Workplace romance can fuel stories of scandal and sensationalism. And when it comes to the details, rumors often carry the day. Yet many employees find true love on the job. What are the rules then, for pursuing a professional, prospective paramour?
When You Love Your Boss
Falling in love with a superior is a realistic dilemma for many employees. After all, a boss is (ideally) viewed as a role model, and often functions as a mentor. He or she provides support, encouragement, and inspiration. Add in the element of attraction, and you have a recipe for a major crush.
Assuming the superior is single and otherwise emotionally available, when should an employee consider the possibility of exploring a mutually consensual relationship that blurs the lines between professional and personal? Like so many other facets of dating in the workplace, the answer is: it depends.
If the proposed union would violate workplace policy, pulling it off would require stealth and secrecy. This uncomfortable scenario should give both parties pause, forcing them to consider the stress and strain such a pairing would entail, not to mention the professional ramifications that would ensue if the clandestine coupling came to light.
If, on the other hand, the parties work in a venue that does not frown upon mixing business with pleasure, this type of professional pairing has a higher likelihood of success. For any type of union, a general acceptance of the type of relationship at issue draws the sting and removes the stigma.
Obviously, like any other workplace romance, both parties have to consider the resulting awkwardness or hostility that would accompany a bad break up, because the partners work together. Yet in the throes of infatuation, most people feel lucky in love, and downplay the likelihood of failure before the relationship has even begun.
One of the biggest issues related to a workplace relationship with a superior, however, is power imbalance. In many cases, this dynamic creates the appearance of impropriety.
When Appearances Influence Reality: Status Matters
When viewing a power-imbalanced couple, many people jump to conclusions about the parties involved, often resulting in a bias against the partner with less power.
Suzanne Chan-Serafin et al. (2017) in a study entitled “The Perils of Dating Your Boss” examined the complications involved in exactly that scenario.[i]They began by noting that what is referred to as “hierarchical workplace romance (HWR)” generally results in negative consequences for the partners involved. They sought to further such research by focusing on how these unequal relationships impact the lower status partners.
They discovered an apparent bias, demonstrated by third parties, toward lower status partners. Specifically, they found that third-party evaluators were less likely to promote lower status partners, and less likely to select them for training opportunities, as compared with their higher status partners. They also found gender differences. Men involved romantically with female superiors were more likely to suffer negative career consequences than women carrying on with male bosses.
Despite this negative bias, some professionally-unequal relationships survive and thrive. Most of us know someone who met his or her spouse in exactly that scenario. How did they overcome the stigma? Here are a few tips.
Consummate professionals behave accordingly. In the workplace, business is business. When employees are dating, any disagreements, desires, or even discussions relating to personal issues are relegated to personal time. In the workplace, when it comes to their relationship, they are reserved and discreet.
Water cooler gossip is (unfortunately) more interesting when it involves an element of secrecy and taboo. For many nine to fivers, a rumor of romance between a colleague and the boss is sure to spice up an otherwise monotonous day at work. When such relationships are openly acknowledged, however, they lose the scandalous edge. It is much less interesting to dish about a couple who does not deny they are romantically involved.
A common complaint lodged against a boss who is dating a subordinate is that he or she is granting preferential treatment. A smart boss can counteract this perception by always being respectful to everyone, including his or her paramour, offering the same opportunities and benefits to everyone in order to offset allegations of playing favorites.
Working Partnerships On and Off the Clock
Before contemplating a relationship with your boss, carefully consider potential complications—of which there will be many. Only workplace romances that are respectful, authentic, and emotionally sound can sustain scrutiny and result in relational success and satisfaction both on and off the clock.
[i]Chan-Serafin, Suzanne, Lydia Teo, Amirali Minbashian, David Cheng, and Lu Wang. 2017. “The Perils of Dating Your Boss: The Role of Hierarchical Workplace Romance and Sex on Evaluators’ Career Advancement Decisions for Lower Status Romance Participants.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 34 (3): 309–33.