Things to Consider Before Starting an Office Romance

After college, the center of social life usually develops around ones work life: co-workers become friends, go out together to happy hour or dinner, invite each other to events and activities, and so on. This office bonding is a natural process since people today spend the majority of their day at work. Inevitably the office is also a place where people can fall in love, and while falling in love is a happy occasion – falling in love with someone you work with can be a complicated issue. To discuss the subject, I have met with Elizabeth Meyer – a staffing advisor & professional relationship consultant and the founder of The Meyer Suite.  In the following interview Elizabeth talks about the different aspects of an office romance, when it can work and when it can be more complicated, and the things to consider before embarking on such an exciting adventure.

Elizabeth Meyer founded The Meyer Suite after nearly a decade of supporting executives, celebrities, and high-net-worth individuals as a Personal Assistant/Executive Assistant, Chief-of-Staff, and Estate Manager. With experience honed in New York City and Seattle, combined with a strong Midwestern work ethic and sincerity, Elizabeth employs a thoughtful and personalized method for both talent-scouting and long-term, professional relationship management. Based out of Seattle, Elizabeth serves clients across the country.

Romance at work – Yea or Nay?

I think romance at work is...a reality.

I want to back up and say that when I first entertained the idea of doing this interview I was in the category of people who think that romance at work is bad. Approximately 50% of Americans think that it’s bad, so initially I was thinking: NAY. Don’t do it.

But the reality is - we are all working more, we are spending a lot of time at work. We are surrounded by companies that provide a lot of incentives to stay at work more. Inevitably we are going to interact with people at work a lot. And one of the number-one predictors of relationships is propinquity; the more you are around a person, the more likely you are to develop attraction and relationships.

Knowing that, it makes sense that despite of the fact that 50% of us think that romance at work is a bad idea, 40% of us have reported having a romance at work. So those numbers don’t quiet add up. Inevitably, romance at work is going to happen. Some relationships should be avoided (ex. boss and employee), but lateral romance – is it ok? It is a reality.

The bigger the company, the more robust the HR department is, and probably the more rules and guidelines they have employed over the years about employees fraternization.  Some may even go so far as to ban relationships in the workplace.  I think that it’s really unrealistic for us to ban them, though. I could guess we actually start to see increases in workplace romance, hence best to steer the conversations toward what to do when it happens.

What co-workers need to consider when they have an affair?

For the sake of this discussion we are going to say that we are talking about two adults who are otherwise unattached, who decide that they are going to pursue a relationship in the workplace.

Here are some things to consider:
·      Is your job going to be in jeopardy by pursuing this relationship?  Do check your company’s policy.
·      From there, are you willing to risk your job for the relationship? Are you OK with the fact that the other person’s job could be at risk? I think everybody starts out with the best intentions and yet, there are so many issues that could come up if this relationship doesn’t last; nobody thinks that it isn’t going to, but if it doesn’t – what is going to happen?
·      Have an honest discussion about it with the person with whom you have this relationship. Make sure that you are both on the same page for the ‘what ifs’ scenarios. It is similar to a situation when you start dating someone who is in your friends group. Initially it starts out as positive. You think ‘this is great. I know this person, we all get along, we all hang out to begin with, what could go wrong?’ Well, if you break up, who gets to keep the friends that you have in common?
·      Back to the work romance issue - if one of the two people in the relationship is willing to walk away from the job in order to have the relationship– that could make a lot of things easier.

Does work romance always have to be so complex?

It may not always be complex, but it’s probably not ever going to be simple.  It depends whether you are in a company of seven people where everybody works together all day long, or with a huge company, like a tech giant; the realities and challenges are very different. In a big company, for example, there are situations in which you might meet someone who is employed by your company but not necessarily part of your day-to-day job. Again, be aware of your reality and the ramifications of when a relationship sours.

What do supervisors and subordinates need to consider when they have an affair?

Now we are in the “NAY” territory.  A supervisor-subordinate workplace romance is definitely more problematic. When you’ve got a romantic relationship between a boss and an employee, or a manager and an assistant, or any situation when the subordinate is reporting up to the person with whom they are having an affair, it must be disclosed early on.  I would not be surprised if the companies that do have written policies about workplace romance - allow relationships, if disclosed, EXCEPT for superior-subordinate relationships. 

