Welcome to MarieClaire.com's brand-new job advice column courtesy of career coach Liz Bentley—check back often for her whip-smart real-world wisdom. Have questions of your own? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org to get them answered right here.
Dear Liz: A co-worker and I have just started dating. I want to keep it secret (who knows how long it will last), but he feels we are better off being upfront. He's not my manager, but he does manage a team I'm friendly with and work with frequently. What's the best course of action? Hush-hush or here-we-are? — J.M., 25
Dear J.M.: Workplace romance is a very tricky issue. Thankfully we've evolved from the days when most office romances were between secretaries and bosses which was not exactly politically correct. Not to mention the old "she slept her way to the top" theory that didn't help women if they started to like a co-worker. Today, the line between work life and personal life which was once black and white has now become many shades of gray. In some cases, our life has become our work or some semblance of it. And how could it not be when we spend far more time at work building those relationships than anywhere else in our lives? It doesn't lend us much time to meet other people and build other communities.
Additionally, Millennials (now the largest generation in the workforce) are shifting the culture with their desire for more collaboration and common spaces; it's no wonder socializing at work is on the rise. A recent Vault.com study revealed that 57% of people have participated in some type of office relationship.
With that said, this is definitely not a *green light* for people to start dating on a whim. Office romances need to be handled very delicately by identifying what phase you are in and adhering to the following guidelines:
Phase 1: A Budding Romance
If you are in Phase 1—feeling the flutters but not sure if it will go the distance—be cautious and proceed accordingly:
- Take it seriously: This is only for a person you feel very serious about. This is not the place to try people out.
- Go slow: Take is really slow so that you see how committed you are to this person. Again, this relationship is only for someone you really care about.
- Keep it quiet in the early stages: This is between you and your romantic interest only. Do not let other people connected to your work know about it even if they are good at "keeping secrets." It's not fair or smart to bring anyone else in, word travels fast and your reputation is on the line.
- Be private: Be very careful (at all times) to keep private. No cute looks, blushing, hallway meet-ups, or any unusual contact in the office. Go to great lengths to leave events separately, don't not arrive or leave the office together and stay away from public places where you could be seen together by office mates.
- Stay focused on work: Do not let this get in the way of your productivity or your career. Keep your eye on the ball; this relationship should enhance your life not derail it.
- Be professional—in all ways at all times: Don't be fodder for gossip. Go above and beyond to ensure your professionalism.
Phase 2: "The Real Deal"
Identifying whether your relationship has advanced from a fling to what we call "the real deal" is a critical step and best not to get wrong. If you have had relationship trouble in the past and often thought something was "real" that did not have staying power then proceed with extra caution. Here are the signs you have crossed over the "fling" threshold:
- It's been awhile: You've been in the relationship for a solid amount of time. It's hard to set an exact length but a minimum of 9 months to a year.
- It's serious: You can visualize a life with this person and have discussed it. This is a serious relationship.
- You're over the honeymoon phase: While your heart may skip a beat every time you see him, you are not as enraptured anymore. You see him for who he or she is—character flaws and all!
Note, these "real deal" guidelines are only for office romance, not your private life.
Phase 3: The Big Reveal
If your relationship has advanced to "the real deal," it's time to disclose it to a supervisor or management above *both* of your positions. Warning: before you make this move, be very sure that this is truly a committed relationship. If you are ready for the big reveal, here's what you need to know:
- Company liability: Companies are legally compelled to protect their employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. Most likely, they have policies in place to ensure that romantic relationships don't put people or teams in compromising positions.
- Co-Workers count: Even though your co-worker doesn't supervise you, there still may be an impact since you work with his reports and are friendly with them. Discrimination, harassment, and favoritism all come into play when there's romance across managerial levels.
- Signing the "love contract": A "love contract" is an increasingly popular way for companies to manage romantic relationships. According to Sima Ali, Esq., a labor and employment attorney, "the two parties will be asked to sign an agreement in which they concur the relationship is consensual and does not involve any sexual harassment. The couple also agrees to behave professionally in the office and at work events. If problems arise, the couple agrees to follow the employer's reporting procedures." A "love contract" protects all parties involved—you, your romantic partner, and everyone else who works with you.
If There's a Breakup
If the relationship doesn't work out, it's critical to be discreet and professional. Do not talk poorly about the person or let people know you were in a relationship together that broke up. This will only reflect poorly on you. Remain calm and move on. This has to be a drama-free zone or you will lose credibility and your job will be compromised unnecessarily.
Clearly you are not alone in your office romance. I know many people who have met their spouse at work at various stages of life and have great marriages to this day. From my vantage point, an office relationship is okay if handled graciously, but if you're just looking for a casual relationship, keep it to your private life only.
Liz Bentley is the founder of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs for individuals and companies.