As long as professionals are forced to spend so many waking hours together in one place, the office will not just be a workplace but also a convenient dating pool of people with similar occupations and shared interests.
One in three American adults is or has been in a workplace romance, according to a 2019 poll by the Society for Human Resources Management.
Dating a co-worker ― even the right way ― can be high-risk, high-reward. Karen, a professional whose office romance at a software company blossomed into marriage nearly 28 years ago, called the relationship the “best decision” she ever made but also a choice that others should approach with caution. Initially, Karen kept her relationship with a co-worker from another department quiet “to the point where co-workers were trying to set us up with other people because they had no idea.” Karen wanted to know the relationship was more than a fling before letting her colleagues know. “For the longest time we didn’t tell anybody. Nobody at work knew until we had a strong feeling it would be more than a casual thing,” she said. “I’m trying to imagine if we had been out in the open and it had fizzled. I think it would have been really awkward.”
Still, not all office romances are quiet or successful. Both participants and bystanders have some basic tenets to consider for minimizing the drama these relationships can cause to everyone in the workplace.
Thoroughly read your HR policies on dating a colleague.
Before you engage in any type of office romance, figure out your company’s applicable policies and whether you have to disclose. Office romances are sometimes entirely against company policy, and more often so if you are dating up or down the organizational chart. A 2013 survey of 384 HR professionals from the Society for Human Resources Management found that 99% of workplaces banned romances between a supervisor and a direct report and almost half banned relationships between employees of a “significant rank difference.”
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It’s not hard to see why, considering the rate of workplace sexual harassment. But even clearly consensual relationships can be out of bounds when there is a power imbalance. Take the recent example of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was ousted for having a consensual relationship with an employee. McDonald’s code of conduct states that “employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship.”
You should also know your reputation may be unfairly harmed, regardless of company policies. Women have more to lose from an office romance: Research has found that colleagues are more likely to assume an entry-level woman employee is using a workplace romance with a superior to get ahead in her career than a male peer who does the same.
If you can’t compartmentalize work and home, you shouldn’t undertake an office romance.
When a romantic relationship goes public in the office, it also has public consequences for co-workers.
Public displays of affection at work can be disruptive mood-killers to everyone who witnesses them, for example. One 2011 study in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that when co-workers observed their peers and married co-workers flirt, these co-workers reported less job satisfaction and stronger intentions of quitting.
Co-workers can also feel uncomfortable when office romances suggest preferential treatment, said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals manage their careers. “If you keep things as they were before, and it really feels like a business relationship at work, I don’t think people tend to feel very different,” she said. “It’s when there is the other thing going on like private lunches, time away from the office, ... glances at a meeting ― all of this stuff cannot exist, because that does make people feel uncomfortable, it makes people feel like, ‘What is going on here?’”
Keeping romance out of work is key to making this relationship work for others. When professionals in advertising, public relations, and marketing were asked to weigh in on what made a workplace romance healthy for a 2017 study on these type of relationships, many answered that a healthy workplace romance was one which “if you didn’t already know they were dating, you would have no idea.”
Being careful to treat her partner like any other colleague was what Aimee Pierce did. She’s a client service professional who met and still works with her husband at the same marketing company. “If we didn’t inform new team members, I don’t think they would know,” Pierce said about her marriage. She and her husband share a boss who knows about their relationship, and she advises others who want to engage in an office romance to be transparent and to “personally review your actions for anything that could, even very slightly, look or be twisted to look like preferential treatment.”
For herself, “If my answer is even a ‘maybe’ when I ask myself this question, I bring it to our mutual boss or other neutral party and document it,” Pierce said.
Plan for your breakup.
Embarking on an office romance means preparing for the possibility of its end before it begins.
Orbé-Austin said that before professionals engage in an office romance, they should consider how they usually react after breakups. “You have to prepare for all scenarios when you work with somebody that you can maintain integrity to the work and to yourself in this process,” she said. “If you have a history of when you break up with someone, [of] never wanting to see them again, you probably shouldn’t date someone at work.”
Angela, who worked in customer service for a subscription business at the time of her office romance, said her experience made her not recommend it to anyone else. Angela “didn’t want a reputation at work,” so she and her co-worker kept their romance quiet, but the relationship soured after she learned he was already dating someone else long-distance. Even though the romantic relationship ended, the professional one had to continue, and that was hard.
“I couldn’t stand being there sitting with the man who lied and used me,” Angela said. “I kept my mouth shut around my other co-workers about it, but found I would make snarky comments about him sometimes. I ended up leaving the job due to the travel time, but it was a huge relief.”
When relationships end, employees can face a tough decision: Keep their job or be forced to work with someone they dated and now hate. Six percent of workers in a CareerBuilder survey said they left a job after a romantic relationship with a colleague went bad.
Don’t talk about your romance at work.
When you date colleagues, your personal business can become everyone’s business. As HuffPost reader Mary wrote to us, “I once told a newly-divorced guy friend who wanted to date a co-worker, ‘If you dump her, every girl in the office will know how big (or little) your penis is and how long you last!’”
Discussing romantic prospects at work can be an invitation for your colleagues to analyze your personal life. Talking about office romance at the office “opens the door to boundary violations,” Orbé-Austin said. “Keep the boundaries up from the very beginning. Even if you have feelings for this person, don’t be sharing them with co-workers.”
Office romance stories are not neutral topics for watercooler conversations, either. Orbé-Austin said that when you share a story about your office romance, you are also inviting your co-worker to think, “OK, how is this going to impact me?”
As these carefully negotiated conversations highlight, workplace romances take time and effort to work for everyone to feel like they are getting fair treatment. Of course, if you want to avoid going through these mental hoops, you can always choose to avoid dating co-workers altogether. Or as one HuffPost reader advised us, “Don’t get your honey where you make your money.”