I broke up with a coworker, and I’m afraid it will be a problem at work

A reader writes:

I’m hoping to get your guidance on a situation at my job that might escalate.

About a year ago, I developed a relationship with a coworker (I know, not smart!). I never directly reported to her, but we are on the same team, and she is at a higher-level. I work on some of her projects.

This weekend, I ended the relationship for various reasons. She’s been having a difficult time accepting this, and there’s a lot of hurt and anger on her side, and there has been lashing out outside of work. The relationship has never impacted our work situation or job performance in the past — we have always remained professional — but it looks like it might now.

In order to give herself the space and distance she says she needs to get past this, she feels that she needs to not have me work on her projects moving forward, or at least for the time being. We spoke about it and agreed to an approach that would facilitate that. We both want to attempt to navigate this without having to directly notify our boss and HR of the relationship, since that would severely impact both of us, which we both say we’d like to avoid. One of her points is that it could impact me the worst because I’d be easier to remove from the team if they wanted to.

Though I understand her feelings on this and I agree some separation would be helpful, I also want to make sure I’m being smart about this and protecting myself — for instance, documenting/logging this agreement to have documentation if it were ever needed. Without directly using work email to put it in writing to her, what would be the best way to officially have a log that could help me? An email to myself? To someone else?

Furthermore, she’s going to speak to our boss to try and propose it in a way that doesn’t mention the relationship, but would still allow her to transfer me off of her projects. I’m very aware that this might seem odd to our boss and open it up to scrutiny. If it would get to a point where my boss would straight up ask me what’s going on, I strongly feel that I should not lie and tell him the truth about the situation. But that would unfortunately turn this into an HR situation.

I’ve never been in this kind of situation before and I find it very stressful and difficult to navigate. I would I really appreciate some insight. I’m trying to do the best thing for both parties, but I understand I come first. Am I not being smart here? Should I have gone to HR despite the potential ramifications?

Wait, why do you think that telling your company about the situation would “severely impact” both of you? Most companies don’t have no-fraternization policies. People date coworkers, and sometimes those relationships end badly. That’s not usually a scandal as long as both people remain professional at work, and as long as they don’t issue “I won’t work with Fergus” ultimatums. Normally the only way it would severely impact you both is if you weren’t supposed to be dating at all because of the power differential — and if that’s the case, she’d be viewed as more at fault than you.

So unless there’s some key detail missing here about your company being one of the few old-fashioned hold-outs that still forbid dating, then either (a) your company won’t really care or (b) your ex is the one who should get in trouble, and that might be why she’s pressuring you to keep it quiet.

And for what it’s worth, her point that you would be easier to remove from the team if they wanted to remove one of you is awfully self-serving. If she’s unable to work with someone she used to date, that’s on her, not on you — and in a well-functioning company, she’d be expected to either conduct herself professionally or remove herself from the situation. And if you’re truly junior to her, a well-functioning company would have real concerns about legal ramifications of pushing out a junior person for getting involved with a senior one (it’s not inherently illegal for an employer to do that, but it would create risks around potential harassment allegations, for one thing).

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course. It does. And if she is a powerful rainmaker type or otherwise highly valued, it’s more of a risk. So it’s not that there’s no danger to you, but I’ve got to wonder about her motives in framing it that way to you.

However, there are other risks to you here, especially if you allow her to control the narrative. If she’s upset and lashing out, it’s possible that the explanation that your boss or HR eventually hears isn’t entirely accurate. Worst case scenario, it could be aggressively inaccurate.

Ultimately I think it comes down to this: You know her from being intimately involved with her for a year. Based on that knowledge (and on her behavior post-break-up), do you trust her to act with integrity and with concern for your well-being as well as her own?

If you do, then maaayyyybe you can give her suggestion a shot and see how it goes. (And if you do that and want a log of the agreement, you could email her personal email account from your personal account. Just be aware that it won’t count for as much unless you also have an email from her confirming what you wrote.) But I’m still pretty wary of that option. Can she really say she wants to move you off her projects without it reflecting poorly on you? Or are you going to take a reputation hit in the process? And is that truly better than just explaining the situation?

But if you don’t trust her to act with integrity and concern for your well-being, then that option has to be a no-go. If that’s the case, you can’t put her in charge of a narrative that could have serious professional repercussions for you.

