Navigating Romance in the Workplace

Inter-office romance is not uncommon. It’s natural to develop feelings for someone you interact with extensively and regularly during many of your waking hours. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how overstepping that professional boundary, and mixing business with pleasure can become complicated and emotional. Two Mochi Magazine readers share their personal accounts, perspectives, and cautionary tips on how to deal.

 Photo: Jennifer Kong

Photo: Jennifer Kong

What happens when things go wrong

Karen’s relationship with her supervisor began at the beginning of her career. “It’s not like college where I see people once or twice at classes and parties,” she says. “In this particular case, I was seeing him for an extended period of time [at work]. At team happy hours, you feel attracted to each other. It’s hard to hide anything or be completely professional.”

Since they worked on the same project, she reported to him directly—and admitted that was part of the initial attraction. “There’s something to be said about power,” she reflects, especially for someone at a prestigious finance company.

Things became ambiguous as their relationship progressed. “We had an argument over the weekend, and I had to see him Monday morning,” she says. Unsurprisingly, it took a lot of effort to contain those feelings and put off addressing the issue until after work. Anyone can imagine how difficult it would be to keep from being distracted or interact in ways that are not tense in this situation.

Karen and her supervisor—who are no longer together—had to be secretive about the affair due to a company policy that didn’t entirely prohibit office relationships—but would reassign significant others to different teams. She also cautions, in the worst-case scenario, “If something goes wrong and they want to retaliate, you’re in a vulnerable position.”

And then there’s the additional stigma often associated with dating someone higher up on the corporate chain. The sad truth is, when it comes to women, these actions are often perceived as an attempt to get ahead.

That said, remember that when you spend at least eight to ten hours with any coworker, whether a supervisor or a peer, many of the personal and professional complexities are the same. “I would not recommend dating your teammate or someone who sits two cubes away,” Karen says.

Balance and self-awareness can make it work

Diana, who works at a visual effects production company, has been dating her coworker for over a year. They met at the office when their respective teams collaborated on a project and she sought his advice for moving into his department. From that point, they began spending more time together and started dating soon after.

“We kept quiet for a while,” she recalls. “Because I was starting out, I didn’t want to be on his team and have things be awkward. I wanted to prove myself.” But sometimes the social and professional expectations can vary by industry. It turns out that office romances aren’t a big scandal in the visual effects biz, due in part to the more casual and younger demographic of the industry. “Office relationships are more frequent. When you work late nights and weekends together with a lot of artists, they’re like your own family,” Diana says. “We’re open about that kind of situation.”

For her, jumping in was certainly the right choice. This is the most stable relationship she’s had to date, perhaps due to the very fact that they do work long hours in close quarters. “It’s nice to share that part of life with someone. He knows exactly my thought process and what I’m frustrated about. I don’t have to compartmentalize my life.”

When it comes to separating personal from professional functions, she adds, it’s about finding a mature way to handle—and control—the situation. “If we have a fight, we just stay away from each other [at work] and deal with it at home. It actually helps us get over fights really easily,” she says.

And while Diana found a way to keep her personal and work life in check, “I don’t suggest dating a coworker if you’re the overly dependent type,” she says. “People need their space and open communication.”

Weighting out the pros and cons

Whether it’s a serious relationship or a fling, the bottom line is that the office is still a work setting first and foremost. “Keep it as professional as you can,” Karen advises. “Keep your emotions at home. Keep some distance mentally.”

One of the best ways to do this is to reign in the electronic conversations and limit contact that doesn’t relate to work. And, of course, refrain from public displays of affection or other inappropriate behavior.  Use your best judgment here—don’t go the extra mile to avoid your significant other, but limit physical contact to what you’d naturally be comfortable with other colleagues.

And yes, while office romances can work for some people, they don’t work for everyone. The typical warning signs in any relationship apply to the workplace as well. If it’s affecting your emotional state and work performance—if you find yourself getting distracted or having trouble concentrating, for example—think twice.

Finally, there’s the breakup. If it doesn’t work out, chances are it will get awkward, and everyone will find out. No matter how confident you might feel about the relationship, take a minute to think how you’d handle it ending. Consider how a breakup would affect you, your coworkers, and everyone’s working relationships. The last thing you want is management getting involved—it won’t reflect well on your professionalism if you need to be reassigned somehow.

Last words of wisdom? “Play your cards right and be extra careful,” Diana says. “Ultimately, work is work.”