Editor Anita Crotty met her husband of 16 years at the office. She admits, “I was wary of an office romance because I didn't want to do anything to mess up a job that I really, really loved.”
The relationship, as it turned out, didn’t have a negative impact on her career. In fact, she and her husband have been together for more than 20 years and have actually worked together at three different companies.
Finding love at work isn’t uncommon, either. A CareerBuilder study found that 30% of office romances lead to marriage.
But in reality, dating somebody in the workplace can be challenging, disruptive, and, in the age of #MeToo, scary. How do you know if you’ve met the love of your life? Is it worth finding out? Maybe; maybe not.
Before you make moves on a work crush or say “yes” to a date, consider these four things:
1. Your employer’s dating policy
Not all employers have dating policies, but with the ongoing concern of sexual harassment in the workplace, more and more companies are bound to add them. But if neither of you is a subordinate to the other, then you shouldn’t have to report it, should you?
Well, it depends.
Nicole Ortiz, a writer and editor, started dating her boyfriend of four years while they were both freelancing for the same company. The company didn’t have a human resources department and she admits that coworkers “loved that [they] started dating.” But is that the norm?
Some companies have strict policies. At Facebook, for instance, you get one chance to ask a coworker on a date and if they say “no,” or they’re “too busy,” then asking again will land you in deep water with HR.
Every company deals with office relationships differently, so if you want to avoid a potential legal battle or job loss, find out what’s permitted.
Not sure? Ask somebody in HR, or, if you feel comfortable enough, ask your manager (assuming you’re not interested in dating them). You want to get ahead of the issue before it becomes public, especially if you and partner’s work overlaps or if you work at different levels.
2. The seriousness of the relationship
Nobody really knows where a relationship is headed when it first begins. It could be the start of a forever-love or it could end disastrously. Of course, we all hope for the former, but none of us can be sure at the beginning.
One of the challenges of being in an office romance is that you are both trying to figure out where the relationship is headed while keeping it a secret.
As Lauren can attest, an office romance isn’t always worth it. When she was an underwriter, her partner was in a managerial role and she was not (different departments, but their work overlapped). The relationship, which she kept secret up until after she gave her notice, ended horribly. She left her job in the mid-2000’s amidst the economic crisis for the sake of the work relationship and then had to bounce from job to job. “It took me almost four years to get back on my feet financially,” she says.
Lauren now says she “would never get involved with [another] co-worker again.” Because she didn’t tell coworkers about the relationship, she also didn’t get their opinions of it. But at the time, she “couldn't imagine a situation in which things would end badly for [her].”
If you’re considering dating a coworker (or if you have already begun to), consider all potential outcomes. As the age-old saying goes, “expect the best, but prepare for the worst.”
3. What will happen if (or rather, when) the relationship goes public
You may be skilled at keeping your relationship a secret, but unless you have some serious experience in espionage, it’s bound to come out eventually, whether you want it to or not. It doesn’t take much — it could be a wink, a hand graze, or an inside joke that gives you away.
How you disclose the information to coworkers or managers could be just as important as the information itself. After all, one-third of office relationships end in termination.
If you’re lucky, you won’t have to address the issue at all. Ashley, a writer who still works with her significant other at a small company, says, “I don't know when our managers realized, but even people high up in the company knew [when the relationship began] and almost seemed to encourage it.”
Not every company or coworker will be as supportive though, so it’s a good idea to have a discussion with the person you’re dating. Come to an agreement on what you want for each other and plan what to do if you receive negative reactions.
4. Implications of the power dynamic
A nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment recently conducted an online survey on office romances. In it, 38% of women admitted to experiencing sexual harassment at the workplace. This reflects the growing number of men in high positions accused of sexual misconduct, so it’s no surprise that the dynamic between men and women in the workplace is shifting. It’s certainly beneficial that these cases are being brought out into the spotlight, but there’s no denying this context can complicate an office relationship.
When Anita and her husband started dating, they “were very careful and respectful of one another both in and out of the office. And, since [they] were peers, there was no imbalance in the power dynamic.” This isn’t always the case, though.
If one of you works at a higher level than another, you must be hyper-conscious of the power dynamic and what it could mean for your career and your relationship. This is why talking with an HR representative or a manager before things get too serious can really benefit you.
Mixing pleasure and business can be risky, but for some, it may be worth it. Be cautious, be aware, and be prepared for any backlash that may arise.
By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a professional writer and editor. She worked as a senior manager at an independent publisher in Boston, earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, and currently resides in the Midwest. She is working on her first novel. You can find her at @writershep on Twitter and @sarahsheppardwriter on Instagram.