HR Strange But True!
February 10, 2009

Surveys say that the workplace is one of the top three places to meet someone, and that one-third of these relationships lead to marriage. Well, as we just watched history being made when Barack and Michelle Obama walked into the White House, we are also watching what may be called the ultimate workplace romance.

The story of the Obama's meeting in the Chase Tower office of prestigious Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin sounds a bit like a movie script. According to Liza Mundy, author of Michelle: A Biography and a Washington Post reporter, in 1989 Michelle Robinson was assigned to mentor summer intern “prodigy” Barack Obama because she was making a name for herself as an associate and because she, too, had interned at the firm when she attended Harvard Law School .

Obama had been recommended for the internship by a Harvard Law professor whose father was a partner in the firm. Michelle was skeptical about this summer associate, saying he sounded “overly intellectual” and “just too good to be true,” according to Mundy. And when he showed up for their initial lunch in a sport jacket, not a suit, and smoking a cigarette, the impeccable Michelle was not impressed, she has told David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power.

She also didn't regard him as a potential date because of her position as his adviser and because she thought office romances were “tacky,” according to an article on So when sparks did fly, she was a little reluctant to pursue the relationship, John Levi, the partner who hired both Obamas, told Slate. Mundy reports that the budding relationship made Michelle feel self-conscious. But Barack Obama says in The Audacity of Hope that he was smitten from the moment she started explaining billable hours!

Of course, as the summer progressed, they realized that they had more in common than Harvard Law School in their drive for achievement and desire to help others through the law. Their famous date at a church, where Barack had worked as a community organizer and where Michelle first heard him speak about community needs for the first time, cemented the relationship.

Mary Carragher, the senior associate assigned along with Michelle to mentor Barack, told Mundy that she could tell from their body language that there was chemistry between the couple, especially when they would be talking in the office at the end of the day “rapt and oblivious” to her presence. While both maintained “a professional demeanor” in the office, when they did begin dating, Michelle seemed embarrassed if people from the firm saw the couple together after hours.

The summer ended; Barack went back to Cambridge , and a long-distance relationship ensued. The rest is history, and the relationship goes down as an icon of workplace romance.

While we don't know what the Sidley & Austin policy was on employee dating at the time, it doesn't seem that the Obamas had a “power differentiated” relationship. Perhaps if Barack had accepted the offer from the law firm upon graduation, the situation may have changed, although Michelle was in the intellectual property practice. But, as in a movie, things certainly worked out for the best, especially since the Obamas exhibited perfect behavior for workplace couples.

So, while some companies prohibit all romantic relationships between employees, most accept the inevitable and try to be as unrestrictive and nonintrusive as possible, while guarding against sexual harassment or favoritism. “It is not management's concern when Cupid's arrows fly,” says Stephen Bruce, SPHR, “it's just to protect employees who might be affected by the arrows.”

Sources: Washington Post and Slate

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