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HR Handled Right

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Maybe it’s something in the watercooler. Maybe it’s the glow of the florescent lights. Perhaps it’s the Musak playing softly in the elevator. Whatever the reason, love is in the office.

Almost half of us have been romantically tied to someone from work, and many more would like to find amour in a neighboring cubicle, according to a 2001 study by Vault.com.

A budding romance with a co-worker can really spice up life at the office. But does cupid belong in the workplace?

“You’ve got to be smart about this,” says Pamela Baack, co-author with her husband Donald of The Everything Romance Book. “You have to really think about what you’ve got to lose and what you’ve got to gain.”

It may be difficult to see what there is to lose when diving into a relationship with the love of your life (for real, this time). But in the worst-case scenario a soured romance could damage your professional reputation, cost you your job or result in sexual harassment charges.

Be prepared for office gossip, jealousy, tension and a lack of space, not to mention the possibility you’ll have to keep working with your sweetheart after a breakup.

“Most dating relationships end,” says Joni Johnston, president and CEO of WorkRelationships.com, an interpersonal risk management firm in San Diego, Calif. “Think of the number of people that we date and the number that we end up marrying — the odds are not good.”

That said, sometimes your special someone is worth the risk.

Because you work together, you already have something in common and possibly a shared group of friends. And as we work longer hours, our chances of meeting someone elsewhere decline.

Working with someone before you start dating allows you to find out what he or she is really like in advance — which you can’t do when, say, meeting someone at a bar. And if you like the person enough, shared coffee breaks or lunch hours can be pretty nice.

The Vault.com study shows workplace relationships have a fairly high success rate — with roughly a quarter of them resulting in either a long-term relationship or marriage.

Follow these guidelines to maintain balance between professionalism and romance:

  • Steer clear of your direct boss or subordinate.

While some office connections may be acceptable, dating the person you report to, or someone who reports to you, is not.

“Not only does this raise the potential for a sexual harassment claim, at the very least it may decrease morale in the department and raise suspicions by co-workers of preferential treatment,” says Kristin Bowl, a spokesperson for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Whether these suspicions are justified or imaginary, they can cause a real career setback.

“Perceptions are everything, and perceptions become reality,” says Dr. Lisa Mainiero, author of Office Romance: Love, Power and Sex in the Workplace. “You almost have to treat the perceptions as facts even if they’re not.”

If you really can’t live without each other, get your reporting relationship changed, either by transferring to another department or switching jobs.

No surprise at all, the most damaging office relationships — for your career and your personal life are extramarital affairs, Mainiero says.

According to her research, dating an unattached peer from another department is the best scenario for office romances.

Peer relationships within a department tend to be accepted by co-workers, but competing for promotions, raises and the boss’s approval can put a strain on a couple.

  • Do a little research.

Find out if your company has policies on dating. It may forbid or strongly discourage relationships between certain people in the company or require you to report the relationship when it begins.

“A lot of employers pretty strongly discourage romances because if there is a breakup or spat it affects everyone else in the office,” says Donald Baack.

Get a sense of the unwritten policies of your company’s corporate culture. Companies with couples in senior positions should be more tolerant of dating among the lower ranks.

Look around you. Are other co-workers dating? How do they handle the situation? Has the relationship affected their careers or their reputations around the office?

  • Proceed with caution

“Try to date someone you’ve had some sort of relationship with as a colleague, so that you trust that person,” Johnston says.

You’ll do yourself a favor by taking things slow. Before the relationship gets serious, be sure both of you have the maturity, judgment and tact to handle a potentially intense emotional experience in a work environment.

Remember, once you enter into a relationship, there are two people contributing to the way you’re perceived in the company. “It doesn’t matter if you’re being professional, if that other person is not it’s still going to impact you,” Johnston says.

If your honey shares intimate information with co-workers or blows up at you in the office, both of you will suffer the consequences.

  • Set some rules.

In Mainiero’s research, she found that couples who had a successful office romance were realistic about the relationship from the very beginning.

She recommends establishing a ‘psychological contract’ as early in the relationship as the first date. Discuss how you’ll handle things at work — whether you’ll tell your close friends or no one at all, whether you will discuss love at the office (don’t) or talk about work on dates, and how you’ll react if the relationship ends.

Laying down ground rules may not be romantic, but will help you keep your work life professional and your social life unburdened by office issues.

  • Don’t lose touch with reality.

“It’s fun to fall in love, but remember that you’ve worked too hard to jeopardize your work reputation by being distracted, missing deadlines and letting your projects suffer,” Bowl says.

Having your darling right there in the same building can make it harder than ever to focus on the task at hand. Don’t lose sight of why you’re both there in the first place — to get your work done.

“The time that you spend flirting or sending your signals at work is obviously time that you’re not working, so it can affect your job performance,” Pamela Baack says.

When Mike Torres first got involved with his girlfriend, they were working together for a software company in Boulder, Co. “We would instant message probably about half the day,” he says.

Maintain friendships with people you don’t work with, and try to enjoy activities away from the office. If work is the epicenter of your social and professional interests, it may be tough to tear yourself away. But if either the relationship or the job falls through, you’ll be glad you have other sources of satisfaction in your life.

  • Be discreet.

Stephanie Sanderson started dating her fiancé while working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Philadelphia. They decided to keep the relationship under wraps for fear it wouldn’t be accepted by their managers and co-workers”I didn’t want people to start treating us differently because we were dating,” she says.

But even if you don’t decide to keep the affair top secret, you should refrain from workplace displays of affection. If you seem more interested in affairs of the heart than business affairs, your boss and co-workers will have a hard time taking you seriously.

“You don’t want to be sending each other romantic e-mails while you’re at work; you don’t want to be giving each other little kisses,” says Pamela Baack.

Beware that triggering a bitter reaction from an ex at work raises the stakes of potential retaliation. What might warrant an angry phone call in the outside world could result in harmful rumors or a lack of cooperation from key co-workers taking the other person’s side.

You need to be on your best behavior, and if you do decide to break things off, do so as gently as possible. Don’t — whatever you do — dump one co-worker for another.

“Give yourself a cooling off period,” Johnston says. Launching into a new office romance shortly after another one ends is just begging for embarrassing confrontations, and dating several people in the same company can quickly earn you a bad reputation.

If handled responsibly, an office love affair can be rewarding. Just make sure you weigh the professional risks with the personal rewards of your particular situation before falling head-over-heels.

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