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Dating at the Office: Fine, Bad Idea, or Really Bad Idea

More and more you hear about coworkers dating. For some, it’s just hard to meet new people, and after-work-socializing functions provide an easy way to do that. For others, at an after-work-event for the first time they see a relaxed, funny, or witty side of a coworker that suddenly makes that person attractive. For others, they have very specific areas of interest or expertise in both their work and personal life, are so work settings allow them to meet people with these same areas of interest. For some, they consult on many projects in and outside the company, it’s just bound to happen at some point that they meet someone they like.

Many companies have policies on office dating. Other offices have no formal policy, but an informal policy is well known and the norm there. In some offices, they “look the other way.”

While some people generally discourage such relationships, others argue that they can be conducted without difficulty; the keys to successfully managing them are maturity, common-sense, and forethought. Here are some practical questions to ask yourself and your potential coworking love interest:

  • Does your office have a policy on dating in the workplace, formal or informal? I knew a supervisor who told his supervisees “Go to the after work parties and enjoy yourself, but the next morning if you are the topic of office gossip because you drank too much, or went home with someone, expect to have either to have explain yourself to me or to be fired.” Some of this attitude was to protect the reputation of his department and his staff, but some of it was also to mentor his staff on professional behavior for success.
  • Will it impact your job performance? If the answer is a definite “No. We work in two unrelated departments and on different floors” then your supervisor has little grounds to fault you (unless there is a company policy on this). If the answer is “Maybe… We work in the same department, or on some of the same projects together…” then consider your actions carefully. Concerns from supervisors about “appropriate comportment in the workplace,” talking about work stress outside of work, discovering one of you is mismatched to that work setting or the performance expectations there, side or snide comments from coworkers… all may end up causing more stress for the two of you than you might anticipate.
  • As an extension to this, how will you handle discussions about work? Will you “take work home” and start complaining about office politics when you should be attending to the relationship? Will you discuss something confidential in your department, such as a mistake you are trying to avoid being pinned on your department, or a morale problem? Will this create a bind for the partner, such as if the partner works in the department looking for the cause of the mistake, or the partner is the alleged cause of the morale problem? This might place one or both of you in jeopardy with your peers and supervisors.
  • As another extension to this, are the two of you in the same reporting chain? Dating your boss carries a high risk of becoming an exploitative or preferential relationship, or of appearing to be a relationship at risk for harm or favoritism. Dating a supervisor above your boss may seem safe; however, it carries the same risks. How will you feel if your partner crosses the line and expects more from you “as a favor” than from other employees? Sometimes work-related decisions are made for reasons that relate to work and the success of the department or company. How will you feel if you are turned down for a lead position on a great account or project because your partner says you were not the most qualified person for the opportunity? Perhaps worse, how will you feel if your partner says you were the most qualified, but your partner had to show your coworkers that no favoritism is going on? Even if you feel comfortable with the power difference, keep in mind that others may not. They may speculate about you or your partner, and such workplace gossip can hurt both your careers.
  • Do you want your relationship to be a secret? If you do, then ask yourself if office gossip will bother you. Someone’s bound to figure it out, and if you don’t want the stress of being “daytime friends and nighttime lovers” or don’t like people speculating about your personal life at work… then perhaps you shouldn’t date in the office. Ask others about the potential partner. Does he or she tend to gossip, be indiscreet, or share personal life details with coworkers? Would the other’s decision to “kiss and tell” bother you?
  • Ask yourself and answer honestly, “If we don’t work out, how will I react?” If you’re the kind of person who tends not to remain friends with ex’s as a general rule, then think about what will happen in the office. When you see your former partner in the elevator or at a meeting, will you be polite? Or will you feel anxious, jumpy, and distracted? How would your potential interest handle such an encounter?
  • Do either of you tend to break off relationships in “hard” ways? This includes just not returning phone calls, simply starting to date someone else, or avoiding the former partner? Personal feelings often spill over into the work place and can cause problems at work for the two of you, as well as for others. Someone who doesn’t end relationships in a mature way is likely to end complex relationships (which this is, given that it crosses work and personal lives) in even more immature ways. You might find someone who was a former friend and lover becomes a career enemy.
  • You may not think it would ever happen, but if you two break it off, is one of you likely to feel the other acts in ways that constitute “sexual harassment”? Behavior like making light physical contact, joking in a slightly inappropriate way, or sending somewhat racy emails may be fine (though unwise) if someone is comfortable around you and likes you. However, if the relationship ends with hurt feelings, then what was acceptable behavior before might not be post-breakup. You could find yourself meeting with your supervisor to discuss this personal matter at work because of such a complaint, and the company’s legal obligation to address it. You could also find yourself losing your job over it.
  • Is one of you “on the rebound” or worse, single only after a “fake-up”? In this case, the “office romance” is more likely to become an “office affair,” and if your new-partner becomes your former-partner and returns to the former-but-now-current relationship, then the time with you might be seen as a mistake or “indiscretion.” Your former-partner’s former-but-now-current-partner may see you as a threat to the relationship and may stipulate there is to be no contact with you beyond what is absolutely necessary. You might find there is suddenly a very large distance between you and the former-partner… more if the former-but-now-current-partner also works in the company.
  • Ask yourself and your partner, “Is there a reason why I’m interested in dating someone now?” Recent breakups, losses, and stressors often prompt us to seek short-term relief. Confusing “I’m lonely now” with “I really like you” is a sure way to later feel regret and disappointment.
  • Last, ask all the other questions you normally ask, such as, “Can we date and leave work at the office?” “Is this the right kind of person for me?” “What do we have in common?” etc…