Really, what should happen here is either (1) you continue to work on her projects as normal, and she accepts whatever discomfort that entails as the price of dating a coworker, or (2) you explain the situation to your boss and, if your coworker feels she needs it, she asks for a brief reprieve from working together if the work makes that possible to accommodate. If she won’t do #1, then I’d lean strongly toward you doing your part of #2, and stressing to your boss that you’re committed to handling this professionally and pleasantly.

{ 147 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. DecorativeCacti

    I really want to hear more about this “HR situation”. I just can’t imagine it being that bad.

    I really wouldn’t trust someone who is already lashing out to control the narrative, though. No one is at their most rational post-break up.

    Reply
      1. Anon55

        Agreed – I can totally understand that she’s feeling hurt, but lashing out isn’t okay. Not wanting the LW working on projects with her is completely unreasonable as well and feels like “punishment” to me. I have no idea if this is the case with the LW’s ex, but there are people who really need to be told, “People are allowed to break up with you and not wanting to be with you doesn’t make them the bad guy (or gal).”

        Reply
      2. Definitely Anon

        Her suggestion does seem like the best option for her, but not the OP. It will look bad if the OP is moved off of all of her projects with no context. But it will only look bad for the OP.

        Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      Yes. NONE of the wacky “agreement” makes sense outside the emotional post-breakup zone.

      OP, the way you protect yourself is to talk to your boss. Period. Hoping a secret agreement with your angry ex will smooth things over is… not good career planning.

      Reply
      1. Hills to Die on (formerly AMG)

        Good Lord yes. Please listen to Alison. You wrote in for a reason, and I am concerned for you and the very real possibility of negative impacts to your professional reputation and/or your career.

        Reply
            1. Marly

              You just gave me the shivers… this morning I was thinking something about AAM and hills to die on… mind = blown.

              Reply
    2. Anon Anon

      This is just more evidence of not pooping where you eat.

      I know it works out well for many people. But, for everyone it works out for, there are others who can’t deal with being in a professional setting with their ex, and one of them has to leave.

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        It seems OP realizes this was not a great idea, but I’m not sure what telling them not to crap what they they eat accomplishes. It’s already happened, and I suspect they won’t do it again without seriously weighing the pros/cons.

        Reply
        1. DecorativeCacti

          Yeah, I deleted that part of my comment because they obviously realize they did something dumb. They’re asking for help to resolve the situation, not if they should have gotten into it.

          Reply
      2. Aphrodite

        Agree! These past couple of weeks have brought up this relationship at work dilemma in several ways–and none of them are good. I’m just blown away by how many there have been in such a short time.

        Reply
      3. Koko

        In the words of the immortal philosophy Selena Gomez, the heart wants what it wants. I would reckon a lot of people who get involved with coworkers aren’t specifically seeking out romance at work, but they clicked with someone in the course of their job and didn’t want to suppress/ignore their feelings. Sometimes once that click happens, all bets are off and all risks seem worth it. They may have previously sworn they would never date a coworker when it was an Abstract Hypothetical Coworker but suddenly find that things look different when they develop feelings for Actual Coworker Wakeen.

        Reply
      4. tigerStripes

        I haven’t dated much at work, but my personal rules are: never date a manager or someone you manage, never date someone who’s married, and only date someone if you can easily avoid them for a while if the dating doesn’t work out.

        Reply
    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Same. The fear of the company/HR really worries me. Of course they may be historically unhelpful, but I keep wondering if there’s a non-fraternization policy, or an anti-LGBT stance (not saying that’s the case—just thinking through the most common barriers), that OP is so worried about disclosing. This whole situation sounds like OP’s ex is maximizing her protections while leaving OP in a more vulnerable position.

      I also don’t have a lot of faith in the plan to create a “written agreement” memorializing their resolution. First, because wtf? Second, both parties don’t sound like they’re in the best place to discuss terms. Third, how on earth would they enforce the agreement? And fourth, because the agreement may run counter to their employer’s policies and practices, which could create a more problematic HR conversation if things don’t work out down the road.

      OP, the approach makes me worry you’re going to be nursing this pit of stomach-wrenching worries until this whole thing resolves. And the resolution is either found to be that your ex gets over it, or the whole situation implodes.

