How to date responsibly at work!
Stay sane – and employed!
sarah*, a 30-year-old graphic designer, met Matt* at the tech company where they both worked. “I didn’t notice him at first because he had a beard, and beards weren’t my thing,” she says. But they exchanged messages then had friendly lunches. Eventually Matt asked Sarah on a date, and they stayed so long that the restaurant had to kick them out. “We took things slowly as we were both very aware of working in the same office,” she recalls. The caution was worth it: five years after that first date, he proposed.
A decade ago their romance would have been forbidden. But as more people delay marriage while growing their careers, and hours get longer, with smartphones blurring the lines between work and play, it makes sense for attitudes to change.
Renee Cowan, an assistant professor who studies office relationships notes that “now, work and life are integrated”. Hence results of a careerbuilder.com survey: 37% of people have dated a colleague and 30% of those relationships led to marriage (office romance is not always a disaster!).
Still, dating at work can be a minefield. “I hate to be the buzz kill here, but there can be problems,” says Lisa Green, the author of On Your Case (Harpercollins Publishers; R319). Company policies vary, relationships don’t always end well and two jobs are on the line.
We spoke with real-life office daters and workplace experts to devise the ultimate dating-at-work survival plan. Because seriously, where else are you going to meet someone these days?
Avoid the boss! No, really
According to HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann, most written policies prohibit employees from dating only a direct boss or subordinate. Which brings us to a crucial point: try not to. Experts discourage managersubordinate romances because they create the perception (or reality) of favouritism; in a worst-case scenario, both parties could be fired or dragged through a harassment lawsuit. And women are disproportionately judged, whether they’re the boss – “With great power comes great responsibility,” warns Lisa – or especially if they’re the underling. “Even today a bosssubordinate relationship is viewed as strategic on the woman’s part,” says Rebecca Chory, a professor who studies workplace interactions.
Relationships with co-workers at your level or in different departments are less of a headache, and policies tend to reflect that. Nick*, 29, was surprised but pleased to be hired by his girlfriend’s media company, where several other couples worked together. “The policy seemed to be: if you’re dating and still doing your job, we don’t care,” he says. The truth: “Even if the rules are against it, people hook up anyway,” admits Lisa.
So what to do if you lust after the project manager down the hall? The rule: you have one shot at asking a colleague out. Ask repeatedly and you could create a hostile work environment for your crush, which can be defined as harassment. And if a colleague asks you out and won’t take no, that may be harassment, and you should consider talking to HR. As for the casual hookup? If you make out with someone at the
Work / Office antics
office party, bite the bullet and ask about the person’s intentions afterwards.
“I did not ask, and I spent the next six months wondering if every email he sent was a subtle invitation to get at it again,” says Mia*, 30, a management consultant. “None were, and my work life would’ve been better if I’d known that.”
Don’t flirt (too much)
If you do start a relationship, know that others will pick up on the sparks. As Anna*, 27, who dated a co-worker for seven months, notes, “It’s hard to pretend you’re not dating someone for eight hours a day.” But you can do your best to make others comfortable by nixing the ‘we’re so cute’ act. “People are out with long knives for the happy couple,” says Lisa. So act professionally and keep the door open when you’re together. “Otherwise,” says workplace consultant Nicole Williams, who married – and later divorced – her boss, “people wonder what you might be planning.” Stephanie*, 30, an attorney, works with her husband at a law firm, and they obey a strict no-touching policy. “He needs, like, one metre of space in the lift,” she jokes. But their co-working is going smoothly as a result.
Tell your company
Another rule of office relationships: if things get serious, disclose. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but you’ll be glad you did. “Reporting a relationship improves your odds of avoiding an awkward situation when word gets out,” says Lisa. It might even make things easier. Jennifer*,
“Reporting a relationship improves your odds of avoiding an awkward situation when word gets out.” – Lisa Green
25, an accountant, kept quiet about her relationship – until she and her boyfriend were assigned to the same project. “HR reassigned one of us due to ‘scheduling’. It actually let us tell people when we were ready, and any stress we felt went away.”
Be aggressive about boundaries
It’s natural to consider how an office romance will affect your career, but working together also affects your relationship, so draw a line between your work and love life. Jessica*, 25, moved in with a co-worker and realised that the relationship-job combo was dominating her life. “We had to sit down and say, ‘We need to spend less time together’,” she says.
And be prepared to stick to those boundaries, even in terrible situations. When Laurie was working in corporate HR, she heard rumours that her nowhusband’s department was going to be outsourced. “I just shut the hell up,” she remembers. Sounds harsh, but sharing the information could have gotten her fired. Fortunately, their relationship survived, but it’s a reminder that mixing romance and work can get complicated. “But,” she says, “the heart wants what it wants.”
Prepare an exit strategy
The biggest hazard of workplace relationships is the biggest hazard of all relationships. They end. Take Lauren*, 28, a video editor who secretly dated a co-worker for weeks. He flaked on a weekend getaway, then stopped messaging. You could call it ghosting, except she sees him every day in the office kitchen. “It’s so distracting,” she says.
The takeaway? When two careers are tangled, a what-if plan is key. “Have the conversation about what happens if you break up,” says Nicole. Then reality-check yourself. “If someone quits, it’s often the woman, because men aren’t as worried about postbreakup drama. Ask yourself, ‘What if I do have to quit?’”
Don’t forget to enjoy it
Here’s the good news: when workplace dating goes well, it goes really well. Happily coupledup workers report higher job satisfaction, says Renee. And the office is a great place to vet a future partner. “You can learn a lot about someone’s temperament and goals,” says Nicole.
Plus, sometimes you can fall in love even more when you watch someone excel. Nick, the digital media editor who dated a colleague, now works somewhere else, but he left with an intense appreciation for his girlfriend. “She’s doing the job she’s always wanted, and she’s super good at it,” he says. “I’m in awe of her.”
“HR reassigned one of us due to ‘scheduling’. It let us tell people when we were ready.” – Jennifer*