There’s no better example of a workplace romance than The Office — or, should we say, workplace romances, plural. Forget Jim and Pam (although many office relationships do end in marriage). Between Dwight and Angela, Andy and Angela, Michael and Jan, Michael and Holly, Andy and Erin, Gabe and Erin, and that one intern and Erin, the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company could put the sexed-up stars of your average soap opera to shame.
If anything from the show is true to life, it’s the depiction of the complications of office relationships, whether they’re clandestine or out in the open. And yes, they really are that common: According to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, 36 percent of people have dated a co-worker, 30 percent have dated a superior, and 22 percent have had an office romance with their manager or direct boss.
On some level, it’s understandable why people would be inclined to date their co-workers. “Colleagues start with something huge in common, which is the work,” says Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant. “They tend to be educated about the same, and they tend to be within driving distance.” Those logistics can make or break a budding couple, as anyone who’s ever been in a long-distance relationship can attest.
And the benefits continue once an office romance is in full swing. “If they share a professional background, they may also share an understanding of the work demands and the organizational culture,” says Amy Nicole Baker, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven. “Workplace couples can also offer perspective and advice about professional and personal issues that arise with co-workers, because they share an understanding of the work context.”
“Dating someone within your department will affect your opportunities for promotion, because the company can’t have one of you report to the other.”
No surprise, then, that workplace romances — relationships that are consensual and not based on abuses of power — are no longer necessarily the illicit scandals they once were. The advantages that often accompany these relationships are leading to an uptick. “Over the next years, you’re going to see workplace romances increasing,” Heathfield says. “I think it’s because in this particular era, people don’t do the centralized socializing outside of work that they might have done in past years.”
If you’ve struck up a romance with the new hire down the hall, here’s what to know to keep your career intact.
Learn what kind of relationship is okay
Dig out your employee handbook and check your company’s specific policy. Some may prohibit intra-office dating entirely, while others only forbid relationships between managers and direct reports. Some companies may actually insist on a relationship contract, or a signed statement that you’re in a consensual relationship, which safeguards the company from any claims of unchecked sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior.
From a social (and ethical) standpoint, consider people who are already attached to be off-limits — no exception. “Co-workers and bosses do not react favorably to relationships between married people,” Heathfield says.
You should also think twice about pursuing a relationship with someone in the same department. Even if you’re on the same level, dating someone on your team can still hurt your career. “Dating someone within your department will affect your opportunities for promotion, because the company can’t put you in a position where one of you reports to the other,” Heathfield explains.
You don’t have to go straight to HR
If your company handbook doesn’t require a trip to human resources, it’s your call on how to proceed. “As long as the relationship does not fall into a prohibited liaison and is not creating a disruption to the work, there is no reason for HR to be involved,” says Valerie Keels, a member of the Special Expertise panel of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). “In my opinion, the only time these relationships should be reported to HR is when they break an organizational rule or if it’s creating a disruption to the individuals’ work.”
Still, it comes down to your comfort level. And it’s worth noting that people tend to hit up human resources after a relationship ends — so it might be worth notifying HR anyway, especially if it’s recommended in your company policy. “Most people think it’s not necessary, nor do they want it broadcasted officially,” says Trisha Zulic, an HR professional who also serves on the SHRM’s Special Expertise panel. “But when love is no longer in the air, our offices are the first they visit after consulting friends and co-workers.” After all, who wants to go on a sales call with their ex?
Hide it at your own risk
While keeping a new relationship secret from co-workers is the usual tactic, doing so might not actually be in your best interest. “Research suggests that secret relationships can be corrosive,” Baker says. She recommends breaking the news with an announcement that’s brief and to the point by saying something like, “Yes, we had a date, but I’d like to keep that between us, if you don’t mind.” You can even do the same with your manager if you have a friendly rapport.
Otherwise, when the truth comes out about a secret relationship, colleagues might feel betrayed. “They may have said things about your significant other to you that they would have never said if they had known you were together,” Baker explains. “This can lead to hurt feelings and resentment.”
Still, take into consideration the nature of the relationship — because if it’s not serious, it may not be worth the trouble of disclosing it. If you both understand that it’s casual, happen to have the right circumstances (like being in different departments, which could mean fewer mutual colleagues), and are careful to act professionally at work, there may not be any need to do so.
Watch out for workplace politics
While co-workers can be surprisingly supportive of office relationships, that won’t happen if they suspect you (or your significant other) of playing favorites. “There might be the appearance of favoritism based on personal relationships,” Keels says. “For instance, if an individual is seen as being given opportunities, access, or other favors that are not substantiated by merit or need, then it can create problems with staff morale.”
It’s not just an issue between supervisors and subordinates. “If you work in analytics, for example, and you’re sharing your analytic method with your partner but not your other co-workers, this could be a problem,” Baker says. In this case, only the person who’s dating you gets the benefit of your expertise — which why it’s ideal for you not to be on the same team or department in the first place. But if it’s unavoidable, then consider talking to your HR department, as they can help you figure out how to ensure fairness and organizational integrity.
Know what you’re getting into
If you date your colleague, it’s possible you’ll eventually find yourself working with an ex. The best-case scenario in case of a breakup is that one of you finds a new job; otherwise, the aftermath can be fraught with issues. “First, there is anxiety about how to tell your co-workers,” Baker says. “In addition, there is the pain of seeing the former partner at work — sometimes it cannot be avoided and can really make you feel miserable.” Depending on how the relationship ended (or your level of vindictiveness), it can also affect your reputation around the office.
And that’s before getting to the more personal repercussions. “Even the most mature and self-evolved person might be negatively affected by seeing their former partner regularly, as well as witnessing evidence of their new romantic relationships,” Keel says. That’s especially true if your ex strikes up a new romance with someone else in the office. So, while an office relationship isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it’s worth carefully thinking through the potential ending before it even starts.