If you decide, after reading all the points above, that you do want to pursue a workplace romance, then here’s a few tips:

  • Check the company policy first, and talk to someone in HR or to a mentor in the workplace. You don’t have to name names, but you can ask about the general attitude about dating at work and learn a bit about how it is seen.
  • Talk to the partner and discuss how you two will handle issues like disclosing your relationship… communicating at work… hearing a coworker say positive or negative things about the other… discussing a relationship problem. Tell as few people as possible to minimize the chance that the relationship becomes a topic of discussion or gossip.
  • Avoid having personal conversations on the company’s email or phone to keep these conversations private. Better yet, avoid having them at all in the workplace, especially discussions about relationship problems, to avoid the chance that someone sees you as spending “company time to resolve personal matters.”
  • Avoid public displays of affection or jealousy at work. Discuss how to deal with (and if needed later defuse) situations where “the office flirt” is communicating interest in your partner. Your partner might need to be polite about it to facilitate smooth communications at work, but may not (or may) enjoy it.
  • Discuss telling your supervisors. While this may seem to be really crossing the work-and-personal-life line, let the supervisor know you’ve thought carefully about this and have decided to date, and ask for the supervisor’s advice on assuring that this personal relationship has no impact on the work environment. Ask openly whether this presents any conflict of interest in your department, and how this can be handled. For example, being willing at your supervisor’s request to step off of some project/account to avoid any appearance of a conflict, and being helpful and available to facilitate your replacement’s smooth transition onto the project/account will likely support your statement that you’ve thought about the implications of the relationship maturely.
  • Discuss how you will handle the possibility of accusations of favoritism or preferential treatment. Is there someone you would consult with to avoid this? That may or may not be the supervisor, but you don’t want you supervisor caught off guard if a complaint about this is brought to the supervisor.
  • Discuss how you would prefer to end things if the relationship doesn’t work. Who will be told the relationship is over, and what will they be told? Will either of you want to tell your supervisor?
  • Be sure neither of you is on the rebound, and both of you are ready for a mature relationship.
  1. Jason says:

    Thank you for this well-thought-out treatment of a sensitive and confusing topic. Unfortunately, I learned some of these things the hard way — I was seeing my then-immediate supervisor on and off for a year while she was in another relationship. Seven years later, we still work together (sometimes closely and as peers), she is STILL in that relationship (they each admitted cheating on each other), and only in the last six months (not coincidentally, about a year after I started some very successful treatment for depression) have she and I begun to communicate normally again (mostly because we have to). Even still, amazingly, I made a second attempt to date in the workplace, though under much better conditions: she is single, we don’t work in the same department, we are at the same level in the organization, and we don’t work on the same projects. Turns out she’s the smart one: when I expressed interest, she said she generally doesn’t date coworkers. Six months later, she and I have a healthy friendship, and I am dating online.

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