Got a crush on a co-worker and thinking of acting on it? Clinical psychologist and CEO of Relationships Australia NSW Elisabeth Shaw shares how to professionally navigate an office romance.
This article was originally written for Body & Soul.
The workplace can be a close and intimate setting where we spend a significant amount of our time with people who have similar interests, values and goals. That’s why it has always been a fertile place to build life-long friendships, as well as romantic relationships. Survey results vary, but findings show up to 20 per cent of us meet our partner at work.
Convenience aside, workplace relationships are not something to stumble into blindly or lightly – they call for wise and realistic consideration. There can be unexpected consequences, affecting work performance, professional reputation, and career prospects.
Although many happy couples started out in the office, the most cautious approach would be to wait until one of you no longer works at the same place. However, romances blossom unexpectedly, and humans can’t always act rationally when it comes to affairs of the heart. An awareness of the issues that can arise will help you be prepared for how to handle a workplace romance, or perhaps to avoid one altogether.
Conflict of interest: real and perceived
Work relationships can raise a conflict of interest when one partner finds themselves with competing interests that affect the impartial performance of their role – especially if the other partner reports to them, or they have opportunities to give preferential treatment to their partner. Co-workers may perceive unfair treatment or impaired business judgement, even if that’s not actually taking place.
The pressures of separating professional and private interests are substantial and not to be dismissed. If you both value the relationship, it might be best for one partner to move to another department or find work outside the organisation. However, deciding who stays and who goes can lead to conflict in itself.
Does dating a colleague affect your other work relationships?
A work romance can have fallouts never envisaged at the start. Some co-workers might judge you unfairly as using sex to advance your career, especially if you’re female and subordinate to your romantic partner, or your partner might be judged for taking advantage of a ‘vulnerable’ worker. Either way, you might become victims of hurtful and malicious talk. Workplace relationships can create anxiety and discomfort for co-workers, to say nothing of divided loyalties.
If you seek out a relationship to serve your own ambitions or for fun, colleagues are unlikely to be impressed. They may be much more supportive if they perceive the relationship as genuine. If your intentions aren’t serious and you value your career and reputation, it’s probably best not to pursue a relationship with a co-worker at all.
Keep it professional and have clear boundaries
It’s important to respect your colleagues and protect the culture of your workplace from any fallout from your relationship. Set up clear and agreed boundaries with your partner between work and private life. Avoid displays of physical or verbal affection that might create discomfort for others, treating your partner as you would any other co-worker. Be upfront about your relationship but never discuss intimate details with others at work.
What happens if the relationship breaks down?
Workplace romances can start in delightful ways but end badly. How would you manage if the romance petered out or if there was a nasty breakup? How do you minimise harm to your careers and your workplace?
Conflict between two partners or an unpleasant breakup can cause tensions, divide team loyalties, impact workplace morale and hurt productivity. If you do break up, simply let co-workers know the outcome rather than the story behind it, and try to remain professional and civil. Avoid bad-mouthing or sharing personal details.
Your privacy vs the best interests of your team and workplace
Most workplaces recognise that romantic relationships are inevitable, and it’s futile to try to ban them, which can only force them underground. The best organisations have policies to regulate romantic or sexual relationships at work. They manage the risk to the individuals and organisation without unreasonable intrusion into employee’s private lives.
Employee Relationships Disclosures require employees to inform HR of any romantic involvement with co-workers. Honesty is always the best policy, especially when there is a conflict of interest and if one or both are senior employees – the last thing you want is for management to find out through office gossip.
In turn, HR is expected to respond with respect, sensitivity and confidentiality and to assist with practical solutions to any problems that develop. The challenge is often when to tell. After a date or two, you might not yet know whether this will be worth disclosing or will fade away. Once you are in any sort of regular pattern of personal contact, then that’s a good time to do so.
Nothing good can be said about workplace romances where one or both are married or in a significant relationship. Apart from the complexities of affairs, all the problems of workplace relationships are compounded by the toxic expectation of co-workers and the organisation to keep the situation as a ‘dirty secret’ from the unknowing spouses. If colleagues have met partners, they will not thank you for being implicated in hurtful behaviour.
Romantic interest vs sexual harassment
Finally, be very aware of the difference between what constitutes sexual harassment in the form of unwelcome romantic or sexual approaches to another employee, and romantic interest that is invited, mutual, consensual or reciprocated.
Personal contact that seems in any way tied to advancement, where your partner is insisting it be kept secret, or where you know that if it came out it would be perceived very negatively, then you might be caught up in something it is better to extricate yourself from – however strong your feelings are. Think about which of you has more at stake. Deciding to move office or leave the workplace is a good way to find out if there is something between you that’s going to last. Having to do that can in itself tell you about the unfairness and inequity of the situation.
Like any relationship, navigating its course safely, respectfully, responsibly and with everyone’s best interests in mind, can be complicated. When wrestling with such issues, a neutral party like a counsellor can offer impartial guidance, more so than colleagues and friends, who inevitably can become invested and embroiled in a particular outcome.
Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.