      Reply
      1. 42

        >>OP, the approach makes me worry you’re going to be nursing this pit of stomach-wrenching worries until this whole thing resolves<<

        And who even determines the point that this is resolved, and bangs the gavel?…some future time where the ex finally decides she feels ok about working with the OP again?? Waaay too open-ended and subjective and tipped in the ex's favor.

        Reply
    4. Artemesia

      I would be to the boss yesterday laying out the situation calmly and indicating my ability to work professionally with her. Let her get their first and you will be out of a job perhaps and painted as a cad.

      Reply
  2. Aunt Margie at Work

    Please listen to Alison. Get in front of this.
    This is one of the reasons that people should not date supervisors.
    She is taking the leadership role in your breakup. She is (well, dictating is harsh) directing how you will act, what you can and cannot work on, what you will say and how you will say it. That’s excellent leadership for a work project. This is your personal relationship. You have equal footing and you need to be your own leader in this.
    You don’t have to petty and vindictive. I won’t even say she is. She is looking out for herself. You need to do the same.
    (Look back at the LW who’s sister abused her company discount. By not saying anything, she looked like she did something wrong. If you don’t say anything, you look like your relationship was wrong, that you knew it was wrong and you are hiding it. And that the reason for the breakup is something you don’t want publicized and she is graciously not discussing it. If you have nothing to hide, don’t.)
    I’m rambling. Sorry.

    Reply
    1. Karen D

      I don’t see how the OP could do anything better than to listen to Allison’s advice and do exactly what she has laid out.

      Not only is her advice rock-solid (as it always is, but this one is exceptional) but she clearly identifies priority No. 1:

      Ultimately I think it comes down to this: You know her from being intimately involved with her for a year. Based on that knowledge (and on her behavior post-break-up), do you trust her to act with integrity and with concern for your well-being as well as her own?

      If the answer to that question is “no,” and it really does seem from the OP that the answer is indeed “no,” then the OP has a delicate path to navigate and Ex is already several steps ahead.

      Reply
  3. Grits McGee

    OP, out of curiosity, what is the outcome that you’re foreseeing/hoping to achieve by documenting your breakup and the terms of your post-breakup project changes? I’m neither a lawyer nor an HR official, but I’m not sure that a personal agreement that you and your ex work out outside of the office is going to be much help if you end up needing to go to HR later on.

    Reply
    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Absolutely this. That’s agreement isn’t going to bind the employer. And what happens if the ex breaks the terms? OP goes to HR and says, “Look at all our super weird cloak-and-daggering—please get involved now that we’ve made an exponentially worse mess”?

      Reply
    2. MCMonkeyBean

      I assumed they just meant some sort of documentation indicating the break-up was the reason for moving them off of their ex’s projects, rather than any sort of professional incompetence or anything that another supervisor might be concerned about.

      Reply
  4. NW Mossy

    Oh, OP, come clean. Do it today. Yes, it’s going to be awkward and painful and possibly paint you in a poor light, but it will be all of those things but worse when it eventually comes to light.

    I look at your ex’s proposed framework for this and I’m not seeing how she intends to explain her desire to remove you from her projects without mentioning the relationship. Frankly, the easiest way for her to do that is to call your professional competence into question. That’s going to hurt your career just as much or more than admitting to fishing off the company pier and losing your hook in the process.

    Just because you broke up with her doesn’t mean that you have to cede control over your own behavior. She can do what she likes, but she didn’t and doesn’t have the right to dictate terms to you about how you conduct yourself at the office. No matter how bad you feel or how much of a jerk you potentially were, that’s not something you owe.

    Reply
    1. AndersonDarling

      I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone knew about the relationship. They have been dating for a year. I would be amazed if no one suspected something was going on. If the supervisor removes the OP from the projects, the supervisor’s manager will probably figure it out right away.
      I agree with coming clean. It’s possible the co-workers have already noticed the relationship soured.

      Reply
      1. Koko

        Agreed. I dated a coworker for a while and we didn’t exactly keep it a secret, but we didn’t announce it either. We didn’t hold hands or kiss or say “I love you” in the office, but we took lunch together once a week, on at least one occasion we bumped into a coworker who lived near him on the street where we were holding hands, and I’m sure people could tell we were quite close from the way we interacted in group settings. By the time we broke up everyone knew we’d been dating…people eventually figure it out and word gets around because discussing other people’s love lives is, let’s face it, a popular activity. My boss “randomly” offered me the opportunity to move to a different office that “happened to be” further from my ex the week after we broke up. She didn’t even work in the same office as me, but people had presumably noticed our sudden lack of cheerful interactions and word had gotten to the office she worked in!.

