Illustration by Brittany Christine

Close Associates

Romance can bloom in unexpected places, but don't let an office relationship result in career breakdown

Back Longreads Jan 24, 2017 By Jeff Wilser

Soon after graduating from UC Davis, Stephanie Soderberg, then 23, was hired to manage the school’s biomedical engineering lab. Part of her job was to oversee clinical research, which involved working closely with graduate students. She sat next to one of them. She liked him. They clicked. At first the work was just that — work. “I kept it professional,” Soderberg says. “Then I had drinks with a few coworkers one night, and … you know how things escalate.” They started dating. “We tried to keep it under wraps,” she says, “but Davis is a very, very small town.”

Fifty-one percent of professionals have had a workplace romance, according to a 2015 survey from Vault.com.

Soderberg isn’t alone. Fifty-one percent of professionals have had a workplace romance, according to a 2015 survey from Vault.com, a career resource website. This includes couples like the Obamas and the Gates. In an online poll of Comstock’s readers (see sidebar), over 80 percent admitted to having mixed business with pleasure. The poll was small and non-scientific, but still.

Among our Readers

47%

Have flirted with coworkers

27%

Had an office fling

20%

Had a serious relationship with a coworker

20%

met their spouse on the job

17%

always behaved

10%

Hooked up with a coworker while at the workplace

“Times have changed,” says Susan Heathfield, a human resource consultant with over 30 years experience, and writer at TheBalance.com. “Millennials became 50 percent of most workplaces in 2015, and they’re more amenable to dating coworkers. Baby boomers, not so much.” The average age of marriage has jumped seven years since the 1960s (from 20 to 27 for women, from 22 to 29 for men), meaning that people have more employed years of singledom. The workplace gives a pool of romantic candidates that guarantees: a) at least one set of common interests; b) geographic proximity; c) similar levels of education; and d) inevitable awkwardness and massive risk.

Dating in the workplace can cause problems, both for the daters and the company. Yet even though HR professionals all discourage it, we know people are doing it. So instead of wearing blindfolds and pretending that dating isn’t happening, let’s discover the ways to be smart about an office romance.

The Risks

Some of the pitfalls seem obvious: the risk of an ugly break-up, the blurred lines between work and play, the awkwardness of sitting in a meeting with someone you slept with last night — yet this is only the beginning. “In the early stages of a relationship, there’s all the romance and glitter and stars,” says Julie Worley, president of Sacramento Area Human Resource Association. “People might not realize how much time they’re spending with each other at work, making googly eyes at each other.” Not only does this distract from your work, more importantly, it can be noticed by your peers and invite certain judgments.

This can have a cost. “Sometimes gossip becomes reality,” explains Dr. Sean Horan, an associate professor of communication at Texas State University, who has extensively researched workplace romance and its effects on communication. “We need credibility at work. You are your own brand. If you’re seen sneaking around with someone, you could be deemed as less trustworthy, and that’s a problem.” It can poison reputations and careers.

Especially if you’re dating a superior, which can easily be viewed as favoritism. Even if no one has done anything wrong, the optics are bad. At the UC Davis lab, for example, Soderberg was hyper-aware of needing to treat her coworker/boyfriend with objectivity and professionalism. Yet people still made certain assumptions. “It was tough, I’m not going to lie,” she says. “He was the most senior person in the laboratory. Since he knew all the ins and outs, sometimes I would go to him to ask a work-related question, but people would assume that I didn’t have any legit reason to be there.”

There’s another quirky problem that’s rarely considered: “What if your partner is a crappy coworker? Or a toxic employee?” Horan asks. “In that case, sometimes there’s a ‘sponsorship effect’ where one person’s a superstar, and the other is not. This could diminish the superstar’s reputation,” if they are seen as supporting the bad employee.

Then in the wake of a breakup, the air gets hostile. Emails become terse. Teams become less efficient. “It can easily flow into the workplace,” Heathfield says. Worley agrees, saying, “After a breakup, you can feel the air of heaviness. And this can cause other people to say, ‘Do I have to take a side?’”

All of these problems mushroom when the relationship in question is between a boss and subordinate. For the company, there is the looming issue of harassment. “If one person has any kind of influence over the other, direct or indirect, that has taboo all over it,” Worley says. “This opens up different claims about harassment or inappropriate behavior.” This is why most companies have HR policies that forbid boss-subordinate relationships. According to Heathfield, 96 percent of companies outlaw a boss-employee tryst, yet 1 in 4 of all workplace romances involve dating up in the org-chart, according to a survey from CareerBuilder.com.

It goes without saying, of course, that harassment is toxic in every respect: awful for the victim, coworkers (often dragged in to speak to HR) and overall company culture.

