Rules for Ethical Behavior in Life and the Workplace
The Ethics of Using Social Media in the Workplace

Ethics of Workplace Dating

The Heart wants what the Heart wants

It’s really not surprising that today workplace romances are on the rise and many employees do not see the problem with becoming involved in such relationships. Some will argue that it’s natural given all the time spent in the workplace. Others will say that it might even improve performance. The naysayers contend there may be a conflict of interests in that one employee might end up supervising the other. Those folks ask how performance evaluation can be objective under such circumstances.

According to a survey from CareerBuilder, nearly 2 out 5 U.S. workers have dated someone within their company, and 16% report having an office relationship more than once. “It’s important to really get to know the person first and weigh the risks and benefits of starting an office relationship,” says Jennifer Grasz, vice president of corporate communications with CareerBuilder. While dipping into the office dating pool can be risky, 31% of people who have dated in the workplace have walked down the aisle with their office sweetheart, she adds.

Objectively, navigating the normal dating world can be hard enough, but it gets a lot more complicated for couples that work together. Experts recommend the following tips for workplace daters to maintain their professionalism and reputation in the office:

Don’t Do it for the Thrill. Terri Oerbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, claims people are often more attracted to the secrecy of the relationship than the actual person.

Review Your Company’s Policy. Policies regarding office dating vary, and involved employees have an ethical responsibility to carefully review their employer’s rules and regulations. Most employers take the position that it is difficult to prohibit these relationships so they would rather manage them to make sure it doesn’t have a negative effect on productivity and office morale.

Employers must be aware of the danger of hostile workplace lawsuits if co-workers feel a person is getting special treatment because of the relationship or feel the workplace is unfair. The claimant could be the subordinate in the partnership, but it could also be fellow workers who feel uncomfortable or treated unfairly because of it.

Never Evaluate Your Partner. It is important that when a relationship between a manager and a subordinate develops, it needs to be disclosed immediately. Some companies have very strict policies when it comes to dating the boss. It can be grounds for immediate termination.

Don’t Act Like a Couple at Work…or at Work Events. The most successful relationships are between people who don’t act like they are dating. Couples should keep displays of affection at an absolute bare minimum, even when out in a more social setting like a bar or office party. “They are still your co-workers and you should present yourself in the same professional manner no matter the setting,” says Grasz.

Creating some separation from work and personal life will also benefit the relationship. There is less tension in relationships when you keep work life separate from your personal conversations.

Watch What You Post Online. Couples who update their relationship status on Facebook or upload pictures of themselves together on Instagram are adding fuel for gossip. To me this is the greatest danger given our social media-driven society and culture of celebrity, an issue I recently blogged about.

Never Bring Fights to the Office. All couples fight, but it shouldn’t become office fodder. “No one should know you are in the middle of a fight,” says Grasz. “Don’t involve others or talk to them about your issues; it can become very awkward and a source of irritation for your fellow co-workers and they can start to feel like your relationship is impacting your performance since you can’t leave your personal life at home.”

Have an Exit Strategy. Don’t let the end of an office romance also kill a career. [Easier said than done]. Some suggest setting expectations from the start on what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out. To me this is unrealistic because if the relationship goes south the emotions are flowing and reason and rationality is likely to go out the door.

Given the dangers of workplace dating, why do employees keep doing it? Is it because the stress of working together creates a unique bond between people? Or that as employees work longer hours, the office has become the only available place to meet people? Maybe the truth is that in spite of conventional wisdom, not all office romances are destined for failure. People who are drawn to the same employer often have common interests and a similar outlook on life. In fact, some of today’s best-known power couples began their relationships while working together. Barack and Michelle Obama met when they both worked at a Chicago law firm, and Michelle was assigned to mentor Barack while he was a summer associate. They married in 1992 and have continued to work together throughout the rise of his political career. Would he have become President without her influence? Who knows but certainly it speaks to the potential value of dating relationships.

Have views of workplace dating changed over time? Yes, just have societal views on other cultural issues. Workplace Options and Public Policy Polling surveyed American workers and the results shows that for millennials, workplace relationships are nothing to shy away from. The poll results show that 71 percent of employed millennials (aged 18-29) see a workplace romance as having positive effects such as improved performance and morale. But opinions about inter-office romances differ widely across generations. While 40 percent of millennials report no negative effects whatsoever from an office romance, only 10 percent of older workers shared that sentiment, meaning the majority of employed Americans feel more harm could be done than good.

Human beings are going to interact and these relationships are going to happen, but it is essential that companies have clear policies in place that outline what is acceptable and what is not so that there are no perceptions of inequality, favoritism or an imbalance of power. Regardless of the culture or industry of any given company, clear communication about personal relationships among co-workers is vital. Employees must be made aware of where the boundaries are so that things that occur on personal time don’t become a distraction or a source of conflict in the workplace.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 4, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: