A Consummate Professional's Guide to Office Romance

What To Know When You're In Love With the Colleague Next Door

May 08, 2019
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Romantic relationships can be complicated. Office romances, even more so. But they do happen. According to a survey from job site Vault.com, some 58 percent of workers say they've been involved in an office romance. So, if you find yourself in a romantic situation with a colleague, how should you handle it?

Jennifer Carson Marr, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Smith School, has the answer. Marr literally wrote the book on romantic relationships at work – or, more accurately, the chapter on it. Here’s what she had to say.

It’s a reality that people are going to date at the office

Marr: In decades past, you may have stayed in your job for most of your career. The implications of a romantic relationship or even a failed romantic relationship may have had a bigger impact on your career. So employees often hid their relationships. Today, as the line between personal and professional blur, dating at work is becoming less taboo. People are moving between companies more. So there’s a greater chance of professional rebound if things don’t work out. Nevertheless, it’s important to consider your company’s culture and norms around romantic relationships. Although office romances may be prevalent, they’re often stigmatized.

Always remain professional at work

Marr: My research suggests it’s critical to think through what you disclose to other people. It’s important to always appear professional to your team. But what “professional” looks like depends on organizational culture. Before your romantic relationship begins, carefully weigh the consequences of others knowing about your relationship. Ask if it will impact your career. Ask if you’re willing to accept that risk. And get ready to live with the decision you make.

View it from the HR lens

Marr: Your human resources team may have a policy about disclosure of relationships at work. In some cases, you must report a romantic relationship with a coworker. This is frequently true if your relationship has a power dynamic. For example, a romantic relationship may qualify as a conflict of interest if it involves a subordinate, manager or vendor. No matter the case, it’s important to read your organization’s guidelines on the topic. Locate them in your employee handbook or on the company intranet.

If your relationship creates an uneven playing field at the office, human resources may get more directly involved. At larger organizations, HR may change reporting relationships to ensure transparency and fairness. At smaller organizations, the opportunity to rearrange teams may not be available. If that’s the case, a romantic relationship could have a bigger career impact. Again, be sure to consider those consequences before you begin.

Advice for managers and executives

Marr: Team leaders need to think about two things: themselves and the dynamics on their teams.

If you sense a budding relationship on your team, remember that intraoffice romances are not uncommon. Work is where individuals spend a lot of time, so it makes sense that someone could meet a future spouse. Remember that relationships aren’t simply disruptions or bureaucratic headaches – they can be positive. At their best, they enhance morale and productivity. As a manager, the most important thing is that you deal with relationships on your team positively and proactively. Do this rather than taking a punitive approach, which can backfire, or rather than taking no action, which can lead to problems down the road.

If you’re a manager who is considering a romantic relationship at work for yourself, start by weighing the consequences. Think about what happens if the relationship ends. And, if your organization permits the relationship you’re considering, define clear boundaries to appear professional at all times. Also think about the type of behavior you are modeling. Contemplate what a romantic relationship says about favoritism, interpersonal priorities and fairness on the team.

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About the Expert(s)

Jennifer Carson Marr

Dr. Jennifer Carson Marr is an Assistant Professor in the Management and Organization Department, at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from London Business School.

Professor Marr's research examines the dynamics of status hierarchies and motivational goals. Her research was awarded the Best Paper Award at the Academy of Management Meeting, it has been published in top academic journals including Academy of Management Journal, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Psychological Science, and it has been profiled in various media outlets including The Washington Post and The Financial Times.

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