How to Make Dating Work…at Work
"Office romance" should sound like an oxymoron, right? Acres of computer monitors, wheezing photocopiers and scuffed gray carpet don't exactly compare aesthetically with candles, flowers and champagne. Yet despite these (usually) distinctly unsexy environments, workplace romances happen.
When you think about it, it's not that surprising. Thanks to society's unrelenting pressure to be as productive as possible, we sometimes spend more time with our work colleagues than almost anyone else—and there's nothing like overcoming a crisis or two to bring people closer together. Sparks can fly in even the most unlikely of settings.
However, once those sparks flicker into life, it's important to ensure you actually want to mix work and romance. More importantly, if this is more than a stolen kiss at an after-work event, how can you make this relationship work during and after…well, work.
What does your workplace say about dating?
"Most companies will have a set of rules or guidelines that they apply in these scenarios. Some will even have a full policy," explained Stuart Wright, a human resources consultant at Cube HR in Lancashire, England. "Even if there is nothing in writing, a company will always expect its employees to ensure their conduct is in line with acceptable professional standards."
What are these "professional standards"?
"Physical intimacy and public displays of affection whilst at work are widely forbidden for numerous reasons," he said. "Such behavior can make colleagues or customers feel uncomfortable."
Wright detailed some common procedures loved-up colleagues should expect to be in place wherever they work.
"If a relationship develops at work or if a new hire is in a relationship with an existing member of staff, then businesses will expect the employees to make a supervisor or manager aware of that relationship," he explained. "This protects all parties concerned from any accusations of favoritism or conflicts of interest. Typically, businesses are not keen on colleagues in a relationship working in the same team or department, and in such cases are likely to talk to the employees with a view to a transfer to a different area of the business if possible."
As an employee, though, you have rights, too.
"The sharing of information about relationships is also something that companies need to be aware of," Wright said. "While employees are asked to divulge this information, they are within their rights to ask that it is treated as strictly confidential and only shared with appropriate staff on a need-to-know basis."
What you should consider when the flirting starts
Assuming it's not expressly against the rules and you're not hurting anyone else, you're not doing anything wrong by dating someone in your office. So it's best not to act as though you are.
"The rule of thumb is to be discreet without being secretive as if you're having an affair," explained Rebecca Leppard, from Southampton, England, founder of Upgrading Women, a career development company for women in tech. The company recently published a blog on this topic.
"Signal to your colleagues that you don't let your relationship interfere with your work or vice versa by remaining professional and respectful in your interactions with your partner at work," she said. "For example, you should not visit your partner's office without reasons other than work. This way, your colleagues will see that your expectations and productivity at work will not change."
In other words, don't start discussing what protection you'll be using or whether or not your partner should get an STI test when you're in the boardroom.
"Will you be comfortable seeing each other all day and then spending the evening together?" Phillips asked. "If you work for the same company but in a different department, this may make it easier. For example, sitting across from each other all day and then having a romantic evening is a lot of time together, and will that take the fun out of the relationship?
There's a lot to think about, but consent is paramount. Of course, toxic power dynamics at work—resulting in sexual harassment, among other adverse effects—are a very different scenario than two colleagues on a similar level recognizing they have feelings for each other. However, every sexual relationship needs to be forged on a basis of complete mutual consent.
The pros and cons of dating a work colleague
Let's start on a positive note, with the advantages of having a relationship in the office.
"A successful relationship has the potential to create a highly productive environment by increasing job satisfaction for those involved," said Renata Junkova, a career and executive coach at Runway Excellence in London.
Leppard agreed that increased job satisfaction may be a result of dating at work, and this satisfaction can translate to better work performance and career growth.
However, there are cons, too.
"If the relationship ends badly, it can lead to awkwardness, tension and even hostility in the workplace," Leppard explained. "It may also lead to conflicts of interest, particularly if the two parties have similar responsibilities. This can lead to accusations of favoritism or bias which can even lead to disciplinary action."
There's no getting away from the fact that office romances can affect men and women differently.
"It's worth keeping in mind that existing gender biases can shape people's views about workplace relationships," Junkova noted. "Damaging labels like 'unprofessional' or having an unfair advantage over co-workers [can be] applied far too easily."
"Dating at work can lead to gossip and rumors, which can be damaging to a woman's reputation and make it more difficult to be taken seriously in the workplace," Leppard said. "And based on my personal experience, even without dating anyone at work, if a single woman is doing well in her career, there is always going to be an undercurrent rumor going on that she 'sleeps her way to the top.'"
This sexist bias is part of a wider issue.
"Unlearning these assumptions is necessary to create truly diverse workplaces where everyone has a fair chance regardless of gender identity," Junkova said.
However, in cisgender heterosexual relationships, the man and the woman are likely to be impacted differently by their romantic decisions.
How to manage a work relationship
Strategies for a workplace relationship need to be twofold and include plans for the personal sphere and the professional sphere.
Kicking off with the personal, Phillips has multiple initiatives you can employ (no pun intended) to make the relationship work.
"Working together can put pressure on each other and the relationship altogether," he warned. "There need to be clear boundaries in order to not have as much pressure. For example, are you able to maintain a working relationship at work and an intimate relationship outside of work? In other words, are you able to separate the two? And what does that look like?"
Phillips explained that it's crucial to set these boundaries early on, in case you break up.
"It can be quite painful seeing your ex every day after a breakup," he said. "Therefore, if people at the workplace know that you were dating, you could ask your supervisor if you could transfer to another department, team or building. If the relationship was brief or depending on the reasons you have split up, you may still be able to maintain a working relationship."
Leppard listed some strategies for making your relationship work in the professional sphere (and beyond):
- Be sure to understand your company's policies.
- Maintain discretion (no public displays of affection of any kind).
- Clearly communicate the boundaries to your partner (no special favors, no covering up mistakes).
- Consider the potential emotional consequences if either of you gets transferred or promoted, or simply wants to resign.
Junkova recommended staying several steps ahead.
"By taking proactive steps, such as evaluating how actions may affect productivity or team morale ahead of time, you can ensure that any romantic relationship at work is both rewarding and respectful," she said. "Be sure to discuss any potential conflicts with your partner as well as your employer so that they can be proactively resolved before becoming disruptive issues down the line."
Dating at work can work—with a definite emphasis on can. But it's vital you plan ahead and set proper boundaries immediately. And if that disrupts the honeymoon period, so be it. Take steps to separate the work from the romance so they don't bleed into and, ultimately, infect each other.
Work could ruin a romance and a romance could negatively impact your work. Try to give them both the time, attention and respect they deserve.