The Office Romance Minefield

Birds do it
Bees do it
With each other employees do it
They do it, they fall in love.

The Obamas did it. The Gateses did it. Even Michael Kors and Lance LaPere did it. They fell in love while working together. And, everything seems to have worked out well for these former workplace lovebirds.

At the other end of the spectrum lives and careers have been left in ruins. Remember NASA astronauts Lisa Nowak and William Oefelein? Or the sensational criminal case involving former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former top aide Christine Beatty, who were involved in an extramarital workplace affair? And the equally sensational end to former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy’s administration due to an extramarital affair with a subordinate.

On the lighter side, there are the workplace romances of our favorite TV characters over the years, some more successful than others. A few that come to mind are those of Jim Halpert-Pam Beesley, Diane Chambers and Sam Malone, and Maddie Hayes and David Addison.

Are Office Romances On The Rise?

The number of office romances appears to be on the rise. A survey by Vault.com found that more than half of its respondents engaged in an office romance. With young single Millennials entering the workplace and longer workdays becoming the norm, romance is bound to bloom. At least it will appear that way, as Millennials are far less concerned than Gen Xers and Boomers about keeping their office romances secret from coworkers and managers. But the Vault.com survey also revealed that the prevalence of office romances could relate to your profession or the industry in which you work.

However, while the Vault survey claims that “People in retail are the most likely to hook up at work, with 62% saying they had had office romances,” in some cases the office romance might be declining due to retaliation lawsuits.

Four Types of Office Romances

  • Classic Romance – Two single coworkers are attracted to each other. Whether that relationship ends up in marriage or in a breakup, the initial intent was innocent.
  • Extramarital Affair – One or both coworkers are married and wind up cheating on their marriage partners.
  • Fling – Two coworkers — single or married — are attracted to each other on a purely sexual basis and engage in a one-night-stand, often prompted by a business trip, industry event or annual Christmas party. There is usually no intention of becoming serious, but a “coworkers with benefits” relationship might ensue that involves casual sex as opportunities arise.
  • Don Juan Syndrome – Usually a male coworker whose aim is sexual conquests. He will flirt with female coworkers, often new or young unsuspecting victims, with the express intent to bed them and move on.

Who Gets Hurt In An Office Romance?

According to a 2014 Harris Poll conducted for CareerBuilder, nearly a third of office romances ended in marriage. That leaves two-thirds of office romances vulnerable to professional and personal complications. And, who gets hurt?

Several decades ago, it was women who were hurt the most in office romances and affairs because they were (a) usually in subordinate positions (but not always) and considered to be less valuable employees, (b) not confident or supported enough by their companies or the law to stand up for themselves and (c) because filing charges often resulted in professional reputational loss and backlash. Even today women are usually viewed through a different, more critical lens than men. Companies often will make financial settlements with women out of court to keep the allegations confidential; but this still can hurt women professionally while failing to solve the problem of sexual harassment in their companies. And, shockingly, the lawyer a woman might turn to for help could be guilty of sexual harassment himself or herself, or his or her firm might discourage women from pursuing the same legal course as they encourage their clients to pursue!

Of course, men can get hurt as well, as we’ve seen from the examples previously provided. Men who hold senior positions are especially vulnerable: CEOs, politicians, celebrities and the like. But among average employees, including middle managers, women continue to be judged more harshly than men when in an office romance, especially if she is involved with a man who is above her pay grade.

Companies themselves can also be hurt through reputational loss, sexual harassment claims, and lawsuits. With more awareness of the laws that protect all employees from sexual harassment — often a byproduct of the office romance — companies are finding themselves in defensive mode. As a result, more companies are making policies regarding employees dating each other and sometimes applying as well to married couples working together in the same area or even at the same company.

How to Avoid / Manage an Office Romance

People will continue to be attracted to each other anywhere, anytime. It’s not unusual for coworkers on average to spend more time with each other than they spend with their families and friends; thus, it’s likely that they will fall in and out of love a lot. And the impact of those workplace romances is felt by other coworkers and can disrupt the office routine. So while employers and ethicists debate whether or not to ban romance from the office, the following are some steps to avoid or manage your office romance:

  • Check your company’s policy regarding dating coworkers and married couples working together. Think about what you would do if you were attracted to a coworker and how you would manage a romantic relationship at your place of work. This should include your exit strategies.
  • Exit Strategy No. 1: Plan how you would end the romance, and handle any unpleasant aftermath such as an unprofessional attitude or even harassment from your ex-lover.
  • Exit Strategy No. 2: Plan how you will find a new job within the company, away from your ex-romantic partner, or at another company, state, country, planet, etc., if — and more likely when — your romance ends. Working together while being involved is hard; working together after the breakup is harder.
  • Avoid like the plague an affair with a married coworker. If you’re the married coworker think twice about stepping over that line. It could be fatal to your job, career and marriage. Adultery is illegal in 23 U.S. states, so keep that in mind as well.
  • Discourage a coworker politely, or not so politely, when you are not interested. Leading someone on because you can’t say “no” clearly can create a sticky situation, and you won’t even have the benefit of being in love for your trouble.
  • Avoid becoming involved with someone who is not your peer; that means nix to your boss or other organizational superiors, or with someone who is below your pay grade or subordinate to you. The odds are against a good outcome and could set up a sexual harassment situation.
  • Avoid, if possible, dating a coworker in your immediate department. Dating a coworker from another department with whom you have some work distance can reduce the strain. 
  • If you are attracted to a single coworker and Cupid strikes, take it slow so you can keep professional control over the situation while you determine the potential for it turning serious or permanent.
  • Consider notifying your boss, or respective bosses, and HR if it appears that your romance is the real thing and could become permanent. But, one or both of you should be prepared to transfer to other areas, either to comply with corporate policy or to accommodate your current department. Being on the up and up is likely to garner respect from HR, your manager(s) and your team. And, taking the initiative shows that you both are trustworthy and responsible, and allows the two of you to maintain some control over your jobs and relationship. But, these steps require your judgment call.
  • Refrain from hanging around your coworker boyfriend or girlfriend excessively at work, especially at the expense of getting your work done. You will look foolish on several counts.
  • Don’t show favoritism to your office lover. Such actions could not only ruin your reputation and stunt your advancement, but depending on the situation, serious complaints or even legal action could be lodged against you. Conversely, discourage your romantic partner from doing the same with you.
  • Go public as soon as possible. Don’t kid yourselves that others are in the dark about your relationship. They aren’t. Nobody is.
  • Handle the breakup with dignity, grace and maturity. Follow the plan you laid out in the beginning; if necessary, transfer to another department or find a job with another company. Whatever you do, don’t spread your heartbreak and baggage around your office. You can survive, and thrive.

  Until next time,

Jeanne

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