Access is half of love. Or something like that: It’s close enough that there’s a sociological theory—the proximity principle—to explain why most interpersonal relationships arise among people who live and work near each other. So it’s no surprise that 36% of workers have had an office romance. Thirty-one percent of those relationships end in marriage, but 24% started with at least one partner married to someone else. And 6% of workers have left a job because a romance went sour.
The access is there, and who wouldn’t fall prey to a flutter of the heart watching a co-worker own a presentation to the company’s toughest client? What with the daily opportunity to talk, see each other in action, and lean on each other’s strengths, work relationships can easily cross over from friendly to romantic. The same steady presence in each other’s lives that may inspire interest will probably become mightily uncomfortable if love goes off the rails.
Even if the workplace is a perfectly valid place to meet a love interest, it definitely comes with some pitfalls that mean you need to proceed cautiously.
Find out whether your company has a policy against dating a co-worker
Take a look at your employee handbook. Many companies explicitly prohibit workplace relationships (and for a lot of good reasons, like the potential for harassment or abuse of power). To chance a relationship in that environment means putting your livelihood at risk. Are you ready to be fired for love?
Other companies take a laxer (and perhaps more realistic) stance, requiring only that employees notify HR of their intent before beginning a relationship. That can be an awkward conversation, for sure, but it’s a small price to pay for protecting your job while you follow your heart.
You may find your company is all for love or at least doesn’t address workplace relationships. Just be sure to find out before it can become an issue.
If you have even the slightest notion that your feelings aren’t reciprocated, tread especially carefully: Federal sexual harassment laws may apply where an unwanted overture arises—especially if it comes from a superior.
Set ground rules for the relationship
Human relationships are messy under the best of circumstances. When there’s no way to avoid each other during times of disagreement, or even when you’re a little too head-spinningly infatuated, feelings can escalate or interfere with your responsibilities. You know how distracting a relationship ripple can be; imagine the crashing wave it can become when you are forced to face each other across the conference table, in the break room, at the team brainstorm . . .
If you’re ready for inevitable emotional intensity of whatever kind, you can more easily address it. First, figure out what you both want: Is this going to be a casual affair or are you looking for a serious relationship? And will you be open about it at work or keep the magic to yourselves? Finally, define some personal spaces around the office. If you need time to collect yourself, you get the conference room with the red sofa, and your partner claims the empty office.
Know also how you will function while at work. It’s definitely not the place to air grievances or rehash your amazing night out. Keep it professional during work hours. Among the reasons employers aren’t enthused about workplace romances are fears that productivity will decrease and romantic partners will play favorites.
If you’re lucky enough to find a love interest at work, be cool like Fonzie. You can really muck it up by letting it get in the way of your work relationships—or your work, for that matter.