A look, a glance, a shy smile, a lingering touch. These are the overtures of romance—the sweet nothings of young love. But are these appropriate overtures at the office? In the era of #MeToo, is office romance a thing of the past?
While caution, consent and common sense must prevail in the midst of heightened awareness of the abuses of power, office romance remains a reality. Men and women (and men and men, and women and women) flirt and feel attraction. We also work together. When thrown together for long hours under stress and with shared goals and ambitions, sparks can fly.
Over the last decade, the percentage of workers who say they have dated a colleague has hovered around 40%, according to an annual survey from CareerBuilder. In a survey of single adults released last February, 27% mentioned work as a way to meet partners, compared to just 20% who say they use a dating app or website.
Workplace dating worked for Michelle and Barack Obama. The couple famously met when he worked as a summer associate at her law firm, Sidley & Austin. The rest of their relationship is, literally, history. As is the marriage of our founder and Managing Director Jane Howze… she met her husband as a young attorney in California in 1979.
Television and movies also do their part to glorify “will-they, won’t-they” office romances. Think Sam and Diane, Pam and Jim, Scully and Mulder, McDreamy and Meredith Grey… even Superman met his lady-love at work!
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, however, it is hard to know what is, and is not, acceptable.
Check the rulesMost companies acknowledge that relationships between colleagues can occur, and provide guidelines for what’s acceptable. Read up on those rules in your employee handbook, or check with HR.
At Facebook and Google, for example, employees are only allowed to ask a co-worker out once, and “I’m busy” counts as “no”. In this case, persistence is not the key to success.
Some companies require love contracts, known more formally (and much less romantically) as “consensual relationship agreements”. Typically, it’s a document providing written confirmation from both participants that the romantic relationship is voluntary and that they understand the company’s sexual harassment policies.
Love contracts are still relatively rare—less than 20% of companies use them. However, one HR consultant did report receiving a flurry of questions about love contracts near the end of 2017, as the #MeToo movement gained momentum. While no one wants their love life memorialized in a corporate document, it does protect you and your love interest, as well as the company, from any misunderstanding down the line.
Many companies forbid personal relationships between their employees and clients or customers; a few forbid romances between their employees and employees of their competitors. Dell Technologies’ code of conduct, for example, asks employees to avoid conflicts of interest caused by romantic relationships. Schlumberger requires employees to recuse themselves from the decision-making process in the event of “personal, social, financial, political or other interests” in a customer or supplier relationship.
Just this morning, outdoor gear retailer REI announced that its President and CEO Jerry Stritzke has resigned over a relationship—described by REI as "personal and consensual''—with the head of another group that operates in the outdoor space, presumably a competitor.
And, whether it’s a formal policy or not, most companies frown on relationships between supervisors and staff members.
Don’t date up or downThe #MeToo movement significantly soured perceptions of relationships between direct reports: A 2018 survey of professionals revealed that “43% of respondents believe that romances between colleagues at different levels are unacceptable—the highest proportion since the survey began in 2013, and a spike of almost 15% compared to results in previous years.”
Whenever there is power at play, perceived or real, the line between flirty and dirty can get murky fast. On the lesser end of consequences, coworkers could find it easier to claim that an employee received preferential treatment from a supervisor he or she is dating. On the more serious side, the relationship could end badly and one of the employees could claim that the relationship was non-consensual, or that sexual harassment existed.
If nothing else, would you really want to receive a (gulp) performance review from a current or former flame? If that’s not reason enough to avoid a relationship with your manager, I don’t know what is.
Keep your hands where I can see them.Generally, colleagues are receptive to office romances between two single, consenting adults; in a 2018 survey, only 4% of respondents indicated otherwise. Just be discreet! No PDA, lover’s spats or on-site trysts. And, if and when the relationship ends, remain professional.
Make sure your heart is in the right place.Finally, think this through. Before you make eyes at the attractive co-worker down the hall, consider your motives. Are you bored, tired of dating sites, too lazy to look elsewhere? Don’t engage in workplace romance lightheartedly. It’s complicated. Know what you’re getting into and make sure it’s worth it. And if it is, then follow your heart… (and company policy).
Happy Valentine’s Day!