Is Dating a Coworker a Bad Idea?
This interview with Annie was a fun overview of the pros and cons of an office romance. I’m so glad she’s raising awareness around this important issue: if you’re considering getting romantically involved with a coworker there is a lot to consider! Here at Growing Self, we do quite a bit of career coaching, as well as dating coaching. Sometimes career coaching and dating coaching converge, as our clients grapple with the pros and cons of an office romance.
Are you developing feelings for a coworker? We spend so much time at work that it’s only natural to have our workplaces be one of the primary points of contact for meeting new people. If you’re single, chances are that sooner or later you might find yourself with a crush on a coworker. While office romances are not uncommon, relationships that start at work can present unique challenges and, frankly, hazards. “Fishing in the company pond” can be risky, both personally and professionally. If you are considering getting involved romantically with a coworker, here are some things to consider…
Dating in the Workplace: Pros and Cons
Although office romance can be fraught with challenges, these relationships do have advantages as well.
Pros of dating in the workplace:
Opportunity: Modern dating can feel like an endless parade of possible partners, all a swipe or scroll away. [Check out “The New Rules for Dating”]. For many singles, constantly vetting new people, engaging in text-based banter, and going out on dates to nowhere gets really old, really fast. Many people start to feel discouraged and overwhelmed by the prospect of finding “The One” through online dating or chatting up random strangers.
At work, however, you’re afforded with natural opportunities to meet new people organically and spend time with them on neutral ground before potentially moving further into friendship or romance. You’re also more likely to come into contact with people you already have similarities with in terms of education, interests, and shared life experiences. All these things make it easier to have natural conversations that generally feel much less pressured and fraught than awkward first dates.
Starting As Friends: Another upside to meeting new people on the job is the opportunity to develop a friendly relationship that starts slowly and develops over time. We know from research into couples and family therapy that the strongest, most enduring romantic relationships are ones built on a solid foundation of friendship and respect. Unlike starting a relationship with immediate romantic intentions, an office romance often blooms after months or even years of getting to know each other first as coworkers, and then as friends. This foundation can be an asset to your relationship if you become long-term partners.
Getting to Know Character: Perhaps most importantly, when you get to know people on the job, you usually have many opportunities to observe them in different — often stressful — situations. When you work with people you have a front row seat for how they manage stress, how they communicate, their level of emotional intelligence, how they handle challenging circumstances, whether they are courageous or avoidant, whether or not they follow through with things, how they are regarded by others, how they manage their time and priorities, whether they generally have their crap together, and much more.
This is in contrast to typical dating relationships where people tend to be on best behavior for the first weeks or months of an early romance, sometimes concealing or downplaying more difficult aspects of their character in order to be as attractive as possible. In these situations, couples often find themselves having to work through differences and disappointments as they become more genuine and authentic with each other.
Character Is Revealed Over Time, and in the way people handle themselves under stressful or challenging conditions. If you get romantically involved with a co-worker it’s generally after a significant period of time when you’ve been able to get to know them from the sidelines, and have gotten a sense of who they are and how they handle themselves before moving into a romantic relationship. This too can be a significant advantage to a positive future relationship, as well as a great opportunity to know ahead of time whether you may have fundamental compatibility issues or mismatched values (and avoid getting involved altogether).
Cons of dating in the workplace:
While dating a coworker can have some advantages, there are also many challenges and risks that you don’t have if you resist mixing the personal with the professional.
The Office Romance Dumpster Fire — Misunderstandings, Affairs and… Sexual Harassment: When office romances go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong and with severe consequences to all involved.
Having an Affair With a Coworker
First of all, the most common place for people to become entangled in an affair or infidelity situation that can destroy a marriage and break apart a family is through an office romance. Why? It’s very common to develop a crush on a coworker, even if you’re married, or your coworker is married, or otherwise involved. Normal people in good relationships can develop transient attractions for other people — it happens all the time. [More on this, check out “What to Do if You’re Married With a Crush On Someone Else.]
However, if people don’t practice a lot of self-awareness, self-restraint, and put their commitments first, they can easily become intoxicated by romantic feelings with someone (Someone they see every day! And go on business trips with!). Romantic infatuations can lead people to do regrettable things that can create huge messes and sometimes irreparable damage to the most important relationships in their lives.
