Tim was 28 and had been married for two years when he started working as a commercial producer at a company in Santa Monica, California. He immediately took a liking to the receptionist, a tanned, friendly 25-year-old.
"She couldn't have been nicer or have represented the company in a more positive way," he recalls. "Also, there was her body."
When she was promoted to assistant producer, they had such a good time working closely together—he would give her advice about how to get ahead as a producer, she would IM him about music, and they would have a few beers after work together to unwind—that Tim began to look forward to arriving at the office the way some guys anticipate leaving it.
"My marriage started to go south," Tim, now 32, says. "Whether it was because of her, who knows? But I wasn't happy at home, and I was so happy going to work."
Six months after the flirtation began, Tim and his wife separated. A week later, he and the receptionist turned producer consummated their office flirtation. Soon they'd had sex in all seven of the company's editing suites.
If this sounds like the kind of scenario that exists only in porn movies, you should start looking up from your spreadsheets once in a while. Through the nineties, office affairs were typically confined to hurried liaisons after holiday parties or at boozy Las Vegas sales conferences. And even then, most men feared those dalliances would get them fired or sued for sexual harassment. But now sexual harassment claims have decreased—21 percent fewer were filed in 2007 than in 1997—and a more relaxed environment has well-paid professionals trolling the corridors for willing sex partners like the overheated colleagues on The Office do, without worrying about getting sued.
"There's an enthusiasm and almost brazenness on the part of employees [about] seeking out workplace romance," says Mark Oldman, cofounder of the career-information website Vault. "It doesn't carry the social stigma that it did." According to Vault's January 2008 survey of office workers, 46 percent said they'd had a workplace tryst, and 13 percent said they hadn't but were willing to.
It shouldn't be too hard for them. When Tim took a job at another company, leaving the assistant producer behind, it wasn't long before he began sleeping with a coworker at his new office.
Kevin, a 32-year-old website designer in New York, says he kept a mental inventory of the good-looking girls at the 250-person interactive agency he used to work for. During his seven years there he had eight liaisons, ranging from one-night stands to affairs to serious relationships.
Kevin was never sued over his intra-office fraternization, but he did get a reputation. One woman he slept with confronted him about his habit of fishing off the company pier. The fact that he was an admitted veteran of the office affair made him less appealing to her. "People like the idea that this is considered taboo," he says.
But intra-office sex isn't considered taboo anymore. In the early nineties, against the backdrop of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, many companies instituted strict no-socializing policies. Now some firms actually offer what amounts to tacit support for fledgling relationships, by asking entangled employees to sign what's called a "consensual social relationship contract." "You can't prevent people from getting infatuated with coworkers," says Stephen Tedesco, a partner at Littler Mendelson, the law firm that developed the contract. "This is a way to say, 'Whatever's going on is your business, but these are the ground rules for how you conduct it in the workplace.'"
Indeed, part of the appeal of the new in-your-face office affair is its location. Having a girlfriend sitting next to you throughout the day is far hotter than having a picture of your wife on your desk. "If you have a girlfriend outside the office, no one gets to see her," says Brad Karsh, a former recruiting director for Leo Burnett in Chicago and the president of JobBound, which helps college students prepare for their first jobs. "But the girl in the office is there in the flesh."
Women can benefit from office affairs too. Janet (not her real name), a 35-year-old editor in New York, dated two coworkers—one of whom was her superior—while at the same job. "I became known as the office slut," she says.
Another coworker asked her out, and after she turned him down repeatedly, he said, "Come on, you've fucked everyone else in the office."
But instead of reporting him to HR, she used the slut tag to her advantage. "Freakishly, it may have helped my career," she says. "There was all of this curiosity about me and all of these idiots thinking they had a chance."
The new openness, however, can't protect you from the built-in peril that accompanies getting involved with a coworker: If things go wrong, there's nowhere to hide. After Dave, a 33-year-old medical-supply salesman in New York, ended a six-month relationship with a fellow sales rep, he would see her lurking around the hallways of the hospital they worked in, waiting for him.
"She would just stand there and fucking stare at me," he says. "It was so uncomfortable. People would know that there was something odd going on between us."
She also hounded him with phone calls and text messages. Finally, Dave had had enough. He texted her, "You're a psycho girl. Stop calling me."
Kevin also had a former office fling transform into a stalker. She once buzzed his apartment at 3 A.M. and, when he wouldn't let her in, shouted at him from the street.
"After that I promised myself that I would never hook up with anyone at work again," he says. "I was worried she was going to come by my office and scream at me."
She never did, but Kevin found that his employer knew how friendly he was with comely new hires anyway. When he and a top executive were stuck at the airport in Atlanta, the boss said to him, after a few beers at Chili's Too, "So which girl are you hooking up with at the office now?"
"I was horrified that more people knew than I thought," Kevin says, "but relieved that he didn't see it as an issue."
The office hookup may now be out in the open (and often employer-approved), but that doesn't make getting involved with a coworker any less complicated—or potentially detrimental to your career.
"Dating in the office is usually never an issue," Karsh says. "Breaking up at the office is, especially if it's going to be nasty. You don't want to be calling anyone a bitch at a meeting."