Sunday, August 27, 2006

Workplace Romance

Let's think pure logistics here.

Say you're a young professional - maybe 25, 30, or 40 - and you're single. You're busy with your career, but you want to meet somebody. Where is that going to happen?

Not at college, church, or social clubs - those settings may have worked as meeting places a generation or two ago, but not anymore.

The bar scene? Ha, ha ... hardly.

These days - perhaps inevitably - many people in Western New York are meeting and marrying people they work with.

It's a trend that's being tracked nationally as well. In 2003, a national business association found that 30 percent of professionals surveyed had dated a work colleague, and 44 percent of those relationships ended in marriage. A third of the relationships were short-term affairs.

In Buffalo, though no exact numbers are available, a look around the corporate offices at one local company - Rich Products - reveals a stunning example of the phenomenon:

In one nine-person department at Rich, a total of six people are married to people they met or worked with at Rich. Another is currently dating a co-worker.

That might make this office, unofficially speaking, the Most Married Workplace in Western New York.

"I actually took Tim's job when I came here," said Lorena Mathien, 36, a project manager at Rich who has been married to her husband, Tim Mathien, another Rich employee, for 10 years. "When I interviewed here, he pulled my resume. When I arrived, he held the door for me.

"I just never noticed him," Mathien said with a wry laugh. "He's not my type."

"He must be your type," interjects Kimberly Rayburg Borkowski, 32, a co-worker of Mathien's who married a colleague, Henry Borkowski, two months ago. "He's your husband!"

Why it's happening

Experts in the field of workplace relationships - who are doing lots of business these days with companies that want to draft written policies on workplace dating - chalk the phenomenon up to a few key factors.

People are meeting and marrying their spouses later - not in high school or college anymore. The median age for first marriages is now nearly 27 for men and slightly higher than 25 for women, census data shows.

Multiple marriages are also common.

And, young people are spending more of their time at work, often striving to get ahead in competitive fields, and that leaves little time for leisure activities such as socializing and casual dating.

"Probably the safest place to meet people is at work. But it's probably one of the worst places to meet people," said Ethan A. Winning, a California-based human resources expert who runs nationally known Winning Associates and who has been dubbed the "Dating Czar" for his brook-no-nonsense approach to workplace relationships.

Why is it the worst? Most times these workplace relationships don't end in marriage, Winning said. That can create problem scenarios at work when a love affair, of whatever duration, ends.

And even when colleague-couples do end up at the altar, Winning cautioned, the cattiness and rumors of favoritism that surround office relationships never really fade away. They often apply to spouses as well as dating couples, he said.

"There are always going to be allegations of favoritism," said Winning.

Seeing the upside

You'd have a hard time convincing the employees at Rich Products of that.

These co-workers said they see the advantages to being married to colleagues to be much greater than the disadvantages.

Commuting together is a terrific convenience, said Kim Borkowski, a project manager at Rich for 10 years who met her husband, a network administrator, when she went to his department to see if her computer was fixed. "We can get so much accomplished on the commute," she said.

Benefits can also be better for both spouses if they use the company plan that offers more to one of the spouses, the Rich employees said. The company day care center - an in-house perk for employees - is accessible to both spouses as well, and that makes family meetings and lunches possible.

"It's not only a personal benefit, it's a family benefit," said Ann Marie Klosko, a project manager who has been at Rich 19 years, the past 14 of which she has been married to Gary Klosko, another Rich employee. The couple has a 3-year-old child in the company day care.

Then there's the shared culture.

These Rich employees said it saves time and makes for more interesting conversation at home when they talk about work, since they both know the same workplace and the same people.

"There's a shared culture," said Lorena Mathien.

Finding the humor

But what about that office cattiness, those whispers that being involved with or married to a colleague helped somebody get ahead?

Office relationships are indeed trickier when the couple works on vastly different levels of the company - the old superior-subordinate conundrum.

In a 2003 survey of 1,000 professionals, the career Web site found that most employees - 21 percent - do object to office relationships of a superior-subordinate nature. People are more accepting when the intertwined colleagues are peers, the survey found, although 7 percent said the relationships should never be allowed to happen.

In the Rich Products office, most of the employees are married to people on the same level within the company.

There's no cattiness, they said, and they wouldn't let it bother them if there was.

"Think of it this way," said Ann Marie Klosko, "We work for a family-owned company. Bob and Mindy Rich are married, and they have their offices here."

One employee who is married to a superior, Nicole Schalk, 28, said that she has confidence in her skills in finance at the company, and so it doesn't bother her that her husband of three years, Robert Schalk, holds a director's title in finance in the company.

"It can't have hurt, in my opinion, but I still think my success is my own," said Nicole Schalk, who told the company in an upfront fashion about her relationship at the start.

She even once diffused the situation with laughter.

In a meeting, during a moment when there seemed to be some initial tension, Nicole leaned over, picked up Bob's coffee mug, and took a drink.

It got a good laugh.

"I think sometimes people feel more awkward about it than we do," she said.

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