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Ask The Experts: “Help, I’m Dating A Coworker!”

Falling for a coworker is one of the biggest conventional work “don’ts,” but is there a way to keep it from ruining your career?

Ask The Experts: “Help, I’m Dating A Coworker!”
[Photo: Flickr user Doctor Popular]

There are a lot of ways to mess up at work.

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Some things are universal don’ts, like dating someone you work with. But the heart wants what the heart wants. So is there anyway to make a romantic relationship and a career thrive in the same place?

Psychologist Art Markman helps this reader figure it out.

Hi,

I’ve committed one of the biggest professional don’t’s: I’ve started dating someone I work with.

I’ve checked the HR manual and the only mention of relationships in the workplace is that you can’t be the manager of someone that you are related to or romantically involved with, and neither is the case with us.

The man I’ve been seeing isn’t my boss and I’m not his, but we do work pretty closely together on a lot of projects (which is how our relationship bloomed). We’ve been seeing each other for a little over a month. I’m not sure where it’s going but if we continue to date, it might be hard to continue to keep it a secret.

We both really like each other so we don’t want to break up, and we’re always professional in the office. Is this something we have to bring up with our boss? Is there anyway this can work?

Thanks,
BG


Dear BG:

It is not surprising that you have gotten into a relationship with someone at work. You spend about a third of your life while you’re awake at work. You meet a lot of people and you get to know them far better than the people you meet in many other settings.

The big reason why workplace relationships can cause problems is called the dual relationship principle. This term comes from the ethical principles given to treatment providers like clinical psychologists. The idea is that when a clinician treats a patient, they now have a doctor-patient relationship between them. Any other relationship (friend, lover, business) can cause a conflict-of-interest between that relationship and the clinical relationship. And so, clinicians are barred from having any other relationship with their patients.

This principle is also why HR manuals routinely have rules about supervisors and supervisees dating.

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For other coworkers, there are no clear ethical problems with having a dual relationship, but it is important to be aware of the tension that these two roles can create both for yourselves and for the way you are perceived by your coworkers.

It is clearly possible to have a great relationship with a coworker. I have many friends who have been in long happy relationships with people they work with. But, here are some things to think about:

Be honest at work.
One problem with working closely together at your job is that there are times that you are going to disagree about the direction of a project. It is hard enough giving criticism to coworkers and having workplace disagreements. When you layer the romance on top of it, it can be even harder to voice disagreements. You need to work hard to make sure workplace disagreements do not create personal problems.

One thing you will need to consider is how you can each take some space from each other when needed. Everyone has had days when they are angry with a coworker because of something that has happened at work. When that coworker is also a romantic partner, you need to find a strategy to allow yourself to feel frustrated without letting that drag your relationship down.

Another reason for this honesty is that you don’t want to end up doing things at work that create resentments in your personal life. For example, with most colleagues, if there is something they do at work that you disagree with, you discuss it and then you each go back and work on the project some more. With a romantic partner, you might just try to fix a problem you see at work without confronting your partner about it. That may save a tense discussion in the short-term, but it opens up opportunities for long-term problems.

Be honest with colleagues.
Right now, you’re at the start of a relationship. You might not even be at the point where you want to announce this relationship to your close friends. Once you are ready to be seen as a couple, though, you have to let your colleagues know.

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The big reason for being open with your relationship status is that you work closely together on projects. You ultimately want people thinking that you choose to work with each other on projects because you believe that you each bring the best set of skills for the task and for the good of the organization as a whole. You don’t want people thinking that you are just doing things to advance each other’s careers or so that you can spend time with each other. The more honest you are with people about your relationship, the more that people will trust your workplace decisions.

Think a little about the worst-case.
At the beginning of any relationship that starts to get serious, you cannot imagine that anything will go wrong. And it is no fun to think about the potential problems that might arise when you are full of the bliss of a new romance.

When you are in a workplace romance, though, you have responsibilities that are caused by the dual relationship. You need to think a bit about how you will handle things if the relationship does not last. Will you still be able to work closely together? Could this have long-term repercussions for where you want to work? What happens if one of you is promoted? Could that cause career advancement problems in the future?

One way to get a sense of how well you might be able to work with each other if the relationship doesn’t work out is to think about your current relationship with any former romantic partners you have had. Some people remain very good friends with their exes. Some do not. If one or both of you are the sort that cannot bear to be anywhere near your exes, then you need to be aware that if the relationship breaks up, that will create tension at work.

You also want to make sure that if you have any kind of personal quarrel that you don’t bring that into the workplace, particularly if you are working together on a project. Again, easier said than done.

Maintain your other workplace relationships.
Success at work involves being connected to a lot of people. You need to know what is going on with your colleagues and with customers, clients, and people in other firms. One thing that happens early in a romance is that couples focus on each other more than on other people around them. That can be fine in personal relationships, but it is not fine at work. You need to continue going to lunch with colleagues, saving time for customers and clients. Do not let your desire to be with each other get in the way of the important workplace relationships you need to maintain.

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Finally, although I have focused on potential problems, do bear in mind that a healthy romantic relationship with a coworker can also be a positive. If you are excited about the work you do, then you may be able to generate lots of creative solutions to problems by talking about those issues for hours in ways that might be impossible with other colleagues. You may bring out the best in each other in ways that will be very motivating.

If you are aware of the potential problems that can arise, you can put yourself in the best possible position to let the two sides of your relationship enhance each other.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

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