Considering the amount of time most of us spend at work, it’s no surprise that many of us find lovers and even spouses on the job. Surveys consistently find that over a third of office employees admit to having had a romantic relationship with someone at work .
It’s natural to develop close bonds with coworkers. After all, these are people we see every day—people we collaborate with, confide in, solve problems, joke around, and at times, commiserate with. It makes sense that, from time to time, stronger feelings may develop.
But let’s face it—office romance can be a messy business. Beyond heartbreak, there are social and possibly legal risks involved in almost any workplace romance. Following these five common-sense guidelines can help reduce those risks.
1. Know Who’s Off Limits
Relationships with the following people open you and your employer up to potential legal and even physical risks. If you’re already in one, your best bet is to end it right away and consider getting support or counseling. These include:
A supervisor or subordinate
- Anyone who is abusive, emotionally or physically
- An intern or student
- Someone who is already in a relationship (or conversely, anyone at work, if you’re already in a relationship).
2. It’s No Secret: Be Smart, Stay Professional
The FruitGuys Magazine spoke with Bay Area–based dating coach Trish McDermott for some insights into workplace dating. McDermott was part of the team that launched Match.com in 1995 and now works for Meetopolis, a website that aggregates profiles from different dating sites. While she emphasizes the importance of discretion and professionalism, she notes that it’s difficult to conceal an office romance entirely.
As McDermott says, “People will notice when sparks are flying.”
So, if you’re involved with a coworker, chances are everyone knows—or they will soon enough—and some measure of gossip is practically inevitable. That’s why it’s disastrous to cheat (or to be “the other person”) with someone at work. If word somehow doesn’t get back to your partner, colleagues may still judge you and draw conclusions about your trustworthiness that can damage your career.
Even if you’re both single, some coworkers may resent a romance. Depending on the size of your office and the people involved, it can raise issues around favoritism or productivity.
3. Take Your Relationship Outside
Flirting and engaging in courtship during work hours is not only unprofessional, it’s unfair to your coworkers. No one wants to catch you making out in the supply closet. And people will resent behaviors like sneaking out early or taking long lunches from which you return disheveled. Maybe you first connected in the lunchroom, but be mindful of when it’s time to move your “togetherness” out of the building entirely.
Be aware, as well, that it’s best not to share details of your relationship on social media, where colleagues and employers can see them. Privacy and respect are paramount to navigating an office romance, both in the office and online.
This goes double for arguments. Never bring them to work.
The bottom line is that you need to act professionally at work, at all times. Be discreet, and don’t let your romance affect your work performance.
4. Know Your Company Policy
Few companies ban all relationships—how could they even enforce such a rule?—but most have some reasonable limits on what is acceptable. You may be required to disclose your romance, agree to certain ground rules, or transfer to different departments. Take responsibility from the start, and know your rights and responsibilities.
Should you tell your boss or HR department what’s going on? That’s ultimately up to you, and it may depend on your company’s rules and regulations regarding workplace relationships, as well as other factors, like how serious the relationship is. Obviously, you risk your job if you violate company policy, but in reality, you begin taking risks the moment you start dating a coworker.
5. Prepare an Exit Strategy
Relationships are difficult to sustain, and maintaining healthy boundaries with someone you see at home and at work can be challenging. Maybe you’ll be the exception—but it’s important to be realistic and acknowledge that there’s a very good chance the relationship will end while you continue to work together.
Having the option of an internal transfer to another department could be very helpful, if it’s a possibility. Are you willing to consider a new job if things get really uncomfortable? Make sure your resume is up to date, maintain your professional contacts, and stay active with networking events. Romance can be intoxicating, and sometimes it causes us to lose perspective, but it’s important not to neglect your professional momentum or lose sight of your other goals.
All of this is why McDermott recommends giving any workplace relationship serious thought before getting involved. “Before you start dating a coworker, envision breaking up with him or her,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘How’s that going to work out?’”
You may need to think through specifics: How will I feel working on a project with this person, in the event we break up? What would it be like crossing paths with an ex on a regular basis?
Being honest with yourself and the other person before you get too involved can save a lot of trouble down the road.
If you work in HR, you need to consider the potential fallout from office romance from a different point of view. In an era of heightened awareness about sexual harassment at work, companies should have a clearly defined set of policies around workplace relationships. If your company doesn’t have one yet or it hasn’t been updated in a while, you’ll find a number of helpful resources online about how to create a dating policy for the workplace.
Obviously, it’s important to be clear-eyed about the risks of office romance. Given the number of people who do meet up (and even marry) through work, we’re not saying it’s a lost cause. If you can avoid some of the common pitfalls and maintain your professional poise, it’s entirely possible to have a happy ending—or at least an enjoyable experience.
As McDermott says, “If it’s the real deal, you’re going to do the work it takes to make it work.”
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.