I once dated a coworker.
Quick backstory: We didn’t meet on the job — we were dating for almost four years before we started working together (which, by the way, wasn’t planned … long story). But for about 11 months, we sat three cubes apart from one another and kept our relationship under wraps.
That’s right: Nobody knew we were a couple.
“Nobody knew?!” “Wasn’t it hard to hide?” “Isn’t that illegal?”
Those are questions I’m frequently asked when I tell people the story of my office romance.
My answer to all three: “Nope — because we followed the rules.”
The truth is, office romances are tricky and generally not recommended. But they happen all the time, and when they do, there are three possible outcomes: The relationship turns sour and your reputation and career take a beating; it ends, but you’re both mature and cordial and don’t let the breakup affect your work; or things work out.
A survey by CareerBuilder last year revealed that nearly 40% of employees admitted to having a romantic relationship with a coworker, and almost one-third of office relationships result in marriage. (Remember that coworker I dated? We are getting married in two months.)
It’s up to you to figure out whether pursuing an office relationship is worth the possible consequences, good and bad. If you decide it is, there are a few “rules” you’ll want to follow to ensure things don’t go awry:
1. Take it slow.
My situation was unique because we were already a couple before we started working together — but generally that isn’t the case, and Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behaviour and Thrive in Your Job,” suggests you try being friends in-and-outside the office before you make any moves.
People sometimes act differently at work than they do in their personal life. Before you risk hurting your reputation at work, find out if this person is someone you’d want to spend weekends with.
2. Keep things quiet early on.
No need to send a blast email with “the news” of you and your cube-mate’s new relationship. People either don’t care, will think it’s obnoxious or inappropriate, or will get jealous.
“Be discreet about the news,” Taylor suggests. Once you have a sense that this might have a future, talk to your partner and decide how and when you want to disclose your relationships to your colleagues.
If the rumour mill goes into high gear, that might be the right time. If nobody seems to notice, there’s no reason to share.
3. Get on the same page.
You and your new partner need to agree on some ground rules and come up with a plan for how you will keep it professional and stay within written or unwritten rules. “What will be your plan ‘B’ if the heat is on from a supervisor, from gossip, or if things go awry?” Taylor asks.
4. Stay professional at all times.
“You may have the burden of overcompensating with professionalism and keeping an artificial distance, which can be an awkward strain,” says Taylor. “Better to overcompensate than to constantly test the limits of workplace etiquette while hoping for the best.”
5. Be sensitive and respectful to others.
Focus on work and do your job — especially if you want to mitigate gossip.
“No one wants to hear about how deeply you’re in love with each other or where you went last weekend or the fight you had in the car this morning,” she explains. “Save it for your family or friends outside work.”
Talking about the relationship can be distracting or make colleagues feel uncomfortable, so don’t do it.
6. Keep love quarrels out of the work fray.
Again — nobody wants or needs to know about what’s happening with your love life.
“It’s hard enough today to concentrate with open office spaces, a plethora of technology devices, frantic deadlines, multiple bosses, and so on,” says Taylor. “Add to that two lovers fighting over doing dishes in the next cube and you have one unhappy coworker, who you may catch sauntering to HR.”
Also, it’s entirely unprofessional to complain about your personal relationships at work, whether you’re dating a colleague or not.
7. Don’t let disagreements affect your work.
This may be one of the hardest rules to follow.
What happens at home or in your personal life (no matter who you’re dating) almost always affects your attitudes, which impacts your work — it’s just a fact of life.
But try your hardest not to let your disagreements with your partner affect the decisions you make or how your treat others at work.
8. Remain focused on your work.
“Spend your time as if you are not dating this person,” advises Taylor. Don’t get caught up in long conversations, two-hour lunches, IMing, or emailing with your partner when you should be working on projects or preparing for meetings.
10. Know the potential legal pitfalls.
“Employees are generally encouraged to report incidents of sexual harassment or events that create a hostile work environment,” says Taylor. “Since the sensitivities of the workforce are varied and subjective, there’s always a risk of offending someone. One complaint to HR for PDA, showing preferential treatment, or using words of endearment in public will at the very least trigger an investigation.”
Also: Check the company handbook to find out if there are any policies related to interoffice relationships.
Go easy on flirtatious texts and emails.
“Be careful what you text or email to each other, not just because Steve in accounting might fall off his chair when he mistakenly receives it — but also because it could ultimately be used as evidence in a legal case in termination or sexual harassment,” she warns.
12. Consider what you’d want to do if things do work out.
As a relationship becomes more serious, oftentimes one person will decide to leave the employer completely, because the more involved you are, the greater likelihood of the relationship interfering with your job. “That’s why so many companies have policies against nepotism, which applies to married couples and relatives,” says Taylor. This is something to think about early on and to keep in mind as you move forward in the relationship.
“The bottom line is, you need to tread carefully,” she adds. “If, however, love happens to strike at work, don’t make a concerted effort to fight it at any cost. Just know the risks.”
Your decision not only affects you, but other person, both your careers, and those around you. “A word to the wise: If you take the leap, go into it with your eyes wide open,” Taylor concludes.
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