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I am involved in an office romance. Some of my friends warn me that mixing work and romance will be trouble. What’s your perspective?

Dear AAPAAN: I am involved in an office romance. Some of my friends warn me that mixing work and romance will be trouble. What’s your perspective?   Anonymous

Dear Anonymous

Your friends are giving you good advice.  Romance alone is challenging enough and when you mix in office and work issues you have a heightened risk for major problems. 

Let’s start with two extremely risky scenarios.  One is having affairs with or among married people, and second, having romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates.   Some companies have HR policies/rules governing romantic relationships and in particular rules prohibiting/discouraging such relationships between supervisor and subordinates.

Furthermore, studies of office romances have pointed to complications with 1) unfair perceptions (men do it for love and women do it for power access), 2) poisoned office environments in case of a breakup, 3) awkwardness from couples failing to separate personal from professional lives,  4) perceived professional favoritism (or persecution), and 5) potential accusations of sexual harassment. 

As discussed in our prior Dear AAPAAN Blog post, it’s hard finding that “ideal” life partner.  If you happened to come across that potential person in your office, it might be difficult to pass up despite the dangers.

Certainly there’s a potential for serious problems.  But I have seen some successful romances and they depended on favorable circumstances and the couples’ ability to be completely discrete and keep their personal lives out of the office.  I recalled instances where several intra-company couples were so discrete, it was not generally known they were married.

An intra-office romance/marriage need not be all negatives.  There are some pluses.  One is that since you both work in the same professional environment, you become very familiar and empathetic to each other’s job pressures and stresses.  Another plus is that some companies will help you manage career-pathing and relocations. 

If you are an up and coming young professional, there’s a good chance that during your career you will be offered various jobs with increasing responsibility and in different locations (including International).  If your spouse is also a professional and has similar potentials and ambition, you will sooner or later run into the problem that one of you will get that great job offer but which may hurt the career prospects of the other partner.  If you worked for the same company, they may make an effort to move both of you together into good jobs.  I’ve seen companies do a lot to make that happen if they really like each employee. I recognize that today, with frequent job hopping from company to company, this scenario might not even apply to you, but who knows.

Offsetting the above plus is the heightened risk of concurrent job loss.  If your company reorganizes and lays off employees (or worse the company goes under) there’s a chance both of you might be simultaneously jobless.  If you work for different companies then at least one of you might still be employed if one company downsizes.

In conclusion, office romances have some very big potentially dangerous pitfalls.  But the heart sometimes wants what the heart wants, and an office romance just might work out.  Just be extremely discrete, careful and avoid the traps.   Good luck!

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Some Actual Stories

1)      A professional single couple worked in the same business unit in an open floor work environment.  There were many young peers working around them.  The relationship seemed to have gone well until a split where one party started dating another coworker.  Even without any open arguments, it became extremely uncomfortable all around because everyone knew what was happening.  And it affected their work adversely.  Unfortunately, Management didn’t know and during an organizational realignment, the former couple ended up sitting next to each other.  Awkward!  Eventually Management was made aware of the problem and they had to be moved to other jobs.

2)      A married male execute engaged in an affair with a lower level younger female professional in the same division but it was not a direct supervisor and subordinate relationship. Their explicitly amorous emails (office email no less) somehow became public.  The executive was reprimanded and eventually left the company.

3)      Two young Asian American employees found romance at work.  Fortunately, they were in different departments and had no work interactions initially.  But later they were moved into the same group working in the open floor but in different subunits so they still had very limited interactions.  Management career planning linked the two since they requested that any relocation should somehow be coordinated so they can be moved together (because they were engaged).  Eventually, they got married and moved together to another city but in different departments.  The timing for developmental steps in their careers was suboptimal because of the need to coordinate their respective moves.  One eventually quit for an opportunity at another city but in a totally different industry.  The company again relocated the other to that city because they really wanted to keep her in the company.  Unfortunately despite the company’s best efforts to accommodate, they both eventually left the company for career choice reasons.

4)      A company moved a high powered executive couple through two international and two domestic relocations into increasing high profile parallel jobs.  It was amazing what management could do if they really wanted to!  If it was not an intra-company couple, the company wouldn’t do anything for the nonemployee spouse.  That’s your problem.