Q: I just started my dream job. I love the mission, I care about the work I’m doing and the people who work there are the best. In fact, I’ve been spending a lot of time in and out of the office with one co-worker in particular. But at work I feel a little awkward because we pretend like nothing is happening between us. I don’t want to jeopardize my job, but I don’t want to stop dating him either.
– Cake and Eat It, Too?
Los Angeles, CA
A: What do you want first, the caveat or the schtick? The caveat: more and more people are working longer and longer hours, increasing the chances that work will be the place to meet someone. In more ways than one, you are not alone! Mixing romance and work is not something I’d recommend (plus how would you handle a break-up that keeps you face-to-face through the work week with your ex?), but when Cupid strikes, what are you going to do?
The schtick: keep your eyes fully open, and be aware of what’s at stake. Does your company have a policy on dating co-workers? Check your employee handbook or with Human Resources. Does the relationship have an impact on your workplace? It’s important to conduct yourselves as professionally and impartially, to avoid any perceptions of unfair treatment. Keep work and personal life as separate as you can; love letters on company email are not a great idea. If the relationship gets serious, you might prefer to let your supervisors know instead of letting them find out through the grapevine.
Q: One of my employees confided that, after dating for six months, she and another coworker had a nasty break-up. She’s been getting angry emails and text messages from him. So far not on company systems or equipment, but she asked to be escorted to her car on the company parking lot. What can I do to defuse this situation, and could I have done anything to avoid it?
A: First, to address the situation at hand, anytime there is any problem spilling over to the work environment, you as the employer have a responsibility to ensure that your workers know that harassment will not be tolerated. If she doesn’t feel safe, provide an escort. Ensure that both workers know their employment rights and are clear on your company’s policy against harassment and how to report it. Make sure that you don’t retaliate against employees who file any sort of complaint related to a workplace romance, and don’t allow any employees to retaliate in these situations either. It’s in your best interests to remind your employees that they need to act professionally and not allow personal matters to affect their workplace behavior. And build a record of all the actions you take – documentation is always important.
Back to your question about preventing this kind of problem: Policies that discourage fraternization or inter-office dating may not always practical; these days many people meet their spouses at work. The bottom line question is whether the work is getting done. You may find you can accomplish more by promoting honest communication and professional behavior than by devising a policy that meddles in people’s private lives. Another resource to consider are employee assistance plans where your staff can get objective consultation for personal problems. It’s in your best interests to offer those kind of services, to help keep your personnel’s problems in the personal realm and not in your workplace.
One third of employees say they have been involved in an office romance, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
(This article was originally published in the column Watercooler Counsel with Malinda Tuazon as a co-author. It has been included here with minor updates.)