physical affection when we were out, but I didn’t because we agreed that people wouldn’t know.” However, he maintains that he’d do it again, despite the trials and messy ending.Image coach Anna Wildermuth, author of Change One Thing, says shacking up with any co-worker, even with the boss’s (or school’s) green light, is dangerous and unprofessional. “Even if there’s no policy, it’s the unwritten policy,” she explains, adding that the vast majority of the firms she has worked with do have strict guidelines banning co-worker canoodling. “Everybody is an adult, but I don’t recommend it. I’ve worked with some clients who have had really bad experiences that have hurt their careers.” Even if there isn’t a bad fallout or a policy violation, it simply gives the wrong impression about your priorities, Wildermuth says. “It looks like you’re more interested in dating than in working for the company.” Most Co-op students, Oloroso says, are presented with a job offer at the end of their internship. However, a relationship on the job might blacklist a student from other opportunities, Wildermuth warns, because employers talk more than students like to think. “You never know what might end up in an interview,” she says. “However you put it, dating in a company is dangerous, and the results are 50/50. Today, especially with the economy the way it is, the competition is high, so why risk your career for a fling?” Diana escaped the situation unscathed, since she had several supervisors above her suitor. But after the summer, the wheels started churning about the possible consequences of the situation. “I just started thinking that if he was my immediate boss, I might not have gotten a good reference,” she says. “I ended on good terms with the main bosses, but I could have gotten a bad recommendation because he hit on me and I wasn’t interested.”