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Consensual Romantic Relationships at Work: Tips from an Employment Lawyer

Feb 9 2021

Office romance is a fact of life.  Just ask the millions of Americans who have watched Grey’s Anatomy over its 16-plus seasons.  As enticing as workplace romantic relationships might seem on TV, though, in real life they can be perilous, especially in the #MeToo era.  Employees who choose to date or hook-up with a coworker should unlock that proverbial Pandora’s box only after careful consideration and only with their eyes wide open.  But if they decide that seeing or sleeping with a colleague is a good idea, these five tips will help them protect themselves.

Tip #1: Check your employer’s policies.

The employee handbook is perhaps the least romantic place to start an office romance, but it is nonetheless essential.  Employers make rules for a reason, and they expect those rules to be followed.  Break a rule, and you could find yourself out of a job – even if you had the purest of intentions.  For example, some companies prohibit employees from dating or otherwise being romantically involved with coworkers, vendors, customers, or suppliers – because of the potential for conflicts of interest or allegations of sexual harassment, among other reasons.  Other companies require specific disclosures in order to engage in those relationships.  So investigate before you start the relationship.  When your job is potentially on the line, it is not better to act first and ask questions later.

One useful resource beyond the handbook may be your employer’s training on sexual harassment prevention.  After the passage of the Time’s Up Act in 2019, Connecticut companies with three or more employees must provide this training to all employees.  But regardless of state or local law, most companies provide sexual harassment education as a matter of course.  If you don’t have that training readily accessible (through the company intranet, for example), you can email HR to request it.

Tip #2: Keep your workplace professional.

Office romance should not mean romance at the office.  Your workplace is the place for work, not the place for “working it.”  Don’t flirt at work; don’t kiss at work; don’t hook-up at work.  (This goes for long-married couples as much as new ones.)  According to a study in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, employees who observe more sexual behavior at work enjoy their jobs less.  Don’t be responsible for your coworkers dreading the morning commute.  

Along the same lines, if you want to pursue a coworker – one who is not in your reporting hierarchy (see Tip #4) – it is generally acceptable to ask, with two conditions.  First, don’t ask at the office.  Instead, send your coworker a (personal) email or leave them a note to open at home.  And second, don’t ask more than once.  If your coworker says they’re busy, and they’re really busy, they will follow up.  If they don’t follow up, that probably means they’re not interested.  Maybe they’re already attached.  Or maybe they just think it’s too risky to mix work-life and personal life.  Whatever the reason, though, you should respect your coworker’s boundaries.  This is one area where persistence is not a virtue.  Repeatedly hitting on a coworker is sexual harassment, and it’s a good way to get yourself fired – and to deserve it.

Tip #3: Make it official.

The “official” here isn’t marriage; it’s telling your employer.  This may seem counter-intuitive in light of Tip #2, because you do want to keep your relationship out of the workplace.  But it is inevitable that people – including your bosses and HR – will find out about your relationship.  The odds of hiding something like this are vanishingly small.  Better that they should hear it from you than through the grapevine.  Remember: since you read and are complying with your employer’s policies (see Tip #1), you’re not doing anything wrong.  If you have nothing to be ashamed of, then you have nothing to be ashamed of.  And if it turns out that you are (accidentally) doing something wrong, wouldn’t you prefer to know as soon as possible?  If you tell your manager and HR, they can help you ensure that you continue to comply with workplace policies, and they can be attentive to the sorts of normal human emotions – like jealousy or confusion – that often accompany romantic relationships.

Tip #4: Never pursue your subordinate or your boss.

If there is one hard-and-fast rule of office romance, it is this one:  You should not have any romantic involvement with someone you work for or someone who works for you.  

For bosses, the risk is obvious.  Your subordinate may not feel comfortable declining your advances, and you might unwittingly engage in quid pro quo sexual harassment – which is the legal term for feeling like you have to choose between having sex and losing your job.  No one should have to feel that way, but there is no way to avoid that risk when you hit on someone who works for you.  Or perhaps your subordinate will say “no” and then the next time you give them constructive criticism, they will think it’s retaliation – that is, that you’re being critical not because of their job performance, but because they declined your advances.  In short, pursuing someone who works for you is a no-win situation.  So if you can’t shake the feeling that your subordinate is your soulmate, perhaps it’s time to apply for a transfer.

For subordinates, the risk is less obvious, but it is no less real.  Date the boss, and your professional accomplishments are no longer your own.  Your coworkers are likely to believe they are the product of favoritism, and other members of management are likely to discount any praise your significant other gives you.  You want to rise or fall at work on your own merit – not because of your relationship status.  

Tip #5: Memorialize your breakup.

Breaking up has always been “hard to do,” as Neil Sedaka so catchily sang, and breaking up is especially hard to do when you can’t stop seeing your former partner.  That’s unfortunately the reality with office romances.  Nothing will make your break-up easy, but what will make it less likely to result in an HR complaint is to be transparent about it.  The last thing you probably want to do when you’re going through a break-up is to talk about it.  But just as you made your relationship official (see Tip #3), you should make the break-up official too by telling your manager and HR that you’re no longer together.  Ideally, you will have prepared for this situation by talking with your significant other at the outset about how to handle a break-up.  (After all, most relationships do not last forever.)  Regardless, if your priority is keeping your job, your best bet is to keep your employer apprised. 

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Office romances aren’t easy, but they aren’t impossible either.  Follow these five tips, and you’ll be off to a good start.

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About the Author

Joshua R. Goodbaum

Joshua R. Goodbaum

A graduate of Harvard and Yale, Joshua Goodbaum represents individuals in litigation and negotiation, with particular emphases in employment, civil rights, and appeals. He has represented clients in every level of our justice system, from local trial courts to the Supreme Court of the United States, in matters ranging from constitutional law to contract disputes. Learn More

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