Here are number of examples of negative outcomes of this type of a relationship:
·      This past year, the CEO of Priceline was forced to resign after an inappropriate personal relationship. We don’t know the details of this relationship, but nonetheless he was forced to resign.  He lost his job!
·      In 2012 Lockheed Martin ousted their president and future CEO over a relationship with a subordinate.
·      Same year, founder and Chairman of Best Buy stepped down after covering up an affair that he had with a subordinate.

Three people – all high-level, high-achieving individuals - as well as, possibly, the subordinates, all losing their jobs because of a workplace relationship. It is easy to say that high-level executives should “know better” than to participate in this type of behavior, and yet cases like that happen.

From an employer/superior/executive point of view, there are things to pay attention to starting as far back as the interview stage. If you are picking up on some sort of attraction to the person you are interviewing, this is probably not somebody that you should hire.

If the company policy does not oppose a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate, what other considerations people should take into account?

Something to consider that may not be as obvious is the mere perception that this relationship is going to brew. Other employees might read into certain actions and decisions with the assumption that the relationship is leading to favoritism.  Let’s say it’s annual review time.  The subordinate, who is otherwise a stellar employee, gets good marks on his/her review.  If other employees are aware that this person is in a relationship with the manager, who is giving the review, there could be assumptions that he/she got the good review because of the relationship. This could lead to harassment claims or discrimination claims, not necessarily from the person who is in the relationship, but from the observant of the relationship.

Are there definite No No’s when it comes to romance at work?

Reserve the work place for you as an employee and professional.

I would say definitely no PDA (a public display of affection): no kissing or hugging, etc. at work. As far as everyone else is concerned, you are not in a relationship when you are at the office.

You should not be using company resources within your relationship; meaning, don’t send personal emails back and forth on your company email system, or use your company provided cell phone for personal communication. Separate your personal relationship from who you are as an employee of that company.

Also, be conscious of how your relationship could be affecting other people in your environment. 

What would be the best way to handle a love affair at work without hurting job performance?

I think any of our personal affairs can directly and indirectly follow us to work and affect our performance at work.  A workplace romance means your personal affairs may be within reach – literally – when you’re at work.  So I think this is a great question. 

Those of us who aren’t in a workplace romance probably check in with loved ones during the day, or have a conversation in the middle of the day with a spouse or significant other. Dating a colleague doesn’t mean you have to shut down that urge to check in periodically.  But again, be mindful of not letting it get beyond the point of behavior that you would have in a relationship with a non-employee in your workplace.

While we’ve come up with a number of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” here, there isn’t one way to go about this kind of stuff.  So remind yourself who you want to be known-as in the work place.  Don’t let this relationship, or any other relationship - even the platonic ones, affect who you are as an employee.  You were hired to do a certain job.  If you are proud of your work and value your career, do what you can and what you know to be wise to avoid letting a relationship negatively impact your performance on the job.

What would be the best way to end an affair with someone you work-with without hurting work relationships and performance?

The best time to talk about the potential fallout of a relationship that goes south is  at the early stages of a relationship. The sooner the better. If this relationship ends, does that mean inevitably that you will have to leave the company?  What would it be like to continue to work together when you break up? Does one of you leave the company before the two of you even get too far into the relationship? Do you agree that if it goes south one of you is leaving? Do you put in to transfer to another department? Does it happen while the two of you are in the relationship or at the end of the relationship?

By the way, there is a lot about how you’ve handled breakups throughout adulthood to reference here.   Some people have very amicable breakups, others don’t; it’s just how different people are.  If you’re in the latter category, how did you end the relationships that you had outside of the work place? Do you just close up and you never want to see that person again? Do you delete the history of the relationship, all the pictures, etc?  If you end a relationship with a colleague, how will the breakup play out?  Would it be in the same fashion?  How does that work?

Again, with the end of the relationship, just like with the beginning, there is no one answer. It depends on the individuals, the setting of the company, and the resources available (like an HR department).