        Reply
        1. Koko

          And for those who are curious – we did have a couple of tense moments in the weeks after our breakup, but I think we also both felt almost competitive about who could remain the most professional, and whoever cracked emotionally would lose, so there was literally almost no change in our work interactions except we stopped having personal conversations. Writing a perfectly polite email and treating each other respectfully was our way of giving each other the finger and saying, “See how little I care!” to each other.

          Reply
          1. Drew

            Now I’m envisioning the in-person meeting.

            “THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP.” [forced smile]
            “OH IT WAS MY PLEASURE.” [fake thumbs up]
            “IT IS SO WONDERFUL TO HAVE YOU ON MY TEAM.”
            “I THINK YOU MEAN OUR TEAM–” [buzzer sounds, first player scores a point]

            Reply
            1. Koko

              I can’t tell you how many times I wrote emails that just said, “Thank you for your feedback.”

              Reply
    2. Liet-Kynes

      “Frankly, the easiest way for her to do that is to call your professional competence into question.”

      This is a good point. There’s really no way she boots you off her projects without throwing you under the bus and potentially damaging your career, and my concern is that she’s in a headspace where that’s not a bug but a feature.

      In any case, I think OP needs to be very cautious about any kind of sub rosa post-breakup “agreement” that conflates her aggrieved feelings into power over you professionally. She’s already superior to you at work, you broke up with her, and that leaves you a little vulnerable.

      Reply
      1. k

        Agree with this so much. Even if she doesn’t do it intentionally, or tries to avoid the question when asked when she wants you off her project, there’s no way you come off in a positive light.

        Reply
      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I also really worry that OP is giving over too much power. Unless the break up happened in an unusually callous or Jerry Springer-ish way, why should the ex dictate how they work together? It’s like OP spurned her, and now she gets to tinker with OP’s professional life because she’s aggrieved. I really don’t like this.

        Reply
        1. Cleopatra Jones

          I suspect the OP feels guilty about breaking up with her, so he/she is letting her have this concession. The thing is…it really doesn’t matter why OP broke up with her. He/she did it because they were unhappy in the relationship. The OP doesn’t need some big grand reason to justify the break up.* It’s over she needs to deal with professionally and calmly.

          *This is coming from a woman who once broke up with a guy because he dropped 3 lbs sugar all over my kitchen counter and floor. It was after I told him that I would get it out of the cabinet because the top on the container was kinda goofy. He just. would. not. listen. I was not only annoyed AF that he wasted 3 lbs of sugar but that I spent the next few weeks finding sugar in all kind of places.

          Reply
          1. Anon attorney

            I once broke up with a man because he grew a beard. I think that’s probably worse!

            I am an attorney (although not an employment specialist) and I think documenting any of this is a bad idea. If you can trust your ex not to screw you, you don’t need to get anything in writing. If you can’t, the agreement isn’t enforceable anyway and it won’t solve the problem which is one of perception and reputation. All it will do us codify the situation in a way that you won’t be able to get out from under if you need to.

            Is there a senior manager out of your and her chain of command that you trust and could enlist for help in protecting your projects?

            Reply
            1. Artemesia

              Oh yes. A little private written document will make you look like a squirrel — it is middle school thinking. Get out in front. Let your boss know the situation.

              Reply
              1. Artemesia

                And don’t tell her first that you are going to do that. Do it and then talk to her about what you have done. Don’t let her head you off at the pass.

                Reply
          2. nonegiven

            I think I would have paid to see that. “Let me get the sugar myself, it will spill.”

            (spills sugar)

            “get out of my house”

            I have a feeling it wasn’t the first time he ignored what you said.

            Reply
        2. Koko

          Honestly, OP’s ex needs to be a professional and figure out how to work with him, not how to get him off her projects. Will it suck? Yes. But that’s what being a professional is. It’s not letting your personal drama impact your work. The best person should do the work regardless of what outside entanglements and history there might be.

