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The do’s and don’ts of workplace romance

The current attention workplace relationships are receiving is enormous and mostly for not-so-good reasons. The media goes wild when high-profile individuals get involved with someone from their workplace. And if they’re already married to someone else, well . . . it only adds fuel to the fire.

Dating a co-worker is common and according to some studies as many as 40 per cent of employees have participated in a workplace romance. Considering the proportion of our waking hours we spend at work, it’s not surprising. I married my workplace crush so I’m definitely not against the concept, but then again we had very clear boundaries, we told a person at work whom we both respect to keep us accountable, and neither of us were married or dating anyone else.

While a romantic relationship can certainly make it more interesting to come into work on a Monday, there are also some dangers involved—developing a negative reputation in your HR department or getting in trouble for workplace harassment, for example.

Having worked in HR and as a counsellor, I’ve seen some of these relation­ships improve a person’s career and overall wellbeing and other times . . . well, we hear about those in the media.

One such case fairly recently relates to the now-infamous movie producer, Harvey Weinstein. The details around his alleged sexual harass­ment and sexual abuse triggered the worldwide #MeToo movement, which empowered women—and men too—to speak out about inappropriate conduct. What became apparent is the challenge posed by workplace cultures that discourage disclosure. People fear losing their jobs, not being able to work in their industry any more or having their reputation tarnished.

Just to be clear, “sexual harassment” is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reason­able in the circumstances. There can be a fine line between welcome workplace romantic overtures and unwanted sexual harassment. If you are considering embarking on what 40 per cent of the population has done before you, here are some tips on what to do and what not to do.

Hoozone—Getty Images

Don’t consider getting into a relation-ship if you or the other person is not available. If it’s you who’s already in a relationship, put the same focus, attention and energy into your current partner that you’re feeling for your crush. If the other person is already in a relationship, don’t go there. Just don’t. Respect the other person enough to leave them right where they are. There are plenty more fish in the sea without you breaking a relationship up.

Don’t date your manager or someone who reports to you. Power differences are very noticeable in workplaces. If you end up dating your boss and it doesn’t go so well you could find yourself out of a job. If you date someone who works for you and it doesn’t work out you could have a harassment claim against you and risk your position. Even if it does work out it will be hard to remove the power differential in other areas.

Don’t tell the whole office about it. Let your relationship start out without others’ two cents’ worth. Allow your relationship to grow with some stability before it’s a known thing. (You’ll be answering a lot of questions for a while once you do!)

Do be an ethical dater in the workplace. That involves respecting people and their right to privacy, and respecting a person’s right to say no or to be open with you about it not working out if you have started dating. It means not dating on company time. Ethical workplace dating requires you to not be a serial dater—moving from one person to the next in the organisation—and it also requires you not telling everyone about your relationship without prior consent.

Do maintain a good working relationship with the person when/if the relationship ends. Most workplace relationships don’t end in marriage so you may need to continue working with your ex after the breakup. If this would be difficult for you, it’s best to give the workplace romance option a miss.

This account comes from a lady whose experience was not positive: “I started to flirt with my boss a little. He showed interest in me when no-one else was around. He would make me feel special and I liked the attention. One day he invited me to a meeting at his apartment, which wasn’t uncommon, but when I showed up no-one else was there. He cornered me and forced me to have sex with him. I was devastated. I felt partly to blame. I told his boss what happened and shortly after I was fired. I was young and decided not to take it further. Now I wish I had. But it wasn’t so much the done thing back then.”

Or then there is the experience like my own—how I met my husband. We were colleagues for the same organisation, but in different states. I came up to do some work in his region. We were both single so I had put some good boundaries in place from the start just so there wasn’t any pressure for either of us. This gave us time as colleagues to become friends without anything feeling forced. We found we had a lot in common and really enjoyed each other’s company. I initiated a discussion about seeing where it might go. He thought it was good idea so we both told our family and a trusted colleague—no-one else. We would talk mostly on the phone and sometimes visit one another for a weekend. Once we decided our relationship was going somewhere (about six months later) we shared it with our colleagues and friends—they were all so happy for us. After 18 months we got married. We continue to do work together and it’s wonderful.

While it’s not uncommon to have a workplace relationship, what is rare is the relationship ending well. Weigh up the pros and cons, seek wisdom from friends, follow the tips provided here and you may do really well. Hey, you might even find the love of your life like I did!

Suzanne Bocking is a qualified counsellor and adult educator. She lives in Townsville, northern Australia.

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