Dating a co-worker is generally discouraged, but the fact is, feelings can develop when you least expect them to. And while the implication is that it'll end in disaster, this isn't always the case (after all, it worked for Jim and Pam). There are some definite workplace romance pros and cons, which begs the question: Should office relationships be avoided at all costs, or is there a way to do them "right"?
First off, it's a big generalization to say that co-workers should never couple up. Board certified psychiatrist, couples counselor, and sex and couples therapist Dr. Sue Varma (@doctorsuevarma on social media) points out that we spend more than half our waking lives at work. All considered, is it really any wonder that sometimes, love at work is inevitable?
To that, Stefani Threadgill, a sexologist, PhD, LMFT, and founder of The Sex Therapy Institute, thinks that banning co-workers from dating is unrealistic. "Instead of having a policy that prohibits workplace romance, which only forces couples to hide it, an alternative is for a company to embrace the idea that as human beings, we thrive when we are in love, when we feel connected, and when we share a common goal or cause," she says. The solution, she believes, is for more companies to encourage honesty, adapt a "date responsibly" mantra, and provide therapists and other resources to help support healthy relationships.
And for the record, it is possible to have an office romance without it going awry, even if the end result isn't a blissful marriage. Alisia Leavitt, CEO and publishing strategist of Alisia Leavitt Media, dated a co-worker for two years. Although they are no longer together, they split amicably, and she has no regrets (more on that later).
Ahead, these three experts weigh in on the ups and downs of love in the workplace. But before coupling up with a colleague just remember: Even if you tread carefully, you're still taking a risk. "If one should find themselves flirting with the idea of a workplace romance, one question to ask yourself is if the romance or job is worth it," says Dr. Threadgill. "There are other romantic possibilities and professional opportunities out there; only you can decide!"
It's easy to get to know someone organically.
The fact is, if you know someone for some time before you start dating (whether they're in your friend group or cubicle cluster), there's a good chance you've already seen their true colors. "Some people feel that going on traditional dates are somewhat artificial and contrived," points out Dr. Varma. "Working side-by-side allows you to gauge many qualities about someone that could otherwise take you years to learn if you were just dating them," she notes. "Are they reliable? A team player, honest, genuine, hard-working, persistent, tenacious, stable, liked by others?"
Positive traits in the office can translate to a relationship .
To that, Dr. Varma points out that what makes someone a great employee could also make them a wonderful partner. At work, you can observe how they handle pressure, responsibilities, and team collaborations. For example, she says that offering to help others (even if they don't get credit for it), humility, patience, and leadership are all traits that could benefit a relationship.
You probably have a lot in common.
Of course, if you're working in the same industry, there's a good chance the two of you click on a few different levels. "The workplace is an environment with like-minded people on the whole, if you are in a job or industry you are passionate about," says Threadgill "In that context, passion breeds passion, especially for those who are attracted to creativity and/or intelligence."
Dr. Varma adds you'll also understand each others' day-to-day stresses and hectic schedules, which is especially helpful for those in high-pressure jobs.
You have to be mindful of co-workers.
While it may feel like the two of you are in your own little universe, you have to respect that your co-workers may not be swept up in your romance. "PDA and publicly flirting is a big no-no," says Dr. Varma. "Studies show that not only does this make your co-workers feel uncomfortable, it also leads to people feeling a lack of safety and trust in the workplace." Further, she says, you should be mindful not to exclude others, whether from an inside joke, a private conversation, or a table in the break room.
Another reason to keep your private exchanges off the clock is to avoid instigating nosy co-workers. Being the subject of office gossip can be incredibly stressful and put excess pressure on your relationship, says Leavitt.
You could jeopardize your professional reputation (and your job).
Worst-case scenario, an office romance can tank your workplace reputation, and depending on the situation (and your company's policies), it can even cost you your job. There are a lot of factors at play, here, and keeping your composure, compartmentalizing your personal life, and maintaining your trustworthiness — no matter what happens — are all key when it comes to upholding professionalism.
Positions of power can make things messy.
Now, you'll want to think really long and hard before pursuing a relationship with a subordinate or supervisor. Know that nepotism, responsibility, and assumptions of abuse of power (whether or not they're true) can make things messy and skew how your co-workers view you. In a situation like this, you may actually have to choose between your job and your feelings; just be sure that one is worth giving up for the other.
Advice From The Experts:
Consider (and be clear about) your intentions early on.
Dr. Varma reminds that the workplace is no place for a casual hook-up. Consider your intentions and whether there's a strong possibility that you and the colleague-in-question could have a long-term relationship together.
While you don't have to rush to human resources after the first date, it should be a priority once the two of you decide to be exclusive, a discussion you must have early on. "I understand the role of mystery, and letting things unfold naturally, but the stakes are too high [when it comes to workplace relationships] to not be frank," says Dr. Varma. "I think you have to approach your romantic life with a bit of practicality, and asking questions like 'Where is this going?' is totally fair game."
Set some ground rules.
For the sake of protecting yourselves, you and your S.O. should come up with a list of ground rules. Dr. Varma suggests covering everything from PDA, to flirting, to how much of your relationship you're willing to share with your officemates.
Proceed with caution, openness, and honesty.
When Leavitt and her (now former) boyfriend got together, they started slow, then notified human resources once it got serious. "I’d never dated a co-worker before and didn’t want to jeopardize my employment," she recalls. "However, we worked in different departments and held equal positions so I wouldn’t be breaking any HR policies. We kept things quiet until we officially became a couple and then told HR. Honestly, everyone at work thought we made a great couple!"
According to Dr. Varma, they went about this the right way. "Office romances need to be treated with kid gloves," she advises. "You can't be casual and flippant. Be smart, take it slow, get to know the person; know your company's policy. Don't hide, be open, tell your boss and co-workers once you and your partner have spoken and are on the same page."
She continues, "I'm a big believer in prevention: Try to do it right from the beginning by being thoughtful and deliberate, regardless of the outcome; [be] mature, respectful, considerate adults!"