Romantic Rejection By a Coworker
Less tragically, but more embarrassingly, if you develop or have a crush on a coworker, you will almost invariably take the other person’s professional interest, friendliness, and responsiveness as a sign that your coworker has a crush on you, too. This can embolden you to ask them out, or proclaim your feelings, and have it land with an awkward thud. Not only will you feel rejected romantically, but you may have damaged a once easy professional relationship. The other person may feel uncomfortable around you, and it may impact your professional performance, as well as your emotions.
Sexual Harassment: The Risk is Real
Of course, if your advances land with a thud and you don’t have the humility to apologize and let it go, but rather continue expressing your romantic interest, complimenting them on their appearance, or God forbid, making sexual or suggestive comments, this can very quickly degenerate into a situation where you are committing sexual harassment. This can land you in hot water with HR, damage your professional reputation, or even put you at risk for a lawsuit.
This is especially true if there is any type of power imbalance in your professional relationship, which there almost always is. Even if you’re not in a direct supervising role or the boss of someone you have a crush on, you may have more power in the workplace than they do by virtue of your tenure, professional relationships, or role in relation to them. In these cases, your romantic overtures may create extreme stress and anxiety for someone who fears that upsetting you or rejecting may put their career at risk.
Really: They may smile, laugh at your jokes, and sidestep your advances in an indirect way that feels encouraging, but understand that they are trying to protect themselves while appeasing you. Trust me on this: I’ve worked with many people who have spent many, many coaching sessions trying to figure out how to survive this type of toxic workplace environment that unwanted advances create. You don’t want to be that person!
Takeaway: If you want to test the waters to see if your romantic feelings are reciprocated by a coworker, do so with extreme caution and understand that anything less than a clear and enthusiastic response means “No.” Say it once then stop. If they’re interested, they know where to find you.
While indulging in any romantic feelings for a coworker can lead to unwanted consequences, you might also consider the potential risks and pitfalls of an office romance if this does turn into a real relationship.
Impact on Job Performance: Couples fight. They get upset with each other, and need to work through things that are often very emotionally triggering. When you’re feeling emotionally activated, it can be very challenging to work with your partner around necessary professional things. Frosty silences, snarky comments, passive-aggressive jabs — you know. We’ve all been there, but imagine it happening in a team meeting, or in front of other colleagues. It will damage your ability to perform your job, but it can also impact morale, communication, and feelings of emotional safety for everyone on the team. This is especially true if you’re in a leadership position and carrying on with an employee.
Boredom: Part of having a healthy, long-term relationship is having diversity and growth in both people. When two people have different interests, work experiences, friend groups and more, it creates new experiences, new things to talk about, and the opportunity to learn and grow with each other.
Couples who ride in the same car to work together, interact with all the same people, know exactly what happens during the day, and ride home together at night often find themselves feeling like their relationships get stagnant quickly. If you and your partner work together, make it a point to at least pursue other hobbies or friendships during your off-work hours, or find novel experiences to do together so your relationship continues to feel fresh.
Breaking Up When You Work Together: As a breakup recovery expert I am often approached by people who feel genuinely trapped in the most heart wrenching of circumstances: breaking up with someone they work with. Breakups can be tremendously painful, anxiety provoking, and downright gutting under the best of circumstances.
But when you have to see your Ex every day at work, and can’t avoid contact with them, it makes the suffering and pain so much more intense. When you work with your Ex, it also makes it very difficult to get the distance you need to recover and move on after heartbreak. A significant percentage of people find the experience of working with their Ex so painful that they feel they must leave their job. In this way, a failed office romance can have devastating consequences not just personally, but on their professional trajectory as well.
Best Practices For Dating a Coworker
I hope this discussion of the pros and cons of an office romance have helped you get clarity about how (or if) to proceed. If you do, please think through all the possible pitfalls — there are many! As always, being committed to living with intention, practicing a high degree of self-awareness, staying true to your values, and mindfully approaching situations with a genuine desire for the health and wellbeing of all involved will help you make good choices.
All the best to you,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.