Companies & Industries

The Ethics of Office Romance


If you're thinking about hooking up at work, you're looking for love in all the wrong places

For many of us the workplace, where we spend a large percentage of our waking hours, isn't just where we go to do our jobs. It's also the place where we eat many meals, and develop and maintain friendships that last beyond office hours and sometimes even the job itself.

Given the amount of time we spend at work, the office seems like the most logical venue to look for romance (BusinessWeek, 5/23/07)—or even a hookup—and it's certainly the most practical. Fellow employees are more likely than total strangers to share at least some of our goals and values. At work, we get to know people better than we can in bars, on the Internet, or even through a blind date set up by well-meaning friends and family members.

For all these reasons, it's tempting to pursue a romance with a co-worker, an assistant, or (gulp) the boss. But there are many more compelling reasons why we shouldn't. Office romances, despite potential benefits, are at best troublesome and at worst damaging to ourselves, our co-workers, and our employer.

The Sad Truth About Romance

Most romantic relationships do not work out. How many people do you know who are married or still in a committed relationship with the very first person they ever dated? Not many, I suspect, and it would be rather odd if that weren't so. After all, it is only through experience that we discover what we are looking for in a partner and what we ourselves need to do to make a relationship successful. For many of us, this process of trial and error takes a while. It took me, your humble correspondent, until the age of 46 to find the woman I wanted to marry (or perhaps more accurately, the woman who wanted to marry me).

The implications for the workplace are this: The odds against an office romance succeeding are just slightly better than what you'd find at the worst casino in Las Vegas. When you lose at roulette or keno, though, you're out only a couple of bucks (if you're smart), and that's the end of it. When you lose the game of love at the office, you still have to face the other person day after day. That constant reminder of a relationship that didn't work out is a painful burden to bear, and it can affect how well you are able to do your job, which is the main, if not sole, reason we're employed in the first place.

The Lives of Others

"But I know a couple who met at work a long time ago and they're still together," you say. Even if that's true, we often overlook the downside such relationships have for other employees. If co-workers Jane Doe and Joe Schmoe are still going strong, and they're in the same department, when Joe goes into Jane's office and closes the door, will others think the two need privacy for work—or for something spicier? If Jane and Joe break up, will the tension in the air make it difficult for others to do their jobs effectively? The workplace shouldn't be a sexualized environment or one fraught with the fallout of a failed relationship.

A romance between two people at work affects more than just those two people. The love-struck couple may not notice or care about this, but they should. Since ethics is fundamentally about considering how our actions affect the rights and well-being of other people, romantic relationships on the job raise bona fide ethical concerns.

Power Struggle

Dating a fellow employee is tricky enough when the parties in question have the same or similar levels of power and authority within the organization. When there is a significant imbalance of power, such as between a senior and junior-level executive or an executive and his or her assistant, the stakes are even higher, and the ethical problems are more pronounced. Suppose, for example, you are a manager, and a new member of your team seems particularly friendly toward you.

Are her smiles meant to be warm, flirtatious, or alluring? Is she simply a kind and caring person, is she interested in you romantically, or is she trying to curry favor with you? It's hard to know, especially if you are attracted to her, and there is nothing like physical attraction to make it difficult to think straight.

Let's suppose you are convinced she is not just a lovely person but is genuinely attracted to you. So you summon the courage to ask her out. Here is what can happen next:

A) She is aghast you've misunderstood her, and she now feels uncomfortable around you.

B) You have read the signs correctly, and she happily accepts your invitation because she really would like to get to know you better.

C) She is thrilled she has been able to manipulate you and is confident she'll be able to get what she wants from you and the company.

It doesn't matter which result occurs (or, for that matter, what the gender of either party is). All of the above are deeply problematic. If "A" happens, you have taken steps toward the creation of an offensive or hostile working environment and may have opened yourself and your company to a legitimate charge of sexual harassment. If "B" is what you get, the going may be great for a while but when the relationship fizzles, as it probably will, one or both of you will in all likelihood have to go. "C," of course, has disturbing implications in another direction, which I need not make explicit.

Questionable Practice

By the same token, if you have a fling with your boss that flames out, and you later don't get the promotion or raise you were counting on, can you be sure the broken romance wasn't the reason why? Can your boss?

We all know of a couple that met under inauspicious circumstances (boss/assistant, professor/student, therapist/patient), and today they are happily married or have been living in a committed relationship for many years. To borrow an expression from jurisprudence, however, hard cases make bad law. Just because a few folks here and there have been able to overcome the odds does not mean this practice is, for most people, wise, healthy, or ethical.

But If You Must

You may still find yourself irresistibly drawn to someone at work and, in spite of the above arguments, you intend to follow your heart (or whatever). I propose the following guidelines for such circumstances:

1. Proceed with your eyes wide open. Be prepared to accept the consequences, whether or not the relationship succeeds. If co-workers complain or your work suffers, you may have to be transferred to another department, or you may even lose your job, so have a backup plan for employment.

2. Be discreet. Even if everyone in the office knows love is in the air, do your best to avoid PDAs (i.e., public displays of affection, not personal digital assistants. I'll discuss those distractions in a future column).

3. Just don't do it if the object of your affection is your boss or assistant. There is no good way to effectively handle such relationships other than preventing them from happening in the first place.

In the workplace, the duties to do no harm, be respectful, and be fair mean we ought to think carefully about how our actions can affect our employer, our co-workers, and ourselves. Thus, there are good reasons to turn down Cupid's call for a chance at romance on the job. When Freud suggested that work and love are the two essential components of a happy life, I don't think he meant that we should find them in the same place.

(An invitation for you: Who is one of your role models and why? Let me know, and I may publish your response in a column on the topic. Write to Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com.)

Join a debate about office romances.


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