The current attention that workplace relationships are receiving is enormous, and mostly for not-so-good reasons. The media goes wild when high-profile individuals get involved with someone from their workplace. And if they’re already married to someone else, well—that only adds fuel to the fire.
Dating a coworker is common. According to some studies, as many as 40 percent of employees have participated in a workplace romance. This isn’t surprising, considering the proportion of our waking hours that we spend at work. I married my workplace crush, so I’m definitely not against the idea, but we had very clear boundaries. Neither of us was married or dating anyone else, and we asked a person at work whom we both respected to keep us accountable.
While a romantic relationship can certainly make it more interesting to come to work on a Monday morning, there are also some dangers involved—developing a negative reputation in your human relations (HR) department, for example, or getting in trouble for workplace harassment.
Having worked in HR and as a counselor, I’ve seen some of these relationships improve a person’s career and overall well-being, and other times—well, we hear about those in the media!
One such case fairly recently relates to the now infamous movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The details around his alleged sexual harassment and sexual abuse triggered the worldwide #MeToo movement, which empowered women—and men too—to speak out about inappropriate conduct. What became apparent is the challenge posed by workplace cultures that discourage disclosure. People fear losing their jobs, not being able to work in their industry any longer, or having their reputation tarnished.
Just to be clear, sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that makes a person feel offended, humiliated, and/or intimidated, and where that reaction is reasonable under the circumstances. There can be a fine line between welcome workplace romantic overtures and unwanted sexual harassment. If you are considering embarking on what 40 percent of the population has done before you, here are some tips on what to do—and what not to do.
Don’t even think about getting into a relationship if either you or the other person isn’t available. If it’s you who is already in a relationship, go back to your partner and put the same focus, attention, and energy into him or her that you’re feeling for your crush. And if the other person you feel attracted to is already in a relationship, don’t go there. Just don’t. Respect the other person enough to leave them right where they are. There are plenty more fish in the sea without your breaking up their relationship.
Don’t date your manager or someone who reports to you. Power differences are very noticeable in workplaces. If you end up dating your boss and it doesn’t go so well, you could find yourself out of a job. If you date someone who works under you and it doesn’t work out, you could have a harassment claim against you and risk your position. Even if it does work out, it will be hard to remove the power differential in other areas.
Don’t tell the whole office about it. Let your relationship begin without other people’s “two cents’ worth.” Allow your relationship to grow with some stability before it becomes known. And keep in mind that you’ll be answering a lot of questions for a while once you do announce it!
Do be an ethical dater in the workplace. That involves respecting people and their right to privacy. And if you’ve already started dating, it also means respecting your friend’s right to say no or to be open with you about the relationship not working out. Workplace ethics also means not dating on company time. You should also avoid being a serial dater—moving from one person to the next in the organization, and it means not telling everyone about your relationship without the prior consent of your dating partner.
If the relationship ends, maintain a good working relationship with your friend. Most workplace relationships don’t end in marriage, so you will probably continue working with your dating partner after the breakup. If you anticipate this being difficult, it’s best to avoid the workplace romance option altogether.
This account comes from a lady whose experience was not positive: “I started to flirt with my boss a little. He showed an interest in me when no one else was around. He would make me feel special, and I liked the attention. One day he invited me to a meeting at his apartment, which wasn’t uncommon, but when I showed up no one else was there. He cornered me and forced me to have sex with him. I was devastated. I felt partly to blame. I told his boss what happened, and shortly after that, I was fired. I was young and decided not to take it further. Now I wish I had. But it wasn’t so much the thing to do back then.”
Then there are experiences such as my own—how I met my husband. We were colleagues for the same organization but in different states. I traveled to do some work in his region. We were both single, so I put some good boundaries in place from the start—just so there wouldn’t be any pressure for either of us. This gave us time as colleagues to become friends without anything being forced. We found we had a lot in common and really enjoyed each other’s company.
I initiated a discussion about seeing where it might go. He thought it was a good idea, so we both told our families and a trusted colleague—no one else. We would talk mostly on the phone and sometimes visit one another for a weekend. After we decided our relationship was going somewhere (about six months later), we shared it with our colleagues and friends, all of whom were happy for us. After 18 months, we got married. We continue to do work together, and it’s wonderful.
While workplace relationships are common, what’s less common is the relationship ending well. So weigh the pros and cons before you enter into a workplace relationship. Seek wisdom from friends and follow the tips that I provided in this article, and you may do really well. You might even find the love of your life as I did!
Just go at it wisely.
Suzanne Bocking is a counselor and adult educator. She lives in Townsville, northern Australia.