Crushes! Butterflies! Locking eyes across a…Zoom meeting? While finding love at work is generally frowned upon by most HR departments, over half of Americans have been romantically involved with a coworker. Colleagues spend a lot of time together, and the mix of close proximity and shared interests will naturally lead to coupling up, especially in environments with a more casual feel. With that in mind, our team at Bright + Early knows workplace romances are simply going to happen, whether we like it or not. So, instead of preaching abstinence, we put together our top tips for dating at work without blowing up your career.
1. Read the policies.
Revisit your employee handbook and see if there’s a written policy on workplace relationships. Your employer might have a strict no-dating stance, meaning that if you fall in love on the job, one of you may need to quit. Alternatively, the policy may insist that you disclose a relationship, especially if one of you has power over the other at work. While it’s true that your employer has no place in your home (or bedroom), they do have a vested interest in avoiding claims of nepotism and potential sexual harassment lawsuits. It’s important to be familiar with these policies, since you’ll be bound by them if anything goes wrong.
On the flip side, beware of a workplace that’s a little too okay with you checking out your colleagues. We know of one organization that actually encouraged workplace dating; managers gave pep talks about how they met their significant other at work and suggested others do the same. The catch? The place had dismal work-life balance. Staff were expected to pull late nights, work long hours and travel frequently. They figured out that those with a spouse in the same boat tended to stick around longer.
2. You can ask your coworker out, once.
Ensuring you have enthusiastic consent from any potential date or partner is key, but if you’ve got budding feelings for a coworker, it’s even more important. Even if your workplace doesn't have a no-dating policy, we don’t suggest making a pass at someone without advance discussion and consent. Companies like Google and Facebook have both implemented an ask once rule, meaning you can ask a coworker out (who isn’t your manager or report; more on that later) one time, and one time only. Anything but an enthusiastic “yes” counts as a no, including ambiguous answers like “maybe another time” or “I’m busy that night”. Asking repeatedly counts as sexual harassment — even virtually. If you do ask (once!) for a date, be clear on your intentions; getting a drink with a colleague is a normal thing to do, and you don’t want to land in that awkward situation where you think it’s a date and they think it’s a casual pint. However, this isn't permission to ask out a new colleague or a stranger. This is a situation where you want to be pretty sure you'll get a "yes" before you even consider it.
3. Don’t date the boss (or vice versa).
This is a no-go zone, but if the heart wants what it (consensually) wants, you’ll have no choice but to change your working relationship. This could mean that one of you resigns and gets a new job elsewhere. But in a larger organization it may be possible to transfer to another team or department. Personally, professionally, and legally, it’s just too complicated to bring romance into a relationship where one person has professional power over the other. Your beau shouldn’t have the power to promote (or fire) you. If you and your manager (or direct report) are head over heels, disclose it right away and plan your next steps.
4. Consider whether it’s worth it.
While many longtime couples meet at work, the risks of professional fallout or discomfort are high. While finding true love is arguably more important than a job, a hookup or short-term fling likely aren’t worth your professional reputation. If you’re tempted to date a coworker, take it slow and really get to know them. Ask yourself questions. How long have you known them? What’s their own reputation at work? Do they have good communication skills? Are they committed to their career to the same degree that you are? Can you trust them to make and stick to boundaries and ground rules? Is this a relationship you’d be willing to leave your job for, if you had to? When it comes to your career, only fools rush in.
5. Have ground rules.
Are you on the same page with how you’ll talk (or not talk) about your relationship at work? Do you know what you’ll do if the two of you run into a coworker in public? Are either of you prepared to leave the company? What happens if you break up? While all relationships require communication, this one could impact your career, and it’s absolutely critical that you two have these conversations.
6. Disclose your relationship when necessary.
If your workplace has a policy encouraging you to disclose personal relationships, it’s best to follow that; you can always request that they keep the information private. However, if you’ve been dating a coworker, it’s likely someone is going to find out. You might get spotted on a dinner date, have mutual friends with other coworkers, or slip up and call them “babe” at the work party (oops). Unless your company has a strict no-dating policy, you might want to avoid the gossip mill and be up front about the relationship. As long as there are no conflicts or awkward power dynamics, and you’re both as professional as possible about it, it may not be a big deal to be “out” as a couple.
If you hide your relationship and are obviously found out, it's best to come clean. In one extreme example we saw, a woman attended a work event on the arm of a coworker — clad in a wig and using a different name. When she was recognized, she still denied it. If the jig is up, just own it.
That said, if you’re in the early stages and unsure you want to commit yet, let alone make a big announcement, stick to hanging out where you’re less likely to be spotted.
7. Nobody wants to see you kiss at work.
Besides being awkward to watch at 8am, PDA make others question your tact, professionalism and judgment. Even at the most casual offices, work parties, or after-hours hangouts with coworkers, it’s best to save physical affection for home. No fooling around at the office, either. You'd think we wouldn't have to write this down, but every HR pro has seen and heard things we'd rather forget. Just don't.
8. Nobody wants to see you fight at work, either.
What’s even more awkward than seeing a subtle butt grab in the lunchroom? Hearing a couple bicker in the corner of the office. Keep all personal conflict strictly outside of work hours, and save any rants about your partner for your non-work pals.
9. Don’t give your sweetie any special treatment.
While it’s hard not to discuss work at home, try to avoid giving your significant other private intel from work, especially if you are at different levels of the company. If anything you tell them (or do for them) could be construed as getting them ahead at work, you could find yourself in hot water, whether a policy exists or not.
10. Break up like HR.
We’re not suggesting you conduct an exit interview, but you might want to handle ending this relationship with extra tact. If you can, take the high road and avoid big blowout arguments and bad blood in general. If you were “out” as a couple at work and people ask about the breakup, don’t go into details about how awful their parents are or how they never did the dishes; just say you wish them well and change the subject. If you can keep things courteous, it’s less likely one of you will have to leave a job you otherwise still enjoy. Love is a risk worth taking, but if it all goes down the drain, there’s no reason it has to take your career down with it.
11. Don’t date around.
One well-handled office romance is cute. Two is pushing it. If you’re treating your workplace like Love Island, it might be time to move on.