          Reply
        3. TootsNYC

          I think if the OP goes to the boss and says, “Perhaps you know that Claire and I were dating. We’ve broken up, at my instigation. I have every faith that she’ll be able to be professional, but it might still be difficult for her, so if you’d like to not assign me to her projects for a little while, that would be fine with me.”

          The OP looks proactive, looks considerate.
          And the OP speaks only for herself/himself.

          Reply
    3. Thinking Outside the Boss

      In this situation, trust no one. I absolutely agree that the ex is going to throw the OP under the bus. Someone will ask why the OP is being moved off a project. Her response could be anything from “I’m just not seeing eye-to-eye with OP” to “OP is incompetent.” All those things look bad on the OP.

      And yes, since the ex was in a higher position within the organization, if anyone should get in trouble over this, it is her and not the OP.

      Definitely report this to your boss today!

      Reply
      1. Tara

        Yea, I can’t think of a way that this can be presented to the boss without OP coming off looking bad.

        Reply
  5. Liet-Kynes

    I don’t know your ex-girlfriend, OP, but in a situation where nobody has much to lose by getting out in front of the inevitable friction and awkwardness, the fact that the person with more power and clout is telling you stay well behind it looks pretty bad. There’s really nothing to hide here – people date coworkers all the time, even folks slightly off their level on the hierarchy.

    Reply
    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Yep, this is basically what I’m taking away from all this. Even if you two were having a totally amicable split, leaving the whole messaging in her hands would not really be a good idea, and if she’s having trouble with the breakup as you say, you definitely don’t want her to be the only one telling the story!

      Reply
  6. Detective Amy Santiago

    OP – Alison has given you some great advice here. The fact that your ex is having trouble accepting the breakup and is trying to manage how you handle this in the workplace feels a little manipulative to me. Please tread carefully.

    And all the people who commented on yesterday’s update about Anna and Alex wondering why it was even the LW’s business? This is why.

    Reply
    1. Jules the Third

      +1000

      Please, OP, talk to your boss using Allison’s script, unless there’s a workplace rule against dating a coworker.

      Reply
    2. JB (not in Houston)

      It’s not even necessarily intentionally malicious manipulating. The end of the relationship was out of her control, you working there is out of her control, she may well be trying to control the only part of it she thinks she can as her way of coping with the situation of breakup + ex at work. But it doesn’t matter if she’s not intentionally doing anything wrong. As Aunt Margie said above, she’s looking out for herself, and you need to do the same. Think about how things will look to others who don’t know the story. How can she possibly spin pulling you off projects in a way that doesn’t look badly on you without disclosing your relationship?

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        Or even if the relationship IS something people know about.
        In fact, it may look even worse: “Wow, the OP must have been a real asshat, if the Girlfriend doesn’t even want to work w/ the OP on projects!”

        Reply
  7. Amy

    I wouldn’t trust your ex to manage this for you. Even if she really does have your best interests at heart, that’s a lot to trust to someone…and frankly, it sounds like she’s more concerned with her best interests than yours.

    I think you’re more worried about an ‘HR situation’ here than you have to be. Assuming you guys weren’t breaking not a specific policy that explicitly forbid your relationship, it’s just not that big a deal that you dated and then broke up. I think involving HR is actually to your favor here–you can get everything above board, tell them you’re happy to continue working professionally with her, and have some protection if your ex does try to malign your professional competence. Once you have that protection, your ex can take what steps she wants–refusing to work with you, for example–and people will have an idea that it’s about your breakup rather than about your professional reputation.

    Reply
  8. AnotherHRPro

    OP, please report this. You ex wants you removed from her projects. This alone could hurt you professionally as people will wonder why you were pulled of the projects. In addition, you really don’t know how your ex will explain wanting to remove you to your boss.

    Alison is right, as long as your organization does not have a blanket anti-fraternization policy, you haven’t done anything wrong. The reason to report this is to ensure that your ex does do anything (intended or unintended) that could negatively impact you. At the end of the day, it is generally ok to date (and break-up with) co-workers. It is not ok to refuse to work with them.

    Reply
    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      And if there is a policy, it is more likely that the person with the more senior position is the one who is in the wrong for dating a subordinate, regardless of whether they are a direct or indirect report.

      Reply
    2. Liane

      This. (I’m not an HR pro, lawyer, or llama!)
      While, as Alison says, the relationship is unlikely to have violated any policies–I suspect that Ms. Lovelorn’s insisting OP be moved off her projects post-breakup just might.

