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When, If Ever, Is Office Romance Acceptable?

office romance

Important questions

When, If Ever, Is Office Romance Acceptable?

How can a woman successfully maintain an office romance?

Many organizations ask themselves where the line is between “none of our business” and “hurts our business.” Recent cases in any newspaper make it all too clear that there’s no precise way to predict what may happen when office romance doesn’t blossom. If the two employees involved are in a supervisor/subordinate position, there is no way to predict whether the subordinate will later feel obligated to continue the relationship to keep his or her job or to climb the corporate ladder. What if feelings are not returned and, in extreme cases, a restraining order becomes necessary? How do the two work together then?

From a legal liability standpoint, these issues may be easy to disregard as mere feelings, but these feelings may later become the basis of an adverse employment action, a hostile work environment claim, or even a criminal matter. Any of these could cost the company a large settlement.

How can a woman successfully maintain a workplace romance? Consider these guidelines:

  • Leave your love at home. Communicate in a strictly professional manner at work.
  • Use e-mail and texting judiciously. Work e-mails should never contain romantic or intimate messages.
  • Be familiar with your organization’s written and unwritten policies about romantic, extramarital, or dating relationships.
  • Avoid public displays of intimacy in the office, including the company parking lot. Noflirting with your partner.
  • Do your best to keep the relationship private until you are ready to go public with it.
  • If you and your partner are attending the same conference off-site, remember that you are still at work.
  • Don’t hesitate to express different opinions and conduct yourself in the same way you did before the relationship. If you always challenged your partner’s ideas, continue to do so.
  •  Don’t date up. Don’t date the boss.
  •  Don’t date down. Don’t date your employee.

All Eyes Are on You

Now that you have an office romance, everyone is watching. Your coworkers will stop what they are doing to study how you walk by your partner’s office when you come to work in the morning. You are on stage.

Code switch: People are curious and are on the hunt to see displays of affection. Disappoint them. Be professional and leave the touches, love cards, and winks at home.

Many employees use e-mail for personal reasons. However, when you are involved in aromantic relationship, it is wise to write e-mails that comply with company policy. Remember, there is no such thing as “delete.” Forensic computer experts have been able to dig up all kinds of forbidden e-mails and Internet use. Anyone with any kind of know-how can access your e-mail messages. Just ask yourself, “Would I be okay with this message posted on the company billboard in the hallway?”

Don’t hesitate to go to human resources and discuss the organization’s policy on dating. You can ask for the conversation to be confidential. You can indicate that you and a coworker have a mutual attraction and are considering pursuing it. This kind of meeting not only informs you, but can also offer some protection. You are attempting to follow company policy.

The office includes the company parking lot and the hotel for the retreat. You are still at work, so don’t forget it. No holding hands on your way to your car. No love cards left on your partner’s desk. None of these behaviors go unnoticed. Remember, most organizations have security that includes surveillance cameras in the parking lot and stairwells. Don’t even think about grabbing a smooch in the utility closet. And no shoulder massage while he is sitting at his desk.

Flirting is also inappropriate workplace etiquette. Flirting is socially acceptable in the right contexts, like at parties and in clubs. There may be no universal law because each workplace has its own unwritten rules governing flirtatious behavior. There may even be zones at work where flirting can take place, like in the cafeteria. But be careful and make sure you have a handle on these unspoken codes of conduct. We ask, why even go there, especially consider the higher price women pay for any kind of “intimate” display? He is a stud, and she is a slut.

Have a plan for going public. Think it through. How and who will you tell? Do you want it to spread through the rumor mill or make an announcement at the Monday morning staff meeting? You can also combine this public announcement with your commitment to remaining professional and serving your organization’s best interest. This is one of the best proactive measures a couple can take.

Make sure both parties are on the same page before you decide to go public, too. Otherwise, you may have a whole different set of rumors to burden. We know one man, Jonathan, who had gone on several dates with Cindy. He told one coworker, and soon people were talking. So at the next meeting, he decided to do what he thought was the mature thing and tell the group that, yes, he had been dating Cindy. Well, as it turned out, Cindy had also gone on several dates with Robert who was sitting in the meeting for the announcement. For Cindy, it was just casual dating, nothing to announce to the staff. Jonathan looked like a fool rushing in, Cindy looked like a player, and Robert looked oblivious. Needless to say, this hurt the professional relationship among all three of them and no legitimate relationships blossomed at all. This could have been avoided if Cindy had told the men her intentions and they had asked her before making assumptions.

[Audrey Nelson]

Dr. Audrey Nelson is an internationally recognized trainer, keynote speaker, author and consultant who helps organizations increase their productivity and profitability through winning communication strategies. She specializes in gender communication, conflict management, communication skills, and sexual harassment and discrimination.
Dr. Nelson’s professional background includes 10 years teaching in the Dept. of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For 30 years she has trained and consulted for a wide variety of government and Fortune 50 companies in 49 states, Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Korea.
Among them are Xcel Energy, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, American Board of Trial Attorneys , AT&T, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, Pentax, Lockheed Martin, Johnson & Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Dept. of Justice and the U.S. Dept. of State.

She holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Communication. She conducted post-doctoral work at Warnborough College in Oxford, England in gender communication.

Thirty years ago she co-founded and served as president for the Organization for the Research on Women and Communication.

Audrey is a published author. You Don’t Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes (Prentice Hall, 2004) was published in six languages. She co-authored Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen (Penguin-Alpha Books, 2009) and The Gender Communication Handbook: Conquering Conversational Collisions Between Men and Women (Pfeiffer 2012).

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