How To Approach an Office Romance (and how not to) by Amy Gallo. See below for details.
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Lots of people meet their partners at work, and yet dating someone in the office is often frowned upon. Some companies even have explicit policies against it. So what if you and a colleague have been flirting and might want to explore a relationship? Should you steer clear? Should what’s right from a professional perspective override what’s best for your personal life?
What the Experts Say
There are perfectly good reasons why coworkers fall for one another, says Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. “You spend a tremendous amount of time at work and, if you put people in close proximity, working together, having open, vulnerable conversations, there’s a good chance there are going to be romantic relationships,” he says.
Research shows that we also tend to fall for people who are similar to ourselves, says Amy Nicole Baker, an associate professor of psychology at University of New Haven and author of several papers on workplace romance. And “the more familiar you are with the person, the more likely it is that you’ll become attracted to one another,” she says. If you’ve become romantically interested in a colleague, proceed carefully. Here are some things to think about.
Know the risks
Before you act on your feelings, it’s important to think through the risks — and there are quite a few. Of course, there’s the chance that the relationship won’t work out and that there will be hurt feelings on one or both sides. There are also potential conflicts of interest. Markman references the dual relationship principle, an “ironclad rule” in psychotherapy that therapists cannot have any relationships with patients beyond their professional one.
Obviously, the same rule doesn’t apply between coworkers — many people are close friends with colleagues, for example — but “having multiple relationships with someone creates potential conflicts of interest that can be hard to resolve,” he explains. If you’re dating your teammate, do you put the team’s or the individual’s interests first? There are also reputational risks. “Your professionalism may be called into question,” says Baker, “especially if people don’t see your motives for entering the relationship as positive.” Some colleagues may think you’re giving your romantic partner preferential treatment or vice versa. “Having a relationship with someone higher up in the organization can create an alternate explanation for why you’re succeeding,” says Markman.
Have the best intentions
If you’re aware of these risks and still want to move forward, research shows that your intentions matter. Your coworkers’ reactions will reflect what they believe your motives to be, says Baker. When they perceive you as having “ego motive” — seeking out the relationship to serve your own needs, whether it’s to get ahead in your company or for your own excitement — they will clearly think of you less favorably.
On the other hand, “studies show that coworkers are generally positive if they perceive that you’re falling in love and genuinely care about each other,” she says. So, before you jump in, check your motives and consider how others will perceive them. Having positive intentions at the start may also help guard against hurt feelings and misunderstandings should the romance eventually end.
Know your company’s policies
Many companies prohibit employees from dating coworkers, vendors, customers, or suppliers, or require specific disclosures, so be sure to investigate before you start a relationship. “Follow the rules and try to understand the reasons they’re in place,” Baker says. “You ignore them at your peril.” If you’ve already violated a policy, she suggests you “come clean early” because “the longer you persist, the worse the consequences will be.”
Markman says that he’s seen companies “lifting those regulations in recent years both because they’re hard to enforce and they haven’t changed behavior.” For him, this is a positive. “The rules need to recognize the reality of the world and, when it comes to workplace relationships, we want to teach people principles for making good, adult decisions, not to legislate through punishment.” Rules are also evolving because of the #MeToo movement. For example, at Facebook and Google, you can only ask a coworker out once, and if the person says no or gives you an ambiguous response (“Sorry, I’m busy”) you’re not allowed to ask again.
Stay away from your boss and your direct reports
No matter what your intentions are, it’s best not to date your managers or subordinates. “It is a bad idea to get involved with anybody who is in your chain of command — up or down,” says Markman. Baker agrees: ““We know from research that the outcomes aren’t as good; the perceptions are more negative.” That’s because this is where conflicts of interest are most stark. It’s hard to be objective when giving someone you’re dating a performance review, for example. And you don’t want people to think that you’re being unduly favored; it can erode your own confidence and hurt the team’s morale. Both experts acknowledge that boss-employee romances do happen — and sometimes those relationships work out. However, if that’s something you’d like to consider, they suggest you “take action immediately” to transfer to a new boss or reassign your direct report to another team.
