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Workplace romance: a good or really bad idea?

By Tania Ngima | Sunday, Apr 30th 2017 at 11:00

It started off in jest. She would jokingly refer to him as her office husband –after all, they spent so much time together at work. After a couple of months, and what felt like the most natural thing in the world, they started dating. And then she got promoted and became his boss. The dynamic changed and things got awkward –he would undermine her authority in front of her colleagues and as his supervisor, she would have to reprimand him, something he wouldn't take positively. The situation went so downhill that their superiors had to intervene.

So, are workplace romances a good idea?

Conventional wisdom says NO. They are fraught with too many shades of grey to have a win-win outcome. But human behavior rarely subscribes to what conventions dictate and whether we like it or not, rules are not going to deter dating between colleagues. They key? Figure out how not to be the ultimate loser if the relationship goes south.

"A few workplaces have rules on dating co-workers. Most don't. Either way, unless it is interfering with either person's objectivity, workplace performance or creating an undesirable work environment, employers will generally turn a deaf ear to the rumours and hope it resolves itself without any fallout," Joseph, a HR practitioner in East Africa said when I reached out to him.

Power play

Relationships between direct reports and their supervisors are best avoided. Incidentally, statistics show that up to 55 per cent of relationships tend to be between a junior and a direct or indirect boss. Of the direct reports who were polled in a 2015 study, half of them said that when they were propositioned by their bosses, they believed saying no would place them at a disadvantage in the future, and they felt compelled to accept the advances. While there is no way of proving that there was an implied backlash if the less powerful party declined, what would you do if you were propositioned by your boss?

The answer? It depends.

I will park the moral considerations aside for now and focus on the workplace dynamic. Is this an organisation where you feel as if you could thrive in and grow your career? Do you expect that dating your boss will earn you any special treatment? This is the sure-fire way to attract backlash from your co-workers. Even if you do not attract any favors, be ready to accept that if you get, say, a promotion, people are much quicker to jump to the conclusion that the relationship was a contributing factor.

Are you the kind of person who cares if these kinds of rumours are making the rounds in the office or if your colleagues who may feel sidelined decided to gang up against you?

Or let's assume that the reverse happens, that the relationship goes south and the more senior person decides to retaliate by making your work life miserable or by frustrating you. Are you adept at office politics? Do you have enough strong alliances at a senior level that will deter any discrimination? How easily is your senior able to push you out of the organisation if they chose to, and do you have the resilience it takes to report misdemeanors to HR and if necessary, pursue legal action?

And lastly, if your reputation, whether valid or not were to be that of the person who 'dates his/her seniors to get ahead' is this something you would be able to live with?

Cultural nuances

Love them or hate them, there's just no getting away from them. Men and women are judged differently when it comes to relationships, in and out of the workplace. It's part evolutionary, part perception. According to a 2009 Western Journal of Communications study, the research behind dating someone at work has three underlying motivations - love, ego and getting ahead.

People also perceive reasons differently depending on gender. Predictably, women are seen as engaging in office relationships to garner an employment related advantage while the incentive for men is pegged more to ego and love. Whether valid or not, it follows that women would bear the brunt resentment from their colleagues, with office gossip targeting the female over the male.

Office gossip has proven to be an effective tool for power brokers in the workplace to undermine their colleagues by attributing promotions, financial rewards etc. even when there's no validity to the rumours.

Cultural nuances aside, I learnt my own lesson many years ago in the earlier stages of my career. Working in a male dominated industry, so were all my bosses. I was a great performer but the mere idea I 'might' be perceived as receiving preferential treatment prevented me from negotiating for promotions, for financial rewards and for better pay even when I deserved it. If you're a woman, don't make that mistake. Innate cultural nuances will not change, it is up to us to rise above them.

Head over heart

So you still want to date a colleague? Then do it right. For starters, avoid someone who has a spouse. It will only lead to complications you wish you had not brought on yourself. Have an open conversation about how you're going to interact in the office to reduce or eliminate uneasiness especially if you break up. Agree to separate your personal lives from your work lives –you will be surprised how many times something in the ordinary course of work gets overanalysed and blown up into a mess that causes a hostile working environment for you and everyone else.

If you are in a position like accounting, finance, HR or IT –tread very carefully. You do not want to be sued (or used) for divulging confidential information like salary, benefits, disciplinary actions, organisation crises, email contents or anything else that the person you're dating does not have access to. Similarly, do not use office resources such as email – remember that your emails can be accessed by the organisation. Do some vetting before you take the leap –the person could be a serial office-dater, then you can make an informed decision.

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