Despite the oft-given advice, “don’t date people at work,” chances are that Cupid has worked his magic at the water cooler for you or someone you know. Some estimates suggest that 70% of workers have had an office romance, with as many as 25-50% turn into marriage (as cited in Wilson, 2015). With stats like these, can we really say it’s a bad idea to date someone at work? Are there exceptions to this “rule”?

It makes sense that attraction might blossom between people who work in close contact for many hours a week with shared objective. In fact, 20% of us meet our life partners at work. Sometimes these are colleague-colleague relationships, but they might also be mentor-mentee, boss-administrator, or manager-assistant couples. In such hierarchical pairings, the power dynamics underlying these relationships could introduce a wide variety complications (Wilson, 2015)… one reason for the warning against workplace romance.

If you’re considering crossing the boundaries of personal life and professional life, ask yourself some questions first, each of which has different consequences for the individuals involved:

  1. Why are you thinking of mixing love and work?
  2. Are you both single or would this romance occur outside existing partnerships?
  3. Are you both fully consenting to starting something?
  4. Are you on equal ground, or does one person wield more workplace power, potentially over the other?
  5. To what extent do each of you desire and enjoy office flirtation, and do you both interpret these behaviors in the same way?
  6. What will the fallout be, if your relationship ends?
  7. Will you disclose your relationship, and if so, to whom?
  8. How will your flirtation, sex, or love affect your workplace productivity?
  9. Will management have a role in “managing” your office affair?

These questions, brought to light in Wilson’s (2015) recent review, highlight the potential complexity of workplace romance, and make clear why scientists are invested in learning more about their nuanced consequences for the individuals involved, their colleagues, and the organization as a whole.

If these relationships are so complicated, why participate?

Why people mix love and work may be a joint function of individuals’ motivations and an organizational culture that makes it possible.  Anderson and Hunsaker (1985) report that people pursue love at work for one of a handful of reasons:

  1. they have a genuine desire for a life partner
  2. they want the thrill, ego-enhancement, and excitement
  3. they desire job-related rewards

Shhh….No matter their reasons, most couples try to keep their relationship secret, at least at first, but then fail, according to Wilson’s (2015) review. Why try to keep it secret?  Well, secrecy might help avoid gossip and policy discussions initiated by management. Extramarital affairs often receive the most disapproval and reaction from colleagues, but other relationships are also subject to scrutiny. Secrecy might also help avoid accusations of alliances or playing favorites that might lead to assumptions about whether recent workplace advances were earned or gifted. Wilson cites evidence that more people today are open about their workplace relationships (approximately 65%) than even just ten years ago.

Back to work! With all the gossip and stress that might come with office romance, it’s no surprise that workplace romances interfere with work productivity. Relationships can be a distraction and take time away from work (e.g., flirting, long lunches), might bias decision making, and may affect the workplace climate. Still, Wilson notes that sometimes love can improve the workplace. It seems why people go into a relationship (e.g., for the thrill or for love) may determine if their work performance suffers or improves, and that sometimes, workplace romances help workplace motivation, morale, and creativity.

While the jury is still out on the full extent of consequences to workplace romance, all evidence points to a warning: love at work might work out, but getting there can be complicated. Still, if both parties are on the same page and thoughtful about the potential consequences, it could be a risk worth taking.

Photo credit:
Leyram Odacrem

References

Anderson, C. I., & Hunsaker, P. L. (1985). Why there’s romancing at the office and why it’s everybody’s problem. Personnel, 62(2), 57-63.

Wilson, F. (2015). Romantic relationships at work: Why love can hurt. International Journal of Management Reviews, 17(1), 1-19.

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