Jim and Pam from "The Office." Bates and Anna from "Downton Abbey." Derek and Meredith from "Grey's Anatomy." Barack and Michelle from ... real life. Our society reinforces the notion that love doesn't always first blossom during a chance encounter; sometimes it blooms around the water cooler. Still, workplace romances are considered taboo.
Most career experts grumble over the potential problems that arise from dating a colleague, but the youngest members of the workforce are more receptive. A 2012 Workplace Options survey of 556 working Americans found 84 percent of millennials are open to having an office romance, compared to 36 percent of Generation X and only 29 percent of baby boomers.
"Millennials are definitely more open to dating their co-workers," says Susan Heathfield, management consultant, co-owner of TechSmith Corporation and writer for the human resources section on About.com. "They're more readily friends with their co-workers outside of work, so dating someone from work isn't a big deal to them, and possibly, the ramifications aren't real for them yet."
David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm, says these relationships are often fraught with complications, but it's understandable why they start. "We spend more time with the people with whom we work than we do with the people we marry," he says.
Do the rewards of dating your co-worker outweigh the potential risks? Here's what to consider before asking for that first date.
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- You know each other well. In fact, co-workers probably get to see positive – and maybe negative – aspects of your personality that others in your life experience rarely.
- You understand each other. You won't have to make excuses for your busy season at work or provide a lot of background context before venting about "the man."
- It can revitalize the workday. Having your paramour in the office can definitely make you look forward to work each day.
- Coordinating time together will be easy. There's a good chance you work the same hours and have the same days off.
- Your significant other is always around. You have a ready-made lunch buddy and easy access to one of your closest confidants.
- It becomes more difficult to separate your work life from home. It can become all too tempting to talk shop on the weekends or to discuss private matters in the office.
- It's more challenging to remain objective. We all have biases, and making a true separation between your personal feelings for each other and your professional responsibilities will be trying.
- People could find out. If your co-workers suspect something is going on, they're going to gossip about it. Depending on your profession and workplace culture, those rumors could even lead to you losing your job.
- It will be especially awkward if the relationship doesn't last. You'll still need to pay your bills even after the thrill is gone.
- Your significant other is always around. This is a good and bad thing. We all need a little space sometimes, but you're not going to get that space when you come to work.
Also consider these five things as the stepping stones of your office romance:
1. Know your job’s fraternization policies. Go to your employee handbook to see if there's anything written about workplace relationships. Not every workplace formalizes or enforces such policies. "Every fraternization policy I've ever seen forbids people from dating their boss," Heathfield says, but there could also be rules against dating someone in the same department as you. "These policies often seek to prevent you from dating anyone who in any way affects anything having to do with your compensation, your promotions and your performance," she adds.
Even if your office doesn’t have a written policy, an observant eye will tell you a lot about how your romance might be received. "If it's a family-run business where a lot of the staff is paired off, or if there's a history of spouses finding each other at the company, then there's a demonstrated level of tolerance, and hopefully companies have found a way to prevent those relationships from being a distraction," Lewis says.
2. Be certain of how you feel. If all you have is physical attraction and not an emotional one, then you might want to hold off on telling your crush about your feelings. Think long-term, not just about a liaison.
3. Consider and prepare for the worst. Of course you and your office boo will hit it off, fall in love, get married, have some children and live and work together happily ever after. But on the small chance this plum situation doesn’t pan out quite like that, how will you handle being colleagues still? "The big deal for HR isn't the two people who are making googly eyes at each other in the meeting," Lewis says. "It's the two people who want to kill each other now that the relationship has gone sour, or who are playing a cat-and-mouse game of who's going to quit first."
4. Be discreet. Tell your friends, but mind the difference between friends with whom you work and co-workers with whom you're friendly. That one colleague who knows the truth could be one colleague too many, and it's possible your relationship will make other co-workers uncomfortable or start gossip. "I firmly believe in a policy of don't ask and don't tell," Lewis says. "Otherwise, it tends to change the dynamic of a group of people working together."
Heathfield shares many of Lewis' sentiments. "Even if it's a serious relationship that's widely known and accepted in the office, you still want to be as low key as possible," she says "Co-workers who wish you well still don't want your love dangled in their faces." Regardless of what stage your relationship is in, treat each other like colleagues throughout the day. Remain professional, and absolutely avoid any public displays of affection.
5. Take it slow. If the relationship is serious and could lead to marriage, then you'll have to address it on the job. "Your timeline for revealing you're in a relationship should be driven by the potential consequences of divulging the information," Lewis says. "A lot of people think that if the relationship is between two consenting adults, there's no problem, but it's rarely about the two parties and instead, it's about the other employees. Does your relationship create a conflict of interest? Does it create a perceived imbalance or discomfort for others?"
Sit down with both your direct supervisor or supervisors and human resources to reveal the relationship, and before you do, know that doing so could mean one or both of you might have to transfer to a different department or that one or both of you might have to leave the company entirely. It could be worth it if your dream girl sits one cubicle over.