Is Having an Office Romance A Good Idea?

by Jaburg Wilk

Jaburg Wilk

You’re young, embarking on a career and very attracted to a co-worker who flirts with you at your new job. You’re sure the two of you were made for each other and, after all, you’re only human. So, you boost the courage to ask him or her out to lunch, happy hour, or even dinner. You get along great. It’s the best “first date” you’ve ever had.  It feels like both of you see this as the start of something good and you assume, without asking, that you are on the same page about what something good means.  Naturally, you go for it. Good idea? 

Bad idea. Think it through; an office romance can torpedo your job (short term), your career (long term), and your reputation (forever) faster than you can say “I love you, too.” Consensual or not, you’ve crossed the line at work. That line is sometimes clearly outlined by company policy, called a non-fraternization policy.  Sometimes it is invisible, but can be implied. Policy or no policy, what could go wrong? 

Lots... Office romances are a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For example:

1.    You and the object of your affection work in the same office, day in and day out, five days a week. This alone can cause problems. Do you really want to spend that much time together in the first months, or even years, of your relationship? That’s more time together than you would normally initially spend with your spouse. Working with your loved one may not be the best recipe for happiness. On the other hand, it can be a great recipe for disaster if you quarrel or end the relationship and still have to work with each other every day. Ugh!    

2.  Working together in the same office can also disrupt the happiness of others who work with you. Coworkers who aren’t currently in a romantic relationship may be disheartened to see that others are, possibly out of envy or jealously. Of course, if the relationship falters or falls apart, any jealous behavior from coworkers may stop, but in either event an office romance can have a negative impact on employee morale. Even if PDAs are banned in the workplace, other employees are usually quick to see what’s going on from the happy couple’s body language, the way they treat and talk to each other, and the favoritism that is often perceived in that situation.  

3.  The worst-case scenario for both employees and their employer are romantic relationships between a manager or supervisor and a subordinate.  An office romance between two coworkers at the same level of employment is cause for concern that laws may be broken – specifically federal and state laws that prohibit sex discrimination and harassment and creating a hostile work environment. However, a romance between a superior and a subordinate employee is an elevated concern for the employer because the law equates a managerial or supervisory employee with the employer, and the employer cannot defend itself by claiming ignorance or that efforts to remedy the situation were adequate in the circumstances. In other words, in many cases, if the manager or supervisor did it, the employer did it.   

4.  The question then becomes: did what? However innocent or consensual the relationship may be, the appearance of impropriety will always linger, and even small complaints about discrimination, harassment, or hostile work environment can become big issues for fellow employees or even the romantic partners if the relationship sours. When that happens, it’s not uncommon that a consensual relationship, in hindsight, becomes a quid-pro-quo sexual harassment case that snares the employer in a legal web. This is not what an employer wants after it’s too late to do anything about the situation.   

So, what can the employee or the employer do about an office romance? The best advice to the employee is don’t do it. There are plenty of fish in the sea, and you don’t have to drop your line at work. And if you really can’t help it, it may be best for one of you to work elsewhere. If you do choose to continue to work together, I recommend that you disclose the relationship to your employer and seek the employer’s approval rather than wait until someone else discloses it for you.       

The best advice for employers is, unless there are really good reasons to allow them, don’t allow office romances. If you do allow them, be sure to talk to an attorney about drafting what we call a “love contract” between the couple and the company in order to acknowledge the relationship, place reasonable restrictions on the relationship in the workplace, and require advance notice of any problems in the workplace the relationship may cause. You should, at a minimum, protect yourself from exposure to potential legal liability in the situation as best as you can.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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