The news yesterday that Google cofounder Sergey Brin had become involved with a Google employee and had split with his wife of six years, Anne Wojcicki, highlights the fallout that can result from an office romance. A further complication: Brin’s love interest had previously been involved with another Google employee. Brin, 40, is the 14th richest person in the U.S. according to Forbes’ most recent calculation, with a fortune worth $22.8 billion. He shares majority voting power with Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page. A spokesman for Brin and Wojcicki told Forbes that the two have been living apart for several months but “remain good friends and partners.” The couple has two young children. All Things D also reported that, according to sources, they have a prenuptial agreement and that their split and potential divorce would have no impact on Google.
There are more family ties that entangle Wojcicki’s family and Google. Wojcicki’s sister Susan has a powerful job at Google, as a senior vice president of advertising. Anne met Sergey when Susan rented her garage to him and Page and it served as Google’s first headquarters. Susan’s husband Dennis Troper also works at Google. If any of them resent Sergey’s new love interest, that could cause problems for her. Yet another complication: Google and Brin have invested in Anne’s company, 23andMe, which sells home DNA testing kits.
It could be that everything works out fine for Brin, Wojcicki and Brin’s new romantic partner. But lawyers and career coaches say that getting involved with a colleague or boss can turn into a minefield of problems. Nevertheless, Brin is among a growing number of people who find their love interests at work. According to a 2013 survey by the job search website CareerBuilder.com, 39% of workers say they’ve dated a colleague at some point in their careers. Nearly a third say they married the person they dated at work. Another career website, Vault.com, found that 59% of respondents had dated a colleague at least once during their career.
The office is a hotbed of romance–and a more effective one than dating websites or the corner bar. Helaine Olen, coauthor with Stephanie Losee of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding–and Managing–Romance on the Job, says the workplace is where most people find love these days. “The office has turned into the village of the 21st century,” she says. “Where else do you spend 12 hours a day?”
And fewer workers are keeping their romances secret. CareerBuilder found that 65% of workers who had office relationships were public about them, compared with 46% seven years ago. The survey of 4,200 workers was conducted for CareerBuilder by Harris Interactive.
While people are more relaxed about office dating than they were in the post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas 1990s, and Brin and his new love interest may live happily ever after, in many cases, boss-employee relationships end badly. Brin’s relationship raises one of the most obvious issues: the breakup of a marriage.
But another perilous scenario, says employment lawyer Kathleen McKenna of New York’s Proskauer law firm is a sexual harassment suit brought by the underling. Such suits are based on either a claim of a hostile work environment or a charge that there was f-me-or-you’re-fired quid pro quo harassment.
Given that office romance seems to be inevitable, I asked McKenna and another lawyer, plus a career coach, a sociologist and a wise Forbes contributor, for rules that can help ensure that an office romance turns out well.
No. 1: Avoid a supervisor-supervisee relationship. Especially for the person in the supervisor’s seat, such a relationship is “criminally stupid,” says McKenna. “You might as well put a sign on your forehead that says, ‘Kick me here.’” McKenna acts mainly as a defense lawyer. In Brin’s case it’s not clear he broke this rule, given that he’s outside the company and doesn’t officially supervise his new romantic partner.
Still Edward Hernstadt, a plaintiff-side employment lawyer in New York, agrees with McKenna. An employee can make a claim that she (it’s usually a she) wouldn’t have dated the boss if she hadn’t felt compelled. “The supervisor will say, ‘I just asked you to go on a date,’” says Hernstadt. “But the subordinate will say, ‘I felt I couldn’t say no.’”
If a supervisor and a subordinate just can’t resist each other, McKenna recommends that they sign what she calls a “cupid contract.” They should spell out in writing the fact that both are engaging in a consensual relationship. If the company has a sexual harassment policy, they should make it clear they understand the rules.
Helaine Olen agrees. “Set some ground rules you can use if the relationship flames out,” she advises. “It’s like a prenup for an office romance.”
Olen also suggests that the senior partner in the relationship step up and report the romance to the human resources department. In so doing the supervisor should volunteer to take the hit if the company decides the pair should no longer work together.
It’s far preferable to find someone outside your department to date. Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, a career coach who has worked with companies including Merrill Lynch, Pfizer and Citigroup, recommends looking for love at office philanthropic activities and social events like softball games rather than in the neighboring cubicle.
Another piece of perhaps obvious but valuable advice: Pause before you plunge. “Stop and think about yourself in relation to the other person,” advises Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of 16 books on dating and romance.
“If you’re in heavy lust, you’ve got to slow down.” McKenna agrees. “Think about the fact that 50% of marriages don’t make it,” she says. “The batting average for other relationships is much worse.”
One more piece of advice: Consider how you would feel if you lost your job. Everyone who has experienced heartbreak knows that proximity to an ex can be unbearable. All too often, say experts, failed office romances result in one person leaving the job–willfully or not.
“The possible consequences here are not just the loss of the person you’re gaga over,” says Schwartz. “It could mean the loss of your livelihood.” Brin obviously doesn’t run that risk and it seems his new romantic partner will also be safe, given that she doesn’t report directly to him. But for the rest of us, it’s wise to keep in mind the potential fallout from an office liaison.