Given the amount of time we spend in the office, it’s not surprising that office romances are becoming more popular.
“The best advice I have for people to stay out of trouble is to not start an office romance, but that seems to be increasingly difficult as we spend more time at work than anywhere else,” says Greg Saylin, labor and employment lawyer with Dorsey & Whitney.
According to a survey from CareerBuilder, nearly 2 out 5 U.S. workers have dated someone within their company, and 16% report having an office relationship more than once.
“It’s important to really get to know the person first and weigh the risks and benefits of starting an office relationship,” says Jennifer Grasz, vice president of corporate communications with CareerBuilder.
While dipping into the office dating pool can be risky, 31% of people who have dated in the workplace have walked down the aisle with their office sweetheart, she adds.
Navigating the normal dating world can be hard enough, but it gets a lot more complicated for couples that work together. Experts recommend the following tips for workplace darlings to maintain their professionalism and reputation in the office:
Don’t Do it for the Thrill. Terri Oerbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, claims people are often more attracted to the secrecy of the relationship than the actual person.
“Many workplace romances start out as a secret, which makes it more enticing, everyone wants what they know they shouldn’t have, so you need to ask yourself if you really like the person or just the drama around it all.”
Review Your Company’s Policy. Policies regarding office dating vary, and Saylin advises every budding couple carefully review their employer’s rules and regulations.
“Most employers take the position that it is difficult to prohibit these relationships so they would rather manage them to make sure it doesn’t have a negative effect on productivity and office morale.”
He says must companies and have employee handbooks that detail specific policies about dating, including professionalism in the workplace, confidentiality rules and anti-retaliation policies. “If you can’t find it in the manual, go to HR and explain to them what’s going on.”
He also warns of hostile workplace lawsuits if co-workers feel a person is getting special treatment because of the relationship or feel the workplace is unfair. “The claimant could be the subordinate in the partnership, but it could also be fellow workers who feel uncomfortable or treated unfairly because of it.”
Never Evaluate Your Partner. Experts agree that when a relationship between a manager and a subordinate develops, it needs to be disclosed immediately. “Some companies have very strict policies when it comes to dating the boss. It can be grounds for immediate termination,” says Grasz.
She adds that most companies will move the worker to a different division or team to make sure there is not conflict of interest. “Some companies require you sign a love contract of sorts where both parties acknowledge they are dating and it protects them against sexual harassment lawsuits.”
Don’t Act Like a Couple at Work…or at Work Events. The most successful relationships are between people who don’t act like they are dating, says Grasz. “I worked with this one couple who no one knew they were together until the announced their engagement.”
Couples should keep displays of affection at an absolute bare minimum, even when out in a more social setting like a bar or office party. “They are still your co-workers and you should present yourself in the same professional manner no matter the setting,” says Grasz.
Creating some separation from work and personal life will also benefit the relationship. “There is less tension in relationships when you keep work life separate from your personal conversations. Make sure to have some time apart and set rules about talking about work. Yes, that is your common ground, but it can’t be the basis for your relationship.”
Watch What You Post Online. Couples who update their relationship status on Facebook (NYSE:FB) or upload pictures of themselves together are adding fuel for gossip, warns Saylin.
Being cautious about what they post online is for a couple’s own good. “If you are not discrete about it, you will become subject of the office rumor mill. The more you post, the more co-workers are going to know about your relationship, and the harder it is going to be to untangle from the mess if the relationships sours.”
Never Bring Fights to the Office. All couples fight, but it shouldn’t become office fodder.
“No one should know you are in the middle of a fight,” says Grasz. “Don’t involve others or talk to them about your issues, it can become very awkward and a source of irritation for your fellow co-workers and they can start to feel like your relationship is impacting your performance since you can’t leave your personal life at home.”
Have an Exit Strategy. Don’t let the end of an office romance also kill a career.
“Set expectations from the start on what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out,” suggests Oerbuch. “Make sure you both will still be comfortable working together and will be able to maintain a sense of professionalism.”