Sincerely, Sara: Is An Office Romance Worth The Risk?

Hello Sara,

I’ve always thought office romances were landmines one misstep away from blowing up in a fury of shrapnel. So you can see why I’m embarrassed to admit I think I’m falling for our new account executive. I’ve never met anyone like her. She has everything I always wanted and never thought I could find in one woman. I’m in management, but she doesn’t report to me. I’m in a different department and we don’t ever directly work together. We flirt when we see each other and she’s mentioned she’s not seeing anyone. Going out for after-work drink has come up a few times, but I’m not sure I should pursue it. I don’t want to let this chance pass; she’s not the type of woman that’ll be single for long. I love my job and the company I’m with, and I don’t want to jeopardize it for something that might end up being nothing more than a fling. 


Riskin’it for Romance

Dearest Riskin’ It,

In your letter you didn’t mention your company’s HR policy on interoffice romance. I’m assuming you haven’t checked into it yet, so my first recommendation would be to read up so you are informed. The good news is most companies prohibit, or at least strongly discourage, dating between superiors and subordinates, but do not have a rule against relationships where a power imbalance does not exist.

But don’t start making dinner reservations yet. Even if there is no direct rule against two employees in different departments entering into a consensual relationship; there are reasons to be cautious, especially since you are happy with your current job and employer.

There are valid reasons to be cautious about making a move on your work crush. We don’t have to go far to see the negative fallout from office romances gone wrong. Dave Letterman’s multiple affairs with staffers became a PR nightmare for the Late Show with David Letterman and crossing the line with female co-workers cost Herman Cain his would-be political career. Even pop culture warns us of the dangers; the hit TV show Mad Men stylishly depicts the destruction wrought by office romance gone wrong.

With the David Letterman fiasco, we see the potential for the personal exploits of an employee to reflect negatively on the company as a whole. Herman Cain’s scandal demonstrates the strongest reason romances in the office are often prohibited—the potential for law suits.  A romance gone wrong can turn into a legal liability for your company if sexual harassment charges are filed. It’s the fear of being sued that drives most employers’ intolerance of relationships between a Boss and his or her subordinate. Mad Men eloquently depicts the gossip, turf wars, awkwardness, favoritism (either real or imagined), and conflict that can engulf an office when co-workers are romantically linked.

If you decide to move forward with your romantic intentions, a few words to the wise on how to minimize the risk:

1. What they don’t know they can’t gossip and joke about.

While flat out lying to your boss or head of HR if asked directly is not advised, don’t be forthcoming about your relationship in the beginning. Be discreet until you know if it is developing into something deeper. Let your co-workers find out when they get a wedding invitation. According to CareerBuilder, “Thirty-nine percent of workers said they have dated a co-worker at least once over the course of their career…Thirty percent of those who have dated a co-worker said their office romance led them to the altar”, proving only 3 out of 10 office romances last. In case you’re in the 70% majority of break-ups, they will never know—so your personal life won’t end up water cooler conversation. 

2 .Have a Plan for the Break up.

Face reality, no matter how wonderful this woman may seem from afar, the odds are stacked against a happily ever after ending. Be mature about the fact that your careers are a priority and work out a strategy for dealing with common friends, interdepartmental meetings, and those inevitable encounters at the espresso machine. Maybe one of you will switch to drinking tea or start getting your coffee at Starbucks. Just realize that in order to lessen the awkwardness factor, you both may have to make a few changes should you split up (especially if it doesn’t end on the best terms).

3. If the relationship is heading towards marital bliss, be the first to come clean to Human Resources and your boss.

The quickest way to alienate HR or your boss is for them hear about your relationship second hand. Inform them first; they may even have some helpful advice on how to “come out” to the rest of the office.

4. Millennials are all for dipping the pen in the company ink

The latest surveys show “84% of 18-29 year olds would have no problem becoming romantically involved with a co-worker…”, indicating interoffice romance is likely to become more prevalent, and perhaps, more accepted. You may not be a risk-taker after all; maybe you’re just ahead of your time. (HuffPost Live Dating a Co-worker)

Of course, there are plenty of examples representing a risk well taken. President Obama was Michelle Obama’s intern, Bill Gates was the CEO when he asked out Melinda and The Office’s Jim and Pam found wedded bliss after a couple of seasons. So, I’m not trying to talk you out of following your heart, only advising that you take your head with you.

I wish you and the object of your affection many happy times ahead.