By Derek Johnson
Whenever Tracy from Accounting walks by your cubicle, you can’t help but do a rubberneck. Your racing pulse has nothing to do with the report you’re working on. And those smiles you get in return are just making things more complicated.
You’re thinking of taking the plunge and asking her out. But scenes from the movie “Disclosure”, complete with lawsuits and blackmail, are running through your head.
You can’t risk your career for a fling.
What if the boss finds out? Office romances, while risky, don’t always mean that your career has to end. With some caution, you can have your love and your paycheck too. Knowing how to protect your career while dating a co-worker will involve some research and planning, even before you ask for a first date.
Know the policies that may apply to you. Some companies have policies specifically prohibiting romantic relationships among co-workers, and especially between direct or indirect subordinates and their superiors. If this applies to you, you’ll either need to drop the romance or work for another company.
You should review your company’s sexual harassment policy. You don’t need to be directly in charge of an employee in order for sexual harassment policies to apply to you; sexual harassment can occur between equals or a junior employee can sexually harass a senior. Check your employee policy manual for details. While your human resources department will be well-versed in the company policy and the law, they are also likely to caution you against romantic relationships between co-workers, for the sake of maintaining a professional environment.
Know your position with the person you are interested in. If Tracy from Accounting is smiling because of Bill in the next cubicle, or because she’s anticipating her next vacation, not only will you not win love, but you might lose your job. Repeated requests for a date can constitute sexual harassment, depending on your company’s policy and the particulars of the situation.
Clear communication, even if somewhat unromantic, can mean the difference between just striking out romantically and striking out professionally as well. Don’t assume that your affections are returned just because you would like them to be, and don’t confuse a friendly manner with actual romantic interest.
Know what you will do if or when the relationship ends. In the first flush of infatuation, it seems that the good times will never end. But most dating relationships end eventually, and you may still be co-workers when your relationship ends.
Consider your past relationships to identify your break-up style. If you tend to avoid a romantic partner until they decide to break things off normally, this will be a time when that tactic can complicate things enormously. The more time you spend with this person professional under normal circumstances, the more awkward a break up will be. But you can set the tone for not bringing your break-up to work by not bringing your relationship to work.
Know what’s appropriate behavior for the setting you’re in. Naturally, you shouldn’t be locked in a passionate embrace next to the copier. But what about the office holiday party? Some work settings are more casual than others. If you work for a conservative setting, such as a law firm or a bank, refrain from all demonstrations of affection in work or any setting with co-workers. If, however, you work in a very casual workplace, a quick hug or occasional peck on the cheek might be fine. When in doubt, however, always err on the more conservative side.
Know what to discuss, when and where. Lovers’ quarrels should be kept out of the office, and for the good of your relationship, professional disagreements should be kept in the office. The key to a successful office romance is minding boundaries.
Your co-workers won’t appreciate being dragged into a personal argument, and your sweetheart will appreciate the fact that you can disagree with someone professionally without it affecting how you feel about her personally. Do not use company resources to communicate personally; this includes company email, phone lines, or video conferencing.
If you have a personal email that you use for a substantial amount of professional correspondence, use a separate email for communicating with your sweetheart. If you need to communicate professionally with your sweetheart, use only those means that you would have access to as an ordinary colleague. You do not want to mix personal and professional correspondence.
Know your other options. Keep your resume up to date and be prepared to seek a position with a new company. If your superiors disapprove strongly of the relationship, or if a break-up gets messy, you may find yourself suddenly out of a job. If you are concerned that a relationship is souring, leaving the company sooner rather than later might save your career.
Office romances are tricky, and a misstep can have dire consequences. But sometimes, they do work out well, with the couple either parting civilly with no damage to their careers or dealing with the question of whether to invite co-workers to the wedding. When conducted with caution, you can find love in the next cubicle.