Don’t hide it
Both Markman and Baker agree that it’s important to be open about the relationship with your coworkers and boss. This might be tough advice to follow, especially if you’re not sure where the relationship will go. “You don’t have to tell them after the first date,” says Markman, “but letting people know reduces the awkwardness” and increases the likelihood that they’ll be positive about the relationship. Besides, “if you don’t tell anybody, people will still figure it out,” he says.
Baker adds that clandestine romances tend to have poorer outcomes and can be “corrosive” to other relationships. “Secrets tend to erode our trust in one another and, when the truth comes out, people are going to feel lied to,” she explains. Keep your disclosure simple and straightforward. You might say something like, “We went on a few dates, but I’m sure you can understand that I don’t want to get into more detail about our personal lives.”
Make sure that your manager is one of the first to be informed. If this feels unnecessary, put yourself in your manager’s shoes, Markman says. Wouldn’t you want to know that two people on your team, or a team member and a colleague from another group, were dating? Then “let your bosses make the call on how to staff you. They may prefer you not work together. By telling them, you’re allowing them to make informed decisions.” Whether or not to tell HR will depend on the company policy and on how much you trust your colleagues in the department to handle the situation.
“If you have an HR department that’s good, you might want to have a record, especially if the relationship goes sour,” says Markman. “If your HR dept has a reputation for being all about checking boxes, don’t tell them.” There’s another important caveat: LGBTQ employees may not feel comfortable disclosing a relationship with a coworker, especially since you can still be fired in many states for being gay. “While many workplaces have become more diverse, they haven’t necessarily become more inclusive,” Markman says. “Many people may not feel comfortable talking about their relationships.”
If you break up
Of course, not every romance will work out and if you or your partner decide to end things, it’s best to be prepared. There’s no reason to mince words: “It’s going to be very painful,” says Baker, but “you still need to be open about the break up.” Markman agrees: ““If you’ve been telling people about the relationship, keep them updated on the fact that you’re no longer together.” And try to remain as professional as possible.
“Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship has said something less than sympathetic about an ex,” says Markman, “but you have to be civil as if nothing ever went wrong and hope that the other person will do the same.” If you find it too awkward or painful to continue working alongside the person, you may need to consider leaving the job or at least transferring to another department. No matter how the relationship turns out, it’s worth following some of Baker’s most simple advice: “The less drama, the better.”
Principles to Remember
- Know the many risks of getting involved with someone at work
- Familiarize yourself with your company’s policies – and the rationale behind them
- Talk through what you’ll do if the relationship doesn’t work out
- Pursue a coworker if you’re not serious about a relationship
- Date someone who you have a reporting relationship with
- Try to hide the relationship from your manager or colleagues – it will only erode trust
Case Study #1: Always keep it professional
Heather Townsend and her colleague, Alex, were both working at one of the Big Four accounting firms when they became interested in one another. But they were hesitant about getting romantically involved. “We thought dating at work was faux pas. I wouldn’t even have more than one glass of wine with a coworker,” she says. Still, the attraction was there and, while they never openly flirted, they were “friendly” over instant messages.
After three months of uncertainty over where things were headed, Alex “finally said on instant message, ‘Do you want to go to dinner with me?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’” On their first date, they talked about how they would handle the situation in the office. “We were both very career-focused and agreed that we wanted to always keep it professional so that our careers wouldn’t be impacted.”
Heather told one friend at work that she was dating Alex, but they waited a few months before disclosing their status to HR. “While it got serious very quickly, we wanted to be sure,” she explains. Eventually, though, they were upfront with HR in part because they were at different levels of the organization and wanted to do it before any conflicts of interest arose. “We said something like, ‘We’re dedicated to the company and we don’t want this to affect our careers but we fell in love. What should we do?’”