      Reply
  9. Shadow

    I’m not sure about Alison’s claim that it won’t affect your rep at work. That might be true in companies with really young leaders, but in most professional environments I’ve worked in those who date co workers are seen as either lacking good judgement or professional boundaries.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous Poster

      Yeah I would be concerned about the reputation hit. In all the places I’ve worked, this would have looked like a judgment concern with both parties, and would have raised some serious concerns about everyone involved.

      That said, it’s also time to come clean and make sure that there is no unintentional or otherwise manipulation of the situation in one or the other’s favor, which the company doesn’t want because the company wants you both performing at your best. It’s time to loop someone in.

      Reply
    2. Fictional Butt

      I think the reputation hit of being mysteriously pulled off a bunch of projects would be much worse than the reputation hit of being known to have dated a coworker.

      Reply
      1. Fictional Butt

        …because one implies your work product is bad while the other is really pretty normal. (I realized that explaining my reasoning might be helpful, lol.)

        Reply
      2. AD

        I agree vociferously. Being taken off projects for no clear stated reason sends a message that OP is either inept or worse. That’s certainly not what OP would want, I am guessing.

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      3. paul

        Strongly agreed.

        Look, you might well take a bit of reputation hit coming clean about this, but it’s probably a lot less damaging than watching your ex run you off of all the projects you’re jointly on.

        Reply
      4. Matilda Jefferies (formerly JMegan)

        Exactly. Even taking OP’s ex’s suggestion in the best possible light, she is still asking a monumental thing from the boss. There is just no way that he’s going to rearrange OP’s workload, plus the workload of whoever has to replace them, just because ExGF asked him to. At a bare minimum, he’s going to want to know why all this disruption and extra work is necessary. ExGF is going to have to say *something* to justify this extremely unusual request, and if she’s not going to disclose the relationship, she’s very likely going to say that OP is a terrible person to work with for some reason.

        So I’m agreeing with everyone else saying that you need to get out in front of this, OP – you do not want her to walk into the boss’ office and talk about you, without having a chance to say your piece first. Good luck, it sounds like a horribly uncomfortable situation either way.

        Reply
        1. Aunt Margie at Work

          Exactly. Even, “we don’t work well together” while appearing to spread the blame, forces the boss to chose. And with no criteria to judge one person or the other, the boss’ default should be in favor of the company, the project then the team. Therefore: “The person I chose to lead this group is being hindered by one of the junior team members of this group.” So yeah, OP does not play well with others.

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      5. Emi.

        Agreed. Take the reputational repercussions from dating this woman on the chin, but don’t let her cut you off from exposure and experience.

        Reply
      6. Emmie

        And the long-term professional and potentially financial hit of not having project growth on your resume.

        There’s the potential for this to end badly. I would rather the inevitable occur while I’m being truthful than later after I’ve built a pattern of misleading and dishonesty.

        If your company already has a non-fraternization policy and you’re concerned that you violated it, I’d err on the side of being truthful now. It could help you preserve your reputation and references, mitigate consequences, reduce stress, control the narrative, and maintain a professional environment.

        Reply
    3. JB (not in Houston)

      This really varies. I’ve never worked in any professional setting where dating your coworkers would be considered as showing a lack of good judgment or boundaries. Dating a manager, sure. But as long as people were professional about it, it’s never been an issue in any place I work. That said, I’ve never worked anyplace where–to my knowledge–two people who regularly work together on projects were dating.

      If, however, the OP has a reason to fear telling HR, their workplace may be like Shadow’s.

      Reply
    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I think this varies significantly by employer and based on the roles of the dating coworkers. You’re certainly right that some see it as a sign of poor judgment, but it’s super normal and no big deal at other workplaces.

      But if someone dated a coworker and then went to these lengths to circumvent the system, it would give me greater pause than the fact that a relationship happened.

      Reply
      1. Fictional Butt

        That’s a good point, too. Rearranging stuff behind the boss’s back, without an honest explanation, could make OP (and the girlfriend) look shady and untrustworthy. It’s really up to your boss to decide what projects you work on, and you don’t want to become known as someone who makes secret arrangements with their coworkers to thwart the boss.

