Navigating the Dangers of an Office Romance

by Roger Reid

For decades, companies have used behavioral guidelines, environmental influences, and formal policy to keep their employees from engaging in flirtation, romance, and sex. Human resource departments continue to hire independent consultants to present workshops on curtailing sexual overtures and innuendo. And periodic memos are constantly circulated reminding employees to keep excessively personal conversations, gestures of affection, and sexual overtures outside the office.

Has it worked? Depends on how you measure it. I think the level of casual flirtation is probably about the same. Even when companies institute new policies to control or eliminate it, the resulting atmosphere only appears less affected. As most will tell you, it’s still there, bubbling just under the surface.

Thankfully, here’s what has changed . . .

The blatant, historically male-initiated sexual overtures—especially when delivered with intimidating and inferred ultimatums—are pretty much a thing of the past. Victims have been given voice and recourse, and offenders are no longer protected by their job status or value to the company.

That said, people working for the same company still meet, become attracted to each other, and end up having sex—consensually—all the time. Some fall in love and get married. Others fall in love and get divorced, and then married.

The question is, if tempted, what do you do?

First, consider your company’s rules and policies concerning inter-office romance. Often taking the form of strict directives for acceptable employee behavior while on company time and property, infractions may result in default or automatic termination. Many companies take it a step further by attempting to prohibit personal, off-hour activities that can negatively impact or disrupt the workplace. But if you’re determined to ask out that cute brunette in accounting—in spite of the risk to your career—here are some guidelines:

Be discrete. Don’t ask a co-worker out while you’re within earshot of someone else. It can be embarrassing for both of you. And when asking, don’t gush about your pent-up feelings or use language that should be reserved for the bedroom. Simply ask the question: “Would you like to go to . . .”

If you’re turned down, don’t ask twice. It’s not only rude, it could be considered harassment. Even though you may continue to approach the issue with courtesy and respect, if the recipient of your interest becomes uncomfortable, you’ve crossed the line, and you can be held accountable for it.

Keep sex off the table during the first date. Make your first date a casual lunch or a cup of coffee after work. If all goes well, you can explore the possibilities OUTSIDE of company time and property. What if the object of your affection brings it up immediately? Proceed with caution. Taking the secretary out for a nooner in the backseat of your Chevy will not be appreciated by management, and if your sex partner du jour regrets the activity later, your lack of judgment WILL come back to haunt you.

Keep the relationship to yourself. Don’t share the fact you’re dating a company employee with anyone associated with the company. Make sure your partner understands the need for secrecy as well. Most companies consider romantic activity between employees an unwanted distraction within the workplace, affecting not only the two people involved, but others who know about it. If it negatively influences office productivity, one or both of you may find yourself being transferred or terminated.

Agree on rules of disengagement before things get serious. If it doesn’t work out—and most of the time, it won’t—have a mutually acceptable understanding on how to break up or at least wind things down. Think of it as a pre-nup for dating. If your relationship grows and you end up together in the long term, great. If not, you’ll have some rules to fall back on to help normalize your post-break-up behavior at work. Remember, if one of you loses interest and calls it off, you still have to work together. And if one of you was hurt in the breakup, that’s a big order.

Agree that if either party decides to call it quits, they must be honest and disclose their feelings as soon as possible. Neither of you are allowed to simply stop calling or radically change your behavior toward the other without a full explanation of what’s going on. Not knowing why a relationship ends only adds to the hurt and disorientation of rejection. Being honest can also help reduce the animosity and outright hostility the injured party can feel toward the other.

The mid-twentieth century adage of “Don’t stick your pen into the company inkwell,” was an early attempt to warn employees (primarily men) to consider their co-workers the same as they would any company asset—don’t abuse it, never exploit it for personal use, and never take it home. And yet, many couples can still remember the first time they laid eyes on their future spouse—riding in the same elevator, sitting at the same table in the company lunchroom, or taking a chair next to each other at a business conference—as employees of the same company.

I must admit to having a special affinity for this group of love-stuck co-workers, for I too, married a co-worker. And after 23 years of marriage, I consider our meeting, relationship, and resulting marriage to be the most positive and influential event in my life. Just because you both happen to work under the same roof should not be a reason to eliminate each other as a possible life partner. Just remember, an office romance has a much greater—and safer—chance of longevity when passion is moderated with equal does of caution, discretion, and responsible judgment.