“It’s complicated” has become a rather familiar phrase in relationship speak. It’s true—all relationships can get a little messy, and for some that’s because the relationship starts at work. For millions of us, love and work intermingle in one way or another: coworkers getting married, business owners dating, client relations going rogue.
Most HR professionals get squeamish when the subject arises. Rightfully so, as the topic is littered with legal issues, charged emotions, and awkward conversations. Yet data shows almost half of workers have had or will have a workplace romance—which makes sense given how much time we spend at work.
The truth is: office romance happens. But because most of us avoid talking about it, we often don’t know how to approach it respectfully and with intention.
First off, if you can help it, avoid dating anyone, ahem, under you, or above you in the chain of command. It’s the most likely relationship to cause legal issues or questions around integrity (yours or theirs). If you choose to pursue it despite the risks, request that one of you move out of the reporting structure. As for other scenarios, creating a healthy sustainable relationship requires being deliberate about what you say, don’t say, do and don’t do, in and out of what you define as the “workplace.”
The truth is: office romance happens. But because we avoid talking about it, we never learn how to approach it.
Chris Littlefield—owner of Acknowledgement Works, an employee engagement company in Santiago, Chile—advises “setting clear boundaries about what is work and what is relationship and consciously devoting time to both. Set clear guidelines for what comes home and what stays in the office, and hold each other accountable to honor the boundaries set.” He also recommends couples schedule monthly check-ins to make sure each person is satisfied with both relationships.
Before you commit to a relationship with a colleague, Littlefield suggests asking yourself three questions:
1. What are the majority of your conversations about?
2. Do you only talk about work?
3. Do you spend most of your time “trauma sharing” about your boss or all the overtime you’ve put in?
If you answered yes to the last two questions, it’s possible the connection might not sustain. The thing is, it’s common and natural to bond with our coworkers over the pains and pleasures of a job. So before rushing into romance, make sure to look for shared values outside the office. Often people are searching for affirmation and sympathy—it’s easy to blur those lines with our more intimate needs for love, touch, and support.
If you do take a chance on office romance, address potential consequences head-on. Kore Koubourlis, leadership consultant and owner of The Essential Group in Seattle, Washington, suggests you “imagine what it will be like if things don’t work out. Consider the landscape: If you work in an office with many locations, your work doesn’t involve a lot of contact with each other, and neither of you has a position of influence over the other, then it’s probably not a big deal.” Make sure you understand the impacts the relationship might have on you, your partner, and the business if things go smoothly, if the ride gets bumpy, or if the romance comes to an end.
Worried all this thinking and planning is going to take the “romance” out of office romance? It won’t. Healthy, lasting relationships are built on trust and consideration. If you’re just looking for a fling, you may be better off searching outside your professional circles. That said, relationhips are unpredictable, so if what starts out feeling like a deep connection turns out just to be infatuation, that’s also okay. But if you give thought and attention to the relationship from the start, you’re more likely to find a lasting, meaningful connection.
The bottom line: Create clear boundaries and expectations, go slow, and discuss what might happen if it doesn’t work out.