How to Navigate an Office Romance

When workplace flings crop up—as they do for 39 percent of us—it pays to know the rules of engagement
A fling or the real thing? According to CareerBuilder, a third of secret office romances end in marriage Photograph by Fredrik Broden for Bloomberg Businessweek

New data reveal that 39 percent* of workers have dated a colleague. If Cupid strikes, how should you proceed?
Scenario 1
Dating the Boss

“Proceed very, very carefully,” says dating coach Tracey Steinberg. “If you get together with your boss, you’ll get a reputation for sleeping your way to the top,” Steinberg explains. “If you’re the boss, you could be accused of abuse of power. If things go wrong, the person could say they felt pressured into the relationship.” No amount of success will make you immune to accusations. According to a 2010 Center for Work-Life Policy survey, more than 60 percent of work-ing professionals said they suspected that an underling sleeping with the boss would get preferential treatment.
What To Do: Consider a mate more lateral to you. Otherwise, see Scenario 2.
Scenario 2
The Fling

If it’s still in an early stage, “your co-workers don’t need to know about anything that might not work out,” says Chiara Atik, a dating expert at HowAboutWe. Once you’ve established a relationship, your colleagues will inevitably start gossiping. Megan Hopkins knows what that’s like; she met her husband when they worked at a marketing companyin Plano, Tex. For months they were the subjects of speculation. “We showed up to a co-worker’s going-away party holding hands, and people were like, ‘I knew it!’ ” she says. After that, the talk died down and the couple relaxed. But they still only made out in private.
What To Do: Until it’s serious, “Hide it at all costs!” Atik says.
Scenario 3
Forbidden Romance

In some offices, dating a colleague is a fireable offense. But “our ability to suppress strong emotions is not very good,” says Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University. He warns that attempts to quell desire might result in sleepless nights and depression.The upside is that secret relationships are much more passionate. In a 1994 behavioral study, Harvard psychologists asked strangers to surreptitiously play footsie underneath a table and found that they rated each other more attractive than those who didn’t play footsie.
What To Do: Our official opinion is that you should abide by official company policy.
Scenario 4
In Bed With the Competition

Getting romantic with someone at a rival company is fine, Steinberg says, as long as you agree to never trade company secrets. You may even have stumbled into a promising situation: You’re both passionate about the same topic or industry, but you don’t have to see each other at the office every day. “As long as you guys have ground rules for what you talk about, I almost think you’re better off dating your rival than dating a co-worker,” she says. She should know—before becoming a dating coach, Steinberg worked as a lawyer. “I dated a lot of my adversaries,” she says. “It was fun. I just made sure never to share case notes before we argued in court.”
What To Do: Never go to bed angry, and always say you’re sorry (even if you don’t mean it).
Scenario 5
Going Into Business Together

Brian Strom was married to his wife, Andrea, for five years before they opened Crapola, a granola company in Ely, Minn. The Stroms spend at least six hours of their workdays together, and they don’t have any rules about what they can and can’t talk about at home. “Sometimes when you’re in the thick of a stressful situation, you can’t process it right then,” Brian says. “If your business partner is also your life partner, whatever you don’t get done at work you can talk about over dinner.” Of course, this isn’t always a good thing. “Work time isn’t romantic time—and vice versa,” Atik says. “You have to make sure you make room in your life for both.”
What To Do: Unless you want to spend 24/7 together, don’t do it.
*According to a CareerBuilder survey

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