It’s no secret a lot of us spend the majority of our time with our colleagues. A whopping 54 percent of American workers admit to having had a crush on a coworker, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Of course, a crush is harmless, but if an innocent flirtation leads to a full-fledged romance, how do you navigate dating a coworker without jeopardizing your job and putting your professional future at risk? We asked Amy Baker, a professor of psychology at the University of New Haven with a concentration in workplace romance, to lay out the rules of romantic engagement at the office.
Rule #1: Check the Handbook
Dating a coworker isn’t a novel idea, which means companies usually have a pretty clear policy already mapped out, ready for you to consult should sparks suddenly start to fly, says Baker. (It’s usually available via an online company portal or it may be something that was issued to you in a packet during your new hire orientation—you can always ask for an updated copy without referencing why you need it.) Read the fine print carefully: Some policies prohibit dating a subordinate while others prohibit office romance altogether. Bottom line: It’s critical that you know the rules before you act. (If for some chance you act first, then read the policy, it’s smart to own up to any violations ASAP to reduce the severity of the consequences.)
Rule #2: Stay Far Away from Romantic Involvement with Your Boss or Direct Reports
Cue the #MeToo movement—if the power dynamic is questionable (as in, you’re head over heels in love with your CEO and they feel the same), you’ll want to tread carefully, especially if the relationship is casual or unclear. “I recommend not dating your boss, but it’s also smart to stay away from a subordinate or a client, too,” Baker explains. “If you date a boss or subordinate, your judgement and professionalism can be compromised. And if you’re acting against corporate policy, you could be fired, simple as that.”
If you do find yourselves head over heels for your boss or a direct report, Baker’s advice is simple: “Change jobs. Your coworkers will assume you’re getting special treatment and, let’s face it, you may be.”
Rule #3: Confirm Your Relationship Status Before You Go on the Record About It
Again, read the policy issued by HR to familiarize yourself with the protocol, but it’s a good rule of thumb before going public to confirm your commitment to each other. “Are you exclusive? Then, yes, now’s a good time to talk to HR,” says Baker. “Be prepared that people will talk and speculate, no matter how discrete you think you are.” Once you’re HR official, Baker says it’s also better to get ahead of the office gossip when it comes to your colleagues. If asked about your relationship by a colleague, briefly acknowledge it and move on. “Say, ‘Yes, we’ve been out on a few dates, but I’d like to keep that part of my life personal for now. I hope you understand.’” (This also helps you maintain your professionalism, too.)
You also don’t have to tell everyone. You and your partner should talk through who needs to know at work—and who doesn’t—so you’re on the same page.
Rule #4: Keep in Mind There Could Be Backlash
Even if you eventually come clean about your courtship, colleagues may still lament the fact that at one point it was a secret you kept. “Coworkers who had no idea the two of you were dating may feel betrayed,” Baker says. “They may have said things about your romantic partner to you that they would never have said if they knew you were together.” They also might start to worry that you’re gossiping behind their backs. (After all, it’s one of the main things you have in common, right?) There’s not a ton you can do except overcompensate on the professionalism and keep your distance at the office, depending on your role.
Rule #5: Say No to Any PDA
This rule applies whether you’re dating a coworker or your partner is meeting you when your shift ends and leans in for a kiss. “Many people are uncomfortable with public displays of affection in a work context, so you probably want to steer clear,” Baker recommends. This includes over-the-top gushing about your relationship—all details better shared with friends and family away from work.
Rule #6: The Same Goes for Dating Squabbles
Fighting—even passive aggressively—at the office is a major no-no, says Baker. No one, but especially not your colleagues, wants to witness that. Open floor plans are especially problematic when it comes to this and you don’t want to exhibit any behavior that causes a frustrated coworker to head to HR.
Rule #7: Talk Through How You Both Will Handle Things If Your Romance Doesn’t Work Out
This is a big one, according to Baker. If the relationship ends and you have your heart broken, but you work together, you’re going to have to see this person every day, which means stifling those feelings and putting professionalism first. On the flip side, if you’re the one who breaks things off, you may have to deal with a hurt ex in the workplace. “In addition to the personal distress either situation can cause, it may also hurt your ability to do your job well—at least in the short-term,” Baker explains. Also, this is where workplace gossip starts to creep up again. “Rumors can undermine your professional reputation. They also can be very difficult to deal with emotionally. Try to keep in mind that your career may be affected by how you handle yourself in this situation and, again, lean on friends and family who are not coworkers for support.”