Horan’s research shows that coworkers retaliate against a peer dating their boss — the perception is that dating the boss makes one untrustworthy, and so lying to this person becomes more justifiable. Horan uses the example of access to office resources: “[The co-worker] might perceive that the dater has unfair access to resources. Those resources could be as simple as information,” he explains. “So [coworkers] might act in certain antisocial ways — gossip, or lie — for the purpose of restoring justice.”

So given all that massive downside, is there a way to do it right? And what’s the point?

The Office Dating Playbook

The phrase “office romance” is a bit abstract, and it contains so many shades of nuance. There are office flings. Flirtations. Boozy hook-ups at the sales conference. Fledgling relationships. Marriage. So it’s worth thinking about the type of relationship before assessing how bad an idea it might be. There are plenty of ways to find a fling that doesn’t put your career on the line.

“When People are falling in love and dating, they’re silly. And they need to leave that at home.”Susan Heathfield, human resources consultant

But let’s say you really like this person; you see potential. Maybe it starts with an unexpected make-out session, then you go on an actual date, then a second date and then … what, exactly? Here, things get tricky. Technically, the fine print of your company’s HR policy might say that any romantic relationship — even a first date — should be disclosed to your manager. But how do you tell your boss with a straight face, “we’re initiating a romantic relationship,” when you don’t even know if there will be a third date? How do you disclose an embryonic relationship without killing it in the womb?

Don’t tell the boss right away: “Keep it quiet until you’re ready to be serious about the person,” Horan reasons. But what should you say to the person you’re dating? The stakes are higher than with someone you meet on Bumble or Tinder. So even though it might feel premature, have a serious conversation early in the game. “You can say to them, ‘Okay, we’re grown-ups, we’re working together, so what guidelines do we need to put in place to protect ourselves?’” advises Worley. It might not be the sexiest bit of pillow-talk, but it’s also a solid litmus test: If the person is interested in exploring something more serious, they should be mature enough to have an adult conversation.

And once you’ve started dating? “They shouldn’t touch each other at work. They don’t kiss at work. They don’t step out for long periods of time together. No passing notes in meetings,” Heathfield says. “When people are falling in love and dating, they’re silly. And they need to leave that at home.” It’s also worth remembering that every click on the keyboard is stored for eternity. Never flirt on office email, Slack, or Google Hangouts. Obvious? Maybe. But people seem to forget that digital footprints could eventually trigger more gossip, pain or even legal ramifications. (Just ask most politicians.)

Soderberg was careful in the laboratory. “I never touched him in the workplace — not even a pat on the shoulder,” she says. “No pet names. I would make sure I wouldn’t bring up our personal lives.” She adds that even despite all of her meticulous caution, “the lines do get blurred.”

Most people are savvy enough to realize that they shouldn’t give their coworker a foot massage in the office, but they might drop their guard at company happy hours, off-site retreats or holiday parties. That’s a mistake, and it’s how gossip starts. Same goes for social media. “You don’t want to put anything on social media that would embarrass you,” Heathfield says. Ten months of scrupulous “professionalism” can be undone by a single romantic Instagram pic. #Busted.

So how do you manage two coworkers who are dating? Dangers lurk on both sides: If you’re too meddlesome, you might invade their privacy and if you’re too oblivious, you could be negligent — or worse, exposed to legal liability. “The manager should go to HR from day one,” Worley says. “They can help strategize and make sure that everyone understands the situation, and discuss the ramifications if this goes south.” Consult with the official HR policy. “And if you don’t have something in place, you can put something in place,” she adds.

Even the smallest of companies can enact a policy without too much headache. “Cal Chamber has a whole section on HR and drafted documents for employers to use. It’s well worth the membership fee,” suggests Gennifer Gonzales, vice president of professional development at SAHRA. She also recommends turning to her own association and to the Society of Human Resource Management.

Let’s say the manager has consulted with HR. After that, Heathfield advises managers to simply let things be. “Personally, I think people deserve their 18 inches of private space,” she says. “The time outside of work is their time. Unless it’s disrupting the workplace, it’s not my business.”  

Things can, and do, go sideways. But here’s one last thing about dating in the workplace: It can also be kind of awesome. Beyond the secret thrill of exchanging forbidden glances across a conference room, it also provides a window into what the person is really like — not just how they act in a wine bar on a Friday night.

Plus, when you really like someone, it’s a genuine pleasure to see them perform in their element. “In the scientific community, your research is your life,” Soderberg says. “I guess it’s kind of a romantic idea, but to be a part of that person’s life, well, it’s amazing. It allowed me to connect with him in a way that I hadn’t in my past relationships.” The two worked together, solved problems together — and then lived together. She laughs a little. “It’s like dating on steroids.” The workplace element of the romance lasted 15 months. “It worked out really well,” she says. “We’re still together.” 

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