Saturday, July 13, 2024

Workplace Romances: Personal Stories and Expert Advice

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In the back of an Uber on the way home from a work trip, Grace Dawson, a publicity coordinator (whose name has been changed), felt her coworker’s thighs brush against hers. She then realized the feelings she had for her “work bestie” surpassed the parameters of typical work friends. “We did all the usual things you’d expect from a work trip: getting drunk, talking shit, taking romantic photos of one another, getting drunk again. I remember us sitting in an Uber back to our Airbnb with our legs pressed together, thinking, ‘Oh no . . . am I into my Emma?'”

Dawson was about to move in with her boyfriend at the time when her coworker crush developed before she recalls uprooting her life. “Cut to an accidental romantic dinner, a few too many drinks, and us frantically hooking up in the back of a hazy club. All of this after I had drunkenly confessed that I had feelings for her,” she says. “The next morning, after breaking up with my boyfriend, I told her it could never happen again.”

Similarly, Laura Levine, a coordinator in the gender studies department of her university, started spending more and more time with a particular coworker until a romance blossomed. (That all eventually led to her decision to never date a coworker again, but more on that later.)

Dawson and Levine are among many who’ve come to discover they have feelings for someone at their place of work. Nearly 60 percent of American employees have experienced a romantic relationship with a coworker, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey last year. And the main reason is often comfortability: per a 2023 Forbes survey, 65 percent of respondents indicated comfortability as the driving force of workplace romances.

Experts Featured in This Article

Gigi Engle is a relationship psychotherapist and resident intimacy expert at 3Fun.

ELindsay Peress is the vice president of HR insights at OperationsInc.

“Meeting someone at work is probably easier than meeting someone at a bar. At work, we have the ability to start out as friends and have something develop. This gives us a chance to get to know someone and possibly create a stronger emotional bond,” says relationship psychotherapist Gigi Engle. Not to mention the amount of time we spend at work: according to data in “Happiness at Work,” the average person spends 90,000 hours of their life working.

As more return to the office, singles are logging off Zoom and stepping into conference rooms, raising their chances of kindling an office crush. “My work recently started a hybrid schedule, and at first, I was very annoyed, but then I realized there’s a potential to have a little coworker fling,” says graphic designer Katie Evans (whose name has been changed). “I’ve been on dating apps for three years now, and I truly hate being on them. I’m manifesting meeting someone in the real world all the time.”

With work romance, however, comes risk. If an entanglement ends poorly, it’s easy to feel trapped as you still have to see that person at work. “We have to be aware that anything going wrong in a work romance can directly impact our careers, whether that be being passed up for promotions or possibly being in a really awkward situation where you have to see someone you had a thing with every day when it’s over,” Engle says.

Levine learned the hard way. “After I broke up with my girlfriend, I had to work with her for over two years after it ended, making it hard to detach from her and focus on my actual job,” she recounts. The Forbes survey found 57 percent of respondents agree that workplace relationships impacted their performance. Although Levine thinks work romance can work in theory, she’s not interested in testing that for herself ever again.

For some, suppressing feelings for a coworker, no matter how much effort goes into it, is just not feasible. “We would spend lunch breaks taking walks and plotting how we could get the feelings we had to suddenly go away. Turns out they weren’t going away,” Dawson recounts.

A year into the new relationship, Dawson says they’re making it work because of the boundaries they set: “When you’re both having a bad day in the same place, it makes it easy to take it out on one another. It was difficult at first not to let those spheres blend together. Now, we try to limit work talk at home and life talk in the office. ”

Engle confirms that the best boundary you can set is to limit discussions of work-related topics when outside of the office. “Obviously, you may want to talk about people at work or shared experiences on a human level, but discussing shared projects, etc. should be left to working hours,” she says.

Untangling the Boss-Subordinate Romance

Engaging in a romantic relationship with a colleague carries a certain set of risks. Engaging with a supervisor, however, can quickly become an HR nightmare.

For Serena Khan (whose name has been changed), it all started when her boss started buying her coffee every morning. Khan, a 23-year-old consultant at the United Nations, was skeptical of her 37-year-old boss’s generosity, but didn’t give it much thought until she received an invitation to attend a BBQ at his house. (The gesture was not extended to any other colleagues.) Though she didn’t accept his invitation then, the simmering flirtation eventually led to a secret hookup at their infamous work holiday party.

When starting a relationship with your boss or more junior colleague, Engle suggests considering the obvious power difference, “Depending on the role you and your lover are in, if this person has power over you, there can be serious implications. You really want to weigh out the risk before pursuing anything with a coworker. You should also consider the company policy on an office romance because this could legitimately get you fired at some companies.”

Many companies have policies prohibiting romantic relationships, so it’s important to learn what yours are. HR expert Lindsay Peress highly suggests contacting HR right away. “There are several concerns that come to mind, such as the perception of preferential treatment, making coworkers feel uncomfortable if the supervisor/subordinate brings relationship issues to work or even a possible workplace sexual harassment claim,” Peress explains.

When Khan no longer wanted to continue in the relationship, she found it challenging to find an exit. “I didn’t know how to set boundaries and get space when I didn’t want to see him,” she says. “I lost the option of ghosting and was forced to constantly be polite and professional.”

When ending things, Peress suggests putting your needs and boundaries top of your mind while remaining as professional as possible. She says, “Ending a workplace romance, especially with someone who you work closely with, needs to be handled with the utmost care. If possible, consider whether it might make sense to ask for a transfer to another team or seek guidance from HR.”

So, Can Workplace Relationships Work?

While feelings can be hard to control, Engle encourages controlling one’s actions and taking your time to consider if a coworking relationship is worth it. “Doing some self-reflection and considering the possible consequences can help us solidify what actions may or may not be best for us.”

Although complicated, studies prove workplace romances can work with the right amount of communication. Ultimately, the people in the relationships should consider if it’s worth the risk. The same Forbes study also found that 43 percent of participants who dated a colleague ended up marrying them, proving it can be done.

Khan’s relationship with her boss may have ended, but she admits she would engage in the dynamic again. “It was sort of fun to have a secret at work,” she explains. Dawson, meanwhile, says she doesn’t regret her relationship for a minute, “There’s always the lingering ‘what-if’ of suddenly being called into an HR meeting, but truthfully, I think there are bigger issues to deal with than having two people who kiss when the office elevators close at the end of the day.”

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