Workplace romance can be a tricky topic.
[The Way We Work]
How do we manage the boundaries between our personal and professional lives? How do we deal with gender imbalances and power dynamics in the workplace? There's a lot of gray area in workplace romance. I'd like to take a few minutes and answer some of your frequently asked questions.
So, question one: Should I date my coworker? Uh ... it depends. Do you want to date your coworker for a bit of fun? Do you want to date your coworker to hook up? Because then you're really better off on Tinder. If you want to date your coworker because you really, sincerely think you're falling in love with them or there's a real potential for a long-term, committed relationship, maybe you should date your coworker. Studies show that your coworkers are generally positive about it if they perceive that you're falling in love and genuinely care about each other. It's when your coworkers sense that something else is in play — that can be disruptive.
Question two: Should I date my boss? In almost all cases, no, you should not date your boss, because now, you've got a power dynamic. When there's a relationship between a boss and a subordinate, it generates a lot of negative feelings, and the negative feelings tend to fall on the person who's lower on the totem pole. People usually assume some kind of favoritism, some kind of inside knowledge, and there can be resentment stirred up by that. There was a study published last year that suggested dating a superior can even have a negative impact on your career. The researchers asked third-party evaluators online to imagine that they worked at a law firm. They asked them to make recommendations on which employee should get picked for a special training program and which should get promoted to partner. They looked at credentials for imaginary employees, and when it was stated that an employee had been dating or was in a relationship with a superior, the evaluators were less likely to pick that person for the training program or the promotion, even if they had the exact same credentials as someone who wasn't dating their boss. The evaluators were also quick to dismiss their accomplishments.
Question three: Can I date someone who reports to me? Still a big no. You may not feel like you're really the boss, right? But you are, and there's a power dynamic there that's simply not there for other couples. If you really believe there is a sincere, honestly felt, personal connection that would be lasting and meaningful, one of you may need to move, and it shouldn't always be the person who's lower in the company pecking order.
Question four: I've just started seeing a coworker. How do we handle things? I get this question a lot. "Are they dating? Are they not dating?" Don't keep it a secret. You don't have to make a big deal of it, but secrecy tends to be corrosive. People tend to see workplace couples as a coalition or a unit, so try to make it clear to your coworkers that you're not the same person; you love each other, but you are going to disagree.
Question five: Why are coworkers often attracted to each other? Well, the obvious answer is people tend to be attracted to each other the more time they spend together. But there's another ingredient that has to be added: attraction tends to happen when there's work that demands close collaboration. So imagine you have a big group project with a tight deadline and you're working late nights and brainstorming ideas. You look up, and across the table, one of your colleagues throws out a really great idea. You may feel something, and that's natural. We call this task interdependence. It's a ripe ground for attraction. The second reason why people at work are attracted to each other is they may often be similar to each other. There's two old adages: "Birds of a feather flock together." And "Opposites attract." Well, the psychological research suggests ... birds of a feather flock together, and we like people who are like us.
Question six: My coworkers are flirting. I'm annoyed. What do I do? Some researchers argue that for people flirting at work, flirting is good and it boosts creativity. But my own research suggests things are different for people who are watching or who are subjected to the flirting. It can be awkward, right? Witnessing flirtation in the workplace creates a sense of not knowing the rules, not knowing what's going on, or maybe seeing something that you shouldn't be seeing. People who frequently witness flirting at work — they actually report feeling less satisfied in their jobs, and they feel less valued by their company. They're more likely to give a negative appraisal of the work environment, and they may even consider leaving. For women, this association can be even stronger. This appears to be the case even when people report not being bothered by the flirting. It's true even when they say they enjoy it. So, a flirtatious environment really could be toxic.
Question seven: Do I need a policy on workplace relationships? You certainly need a policy on a sexual harassment, and I think most HR departments recognize that. But for the kind of consensual behavior we've been talking about, it's a little different. As much as people in HR would love to wave a magic wand and say, "Thou shall not fall in love at work," it's just not realistic. Emotional connection and sexuality is who we are. I kind of want you to flip the script a little bit. I encourage HR to really think more broadly about their role in not necessarily stamping out office romance, because I don't think that's realistic, but how do I help create a workplace climate and culture where people feel respected for their individual contributions, not for their appearance or their gender, or their personal relationships? So the larger question is, how do you make sure people are valued and respected?