The HR managers responded positively. The couple worked with HR to make sure they wouldn’t be on the same project and that Alex, who was more senior than Heather, wouldn’t be responsible for her performance reviews or advocating for her promotions. “There was no way he could write an unbiased review,” she says.
Once they had that support, Heather told her boss and a few other colleagues. “That’s when the gossip started,” she says, “but we didn’t let it bother us. We kept working hard and rose above it.” Still, she was concerned about the potential impact on her reputation. “I didn’t want it to seem like I was doing well at the company because of who I was dating, and I didn’t want people to think I didn’t take my career seriously.”
So, she and Alex made a conscious decision to treat each other like co-workers first and foremost whenever they were in the office. “I didn’t stop by his desk or kiss him on the cheek or have casual conversations. We would go out for coffee, but we always met by the elevator.”
Heather left the company about nine months into their relationship for unrelated reasons, and she and Alex wed several years later. While they no longer work together, they are still happily married.
Case Study #2: Why secrecy doesn’t work
When Becca Pierson (some names and details have been changed) worked at a large tech company, she was assigned to help a new employee, Meryl, onboard. After getting to know one another over several months, the two women started dating.
“We were on different teams, but we interacted regularly,” Becca explains. “Though I wasn’t her manager, I was more senior, which made me nervous. I thought it would look really bad to my team if they knew I was dating someone who was at the same level as them.”
They chose to keep their relationship a secret. “It was complicated because she wasn’t out of the closet,” Becca explains. “She’s from a country where being gay is essentially illegal.” Although the secrecy made “things more exciting in a way, more romantic and special,” it also caused a lot of anxiety. Becca couldn’t tell her friends — at work or outside it — what she was doing a lot of the time. “It was weird that no one knew the relationship existed. It felt like going back in the closet. I think when you’re hiding a work relationship — whether you’re gay or straight — it can feel that way.”
They dated for close to a year and were able to keep the secret that whole time. “I don’t think anyone ever knew,” she says. Becca feels like the secrecy ultimately broke them up. “I didn’t feel like it was a real relationship; it was almost like living a double life.” She even felt somewhat relieved when it ended. “I didn’t think I could do it for much longer. She wasn’t out to her family, and we couldn’t imagine how that would ever work.”
While Becca and Meryl remain friends, Becca says that the whole experience has made her want to steer clear from having another relationship at work.
Case Study #3: When it doesn’t work out
Jordan Lu (names and some details have been changed) fell for his coworker, Susan, after they’d been at the same investment bank for less than three months. “We hadn’t been working together that long. She’d joined the company before me.”
He felt like the romance didn’t present a conflict of interest because there wasn’t a reporting relationship between them. “Though I was technically senior to her in terms of hierarchy —she was an analyst and I was an associate — she did not report to me and I wasn’t involved in assigning her work, managing or evaluating her,” he explains. “We did sometimes work together as part of a big team but were never on the same team when we were dating.”
This was the first time Jordan had ever been involved romantically with someone at work and he says he was “extremely naïve” and didn’t consider the risks. “I don’t think either of us thought that far ahead to be honest. We sort of stumbled into the relationship.”
Since it was casual at first, they didn’t think to tell anyone. But when it got more serious they felt like it was too late. “It just seemed odd to raise at that point, several months in,” he says. “She was being considered for a promotion, so we didn’t want [the disclosure] to potentially impact that process.” They each had a friend at work — someone Jordan had known for a while and Susan’s roommate — who knew about the relationship. “They were both people we trusted to a high degree.”
Eventually, however, the relationship fizzled and the pair broke up. “That was the most awkward part of it all,” Jason says. “We ended up having to work much more closely on different projects, and, though it was always polite between us, there was definitely an incredible amount of tension and simmering resentment,” he says. “While it was never apparent to others, it was not pleasant.” The situation contributed to his departure from the company. “It was so awkward, and I felt like we both needed space.”
This article first appeared as How To Approach an Office Romance by Amy Gallo at Harvard Business Review. Amy did a great job with this article! Click on her name to follow her on the social networks!
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