How to have an office romance while staying professional

There's a right way and a wrong way to get into a romantic relationship at work.

How to have an office romance while staying professional

Keep your cool when things heat up at work.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, love is in the air. You can’t control where you find love, but when romantic sparks fly on the job, you have to pause and think carefully about how to proceed. Workplace romances can be tricky and awkward; when mishandled, they can disrupt teams, departments and careers.

“I fell prey to the dreaded office romance,” says life coach Jacqueline Miller. “However, my story had a happy ending—I married him.” Miller says they didn't flaunt their relationship and because they were both sociable people, few of their co-workers realized anything romantic was going on between them.

“I eventually left the company when it became apparent that this relationship was going to be long-lasting and we no longer wanted to be in the closet with it,” she says. “Discretion and mutual respect, like in most things in life, are key to the survival of any office romance.”

Here are some other tips for handling an office romance with maturity and professionalism.

Check your employer’s policies

Some companies have policies about romances between employees, so read up on them in your employee handbook. Doing so could save your job, says Sharon DeLay, owner of BoldlyGO Career and HR Management LLC.

Most companies acknowledge that relationships between colleagues can occur and provide guidelines for what’s acceptable, says Halley Bock, president and CEO of Fierce Inc. Guidelines may include requiring professional behavior at all times, for example.

Some companies may require employees to sign “love contracts” to establish in writing that the relationship is consensual and entered into voluntarily, and that they will refrain from retaliation if it ends, says Beth Zoller, legal editor at XpertHR. The contract may also lay out expectations of appropriate and inappropriate conduct.

Set boundaries

Keep your work out of your romance and your romance out of your work. “The amount of time spent on redirecting everyone's speculations on the romance can be counterproductive and exhausting,” says DeLay. When you set boundaries from the start, if the romance ends, you’ll already be in the habit of keeping your work and private lives separate, so the breakup will be less traumatic for both of you and all your colleagues.

Be discreet

That means keep your hands off each other at work. “Public displays of affection cross the line,” says Howard Davies, senior career expert at Resume Writer Direct. “It may sound harsh, but when couples get used to showing their feelings and emotions in front of colleagues, it can be hard to control them next time there's trouble in paradise.” Being affectionate in front of others at work creates an unprofessional atmosphere, and having a personal fight in the office is embarrassing for everyone.  

Avoid the perception of impropriety

DeLay discourages dating a supervisor or a subordinate. When a workplace romance involves people with two different levels of power, people may come to believe something improper is going on—even if it’s not.

For example, such a relationship can lead to claims of favoritism by other employees if the boss or senior employee provides preferred work assignments to his or her partner, Zoller says. And, if the relationship ends, one of the employees may claim the relationship was not consensual, that there was sexual harassment, or that a poor performance review is the result of retaliation.

While the majority of office romances are not construed as sexual harassment, and that topic may never come up in the course of the relationship, Bock says, it’s vital you’re aware of any sexual harassment policies and potential consequences.

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