Illustration: Rob Donnelly

The Careerist: The Office Germfest

February, 2016

My office is like a germ factory at this time of year! Why won’t people take a darn sick day?

It’s pretty gross, isn’t it? The hacking, sneezing and nose blowing. You can sense the pathogens winging your way on a cloud of Vicks VapoRub, eager to infect you. Short of wearing a HazMat suit, there’s not a whole lot you can do when a sick co-worker insists on staggering into work. This phenomenon is known as presenteeism, and it’s a growing problem in the modern workplace. A recent study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology looked at the key causes and found they include high job demands, stress and job insecurity. Interestingly, a lack of sick time was not a factor.

Coming into work sick can not only expose other employees to a contagious illness, but, the study notes, will “compound the effects of the initial illness and result in negative job attitudes and withdrawal from work.” If you’re a manager, review your attendance policy and the way it’s communicated to ensure there’s a truly supportive work environment so that employees don’t feel they must come in to work while ill. And model the behavior: If you’re sick, stay home.

Read the whole study at

I’m romantically drawn to this woman at work, but I know from personal experience that workplace relationships can be messy. As in “One of us needs to quit” messy. That’s why I’m torn between asking her out and just taking more cold showers.

“This happens all the time,” sighs Paul Saito, a partner at the law firm of Cades Schutte who specializes in employment law and labor relations. In fact, about 10 percent of Americans met their spouses at work, according to research by Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld. (It used to be 20 percent, but Tinder happened.) So, if you’ve been pierced by Cupid’s arrow during a PowerPoint presentation, you’re not alone. 

Saito often collaborates with companies to create employee handbooks that address issues such as romantic entanglements in the workplace. Many companies, he says, have no-dating policies, though they are difficult to enforce. But, as long as employees are of equal status – that is, neither has supervisory authority over the other – there’s no problem legally. “The company has no obligation to do anything unless someone complains, like, ‘So and so keeps asking me out and I want it to stop.’ Then the company has to take prompt remedial steps to stop that.”

The problem arises if a supervisor starts dating a subordinate. This imposes liability on the company. “The company is strictly liable for any injury to the (lower-ranking) employee, which could be emotional distress, termination, lack of promotion, a less favorable job assignment, if there’s a perception of quid pro quo,” Saito says. Or, “If you’re the paramour of a supervisor and getting better benefits, it’s going to create a hostile work environment for other co-workers.” Most companies, therefore, have policies preventing supervisors dating subordinates. Best practice, he says, is for employees to come forward if they fall in love, be honest, and for management to arrange to separate the two parties within the company so that neither is managing the other.

That’s the stone-cold legal perspective.

But what’s it like to woo a co-worker in real life?  For this, I interviewed Kaipo Solomon (name changed for privacy), who married the woman of his dreams after meeting her in a nearby cubicle. Beige fabric walls! They’re so romantic.

How long before you knew you were interested? “About a year. We’d been friends first, and a lot of our other co-workers kept pointing out that we’d make a good couple. Finally, the suggestion took and I decided to make a move.”

Did you ever have to discuss this with your HR department? “Being co-workers wasn’t so much a concern since we rarely worked directly together on projects. We only started telling friends about three months into dating. That way if we didn’t think it was working out, it wouldn’t be awkward for our other friends/co-workers. I don’t think either of us was even conscious of having the HR discussion, but our HR department always felt really loosey goosey and, since there wasn’t any real overlap, we didn’t think it’d be an issue.”

Any advice for office Romeos and Juliets? “Be friends first. Hang out socially. Go to dinner in a group. Make sure you’re compatible and enjoy a lot of the same things so you avoid the awkwardness if the relationship is born out of a hook-up or anything like that. Get to know each other, find comfort with each other and, if you recognize something more might be there, be open and honest about it with each other.”

I keep losing my employees – three in six months – to competitors. I’m paying good salaries and benefits, and I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. 

Ouch: Was it something you said? Are you showering? I’d ask yourself and your management team the following questions: Are you offering enough advancement opportunities and training? Are you communicating goals in SMART ways (specific, measurable, authentic, regular and timely)? Is the work/life balance of your employees out of control? Do employees feel trusted? Do they trust you? Do they feel there’s a greater purpose in working for the company? Succeed on these factors – not just salary and benefits – and top talent will stay with you, not jump to the other guy.

Related Stories

On Newsstands Now
HB July 2017


Kathryn Drury Wagner