Sometimes one thing leads to another, and before you know it there's a story that would make any manager blush. But we'll keep things publishable. (You don't need a book for these stories, anyway; just look around your office or company.) When people spend most of their waking hours together, it's natural for them to want to get to know each other better as people, not just as coworkers.
The odds of a work relationship blooming into something more increases with the level of commitment the job demands. High levels of intensity suspend reality and put personal lives on hold. It's an ideal medium for mutual attraction to germinate and grow.
High-tech wonder company or conservative corporation, it happens everywhere. Coworkers date. Two people see each other across a crowded room — even a room turned into a maze by the cubicles that cordon workspaces into territories — and something sparks intrigue and even passion in each of them.
Sometimes dating between coworkers appears to be a good thing. Two people in different departments meet in the company cafeteria and the rest, as they say, is history — they start dating, they fall in love, they announce their union to their respective work groups that then celebrate with a joint after-hours event. The happy twosome comes to work and leaves for home together, shares a parking space, and names the baby after the company president. It's a match made in — well, maybe not heaven, though it certainly appears magical enough.
As much as we believe in magic, reality can be harsh. Couples fight — it's part of life. When spouses work for the same company, the normal battles of relationships spill over into the workplace. What starts as an argument about breakfast cereal could end up costing a major account — or a job. Consider Rhonda and Patrick's situation.
Rhonda and Patrick met when each was running an errand to the copy store. She worked in advertising; he was an industrial engineer. Their departments never interacted, and the company had no policy prohibiting dating or marriage, so they felt safe in pursuing their relationship. They eventually married. Then the company went through a period of restructuring and downsizing. Both kept their jobs, though the advertising department had to cut half its staff. As a result, those who remained had to pick up the slack, which meant considerable overtime.
Patrick worked out at the health club with Carlos, Rhonda's manager. During a lunch workout one day, Patrick asked Carlos to excuse Rhonda from the mandatory overtime because it was creating problems in their relationship. Carlos refused and chastised Patrick for imposing on him in such a way. Rhonda's workload eventually stabilized and she returned to a regular workweek, as did everyone. But her relationship with Carlos remained strained, and Carlos and Patrick no longer spoke to one another. During the next round of consolidations, both Rhonda and Patrick lost their jobs.
Surveys suggest that as many as 40 percent of employees have dated coworkers at some point; many people view the office as an ideal opportunity to get to know someone with relative safety. If things work out, the explorations move to activities beyond work. If not, no harm done. Right? Not always. Failed relationships are a leading factor in sexual harassment claims and lawsuits.
When coworkers begin dating, it's important to be aware of potential conflicts and to watch for signs of favoritism or even competition. Nothing is more demoralizing for other employees than to look down the hall and see two coworkers prancing along with smirks on their faces — especially when the relationship somehow places other employees at a disadvantage. You might need to step in to review decisions that involve the happy couple, such as overtime and off-site assignments. Even if all is on the up-and-up, other employees might perceive the dating duo to be getting choice assignments or evading unpleasant ones.
Dating a Subordinate
Dating between a manager and a subordinate employee, even across department lines, is always a bad idea and often violates company policy. It's impossible to escape the scrutiny of other managers and employees, regardless of how discreet you think you are. It's equally impossible to avoid perceptions of favoritism while the relationship is hot — and discrimination or harassment if it fails.
Make sure you know your company's policies and corporate culture regarding interoffice dating and particularly managers dating subordinates. Some companies permit dating among coworkers of relatively equal status but discourage or prohibit dating between managers and subordinates.
The greatest risk is for managers who date employees who report to them; even if company policy doesn't prohibit this, it's poor judgment. How can you fairly and objectively evaluate the job performance of the person who shares your life and knows your deepest secrets? Certainly you can't control personal attractions, and many people are happy together because something drew them together. If you find yourself attracted to a subordinate, try taking these steps:
Start by considering the end. Where could this relationship lead, and what are its possible consequences? Can both of you accept them?
Remove yourself from a position of authority over the person whom you are dating. You might need to transfer to another job within your company or change employers. Sometimes such transfers are easier for the employee, though initiating the transfer yourself could lead to later accusations of harassment. It might not seem fair, but someone's career trajectory will need to change or both could easily fade to nothing.
Conduct yourselves with discretion, but don't for a moment let yourself be deluded into believing that no one else knows about your relationship. Someone does, if not everyone.
Whatever you do, don't sneak around, especially at work. If anything, the onus is on you to go out of your way to avoid situations that make it look like you're sneaking around.
The Legalities of Workplace Romance
Dating between coworkers is not against the law, although it might violate company policies intended to minimize the potential for claims of favoritism and harassment. When such policies exist, every employee should know about them before accepting a job offer; violating the policy can have serious consequences.
Company policies prohibiting married employees from working in the same department or even anywhere within the company could run afoul of the law in states that make it illegal to consider marital status in employment and other decisions. The results of court cases involving these issues are mixed, making it difficult for companies to know whether their policies will help or hinder their efforts to maintain an equitable employment environment.
Policies prohibiting married employees from working in the same department or even in the company at the same time are more common than policies against dating. In legalese these are called antinepotism policies, and their proscriptions typically also apply to employees who are related to one another in any way. Some companies promptly fire one or even both employees if coworkers do marry in defiance of policies prohibiting it. Such policies should explicitly state what behaviors are not allowed, what is necessary to invoke the policy (“rules of evidence”), and what consequences the employees face. As with all policies, consistent monitoring and enforcement are crucial.
Because so many sexual harassment claims involve coworkers who once dated each other, it's important to view such a claim as a potential outcome of employee dating. Document, document, document!