Dating at work is complicated. Particularly in the era of #MeToo, it can be nerve-wracking to even consider approaching a coworker (or boss, or subordinate) in a romantic capacity. A lot of companies have policies about intra-office dating, including strongly discouraging it.
But the fact is, attraction happens. At the water cooler, at the office holiday party, while completing late-night projects, during coffee runs.
Simply put, people date people from work, and we need to be realistic about that rather than ignore it.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to a survey by CareerBuilder of 7,780 American workers, 38 percent of people reported having dated a colleague at some point during their career. And a full 31 percent of those who said they had, ending up marrying that person.
Yes, of course people have flings, but very serious relationships arise out of office romances, too.
This is likely because of the way you get to know a colleague. You’re with them a good number of hours a day, and you tend to see them across circumstances — both when they’re succeeding and celebrating victories, and when they’re having a hard time. They “get” you in a way others don’t, because they’re familiar with the work (as well as the office politics). Plus, you can engage in pretty good banter on Slack.
It’s not just coworkers, either — some people are doing more than just work for the boss. While most people reported dating those at their same level in the hierarchy, 18 percent said they’d dated their boss — that’s nearly one in five. Women were more likely to date up (35 percent of women; 23 percent of men).
Whether it’s a boss or a colleague, bringing dating into your professional world elicits dynamics far beyond just getting caught making out in a conference room. Do you keep things under wraps, or inform someone else above the two of you (or HR)? What do you do if you start out on the same level but one of you gets promoted? And the big one: what if it doesn’t work out? Will you both be cool, or will one of you get vindictive?
According to Rosemary Haefner, chief HR officer at CareerBuilder, “To avoid negative consequences at work, it’s important to set ground rules within your relationship that help you stay professional in the office and keep your personal life private.”
That’s easy to say but sometimes hard to do in real life.
According to a survey by Harris Poll, 24 percent of workers have had an affair with a coworker in which one person was married. More of the married individuals were men (27 percent vs. 21 percent of women). Talk about complicated. And a total of 6 percent of people reported leaving a job because the relationship ended badly (that difference was gendered: 9 percent of women compared to 3 percent of men).
Still you’d think that that last number would be higher. You’d think more office relationships would end badly and result in hurt feelings and difficult work meetings — but it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Here are a few common sense rules of thumb if you do decide to do the dirty with someone from work:
1. Dating laterally is safer than dating up or down
Starting a relationship with a coworker in a completely different department is the safest thing to do. That said, most people are more attracted to those in a similar job (probably because they have similar challenges and more in common). Either way, if you’re going to do it, the best bet is to stay on your level, so to speak.
2. If there is a power differential, try your best to stop working together
Two quick anecdotes about this: a friend of mine was an intern at a law firm where she found herself attracted to her boss. She spent the semester there, and was then offered an ongoing internship at the firm. She turned it down because she wanted to see where it would go with her boss (they hadn’t done anything yet, but she had a feeling), and chose to pursue another internship elsewhere. They ended up dating and then getting married.
Story 2: I worked briefly at Trader Joe’s, where one of the woman managers told me she had been attracted to one of the guys on the floor (below her in the hierarchy). She ended up talking to him about it and he agreed to transfer to a different store so she wouldn’t be his direct manager. They were very seriously dating at the point I knew them.
It’s obviously not always realistic to stop working together. If you’re both heavily invested in your careers at the company you’re at, it’s not fair to ask one person to leave. But whenever possible, think of creative ways to stop working together — especially if you’re in different levels of the hierarchy.
3. Be sure before you jump in
My personal rule of thumb has always been to resist the urge unless I really think it could be something. Casual relationships don’t seem made for the office.
That said, the research shows that if you do decide to go for it, one in three people ends up marrying the object of their workplace affection.
Those aren’t bad odds.
Originally published at www.inc.com