        Reply
  10. BethRA

    OP, I’m having a hard time imagining a scenario in which Report A comes to me and asked that Report B not be put on their projects does not raise red flags about both. And not getting what feels like a viable explanation would raise them higher. I might not be thrilled about them coming to me and asking for a temporary reprieve because of a break up, but it would feel more direct and honest.

    Listen to Allison. Your ex may not intend to undermine you, but she’s looking out for her own needs, not yours.

    Reply
      1. BethRA

        They may indeed – but my point is that her intentions don’t matter, and that OP should focus on their own needs and the potential impact of what Ex is planning to do.

        Reply
  11. Liet-Kynes

    Just in general, regarding workplace relationships: when you date a coworker, you’re signing up for some conditions, one of which is that you won’t get to indulge in ceremonial post-breakup radio silence. Dating a coworker, therefore, really can’t be a thing unless you have the emotional maturity to suck it up, act professional and civil, and deal with their presence in your work life if and when it comes to an end. If you can’t handle that, don’t date at work. And if you do it anyway, don’t indulge yourself in crappy retaliatory nonsense or try to build a firewall against all professional conduct, because it makes you look infantile.

    Reply
    1. shannanigans

      YES. Everyone who is considering dating a coworker should have to read and agree to this comment.

      Reply
    2. Anon for This

      Yes. I was in a relationship with a colleague many years ago. Due to the nature of our jobs, we had to keep that relationship very quiet and, when it ended abruptly and somewhat harshly, we had to continue to be absolutely professional to each other. Publicly, we acted no differently than we ever had, but we did not have a conversation outside of work for almost a year.

      Reply
    3. neverjaunty

      Small disagreement with your otherwise excellent point: everybody who dates a co-worker is 100% convinced that they are emotionally mature enough to be civil and professional if things go south.

      Reply
  12. Mike C.

    Yeha, holy crap, don’t let your Ex kick you off of your projects! All that work you’ve done will be for naught and if you’re thought of as so useless that you can just be removed without consequence then that paints a giant target on your back. Talk to HR right now!

    Reply
    1. Adlib

      This will also hurt your reputation with clients if you work closely with them. In my industry, relationships with clients is everything! It would look really odd/suspect to a client to be pulled off a project suddenly.

      Reply
  13. Chatterby

    It is going to seem very strange to your boss if, all of a sudden, you’re no longer on multiple projects. In the absence of the simple explanation of “We broke up, and she would like some space”, it would be easy to conclude it was because of your work quality, or ability to get along with teammates.
    It also doesn’t seem fair that she gets to keep ALL of the projects. If she is so determined to avoid you, she can step away from as many shared projects as you are.

    Reply
  14. MuseumChick

    Don’t date a co-worker. There are just so many things that can go wrong. And, usually, you are not as inconspicuous as you think you are. I would bet mony several people already suspect the two of you are (were) involved.

    Reply
    1. Justme

      Isn’t it a little late to be giving the OP that advice? They did date a co-worker, and now need some legitimate help. Telling them that their relationship was a mistake from the beginning isn’t helping the situation at all.

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Yeah; I find these statements kind of unhelpful to OP. I don’t think MuseumChick or others mean it this way, but it has a tinge of moralizing that reads as “you deserve this because you made a bad decision.”

        Reply
        1. Falling Diphthong

          Though it is helpful advice to anyone who didn’t see what the problem was with Anna and Alex, because what are the chances two people break up and one of them is hurt and angry and wants space?

          Reply
          1. neverjaunty

            Yeah, it’s not so much advice to the OP as it is continuing a conversation from another discussion, which is not all that helpful here.

            Reply
  15. val

    I wish the OP would come in and explain the ‘potential ramifications’ issue. Unless there is stated policy — and if there is, the relationship was way beyond ‘not smart’ — then that sounds like an excuse to take control of the narrative.

    Reply
    1. i2c2

      Speculation, but I wondered if this might have been a same-gender relationship in a workplace where that would not be looked at kindly.

      Reply
        1. SarahTheEntwife

          That greatly depends on where they are. Many US states have no protection for sexual orientation and there’s none at the federal level. :-/

          Reply
        2. Gaia

          I live in a pretty progressive state and HR most definitely would *not* be required to protect them from that here. Thankfully my HR *would* do so, but there is no law in my state that requires it and that is true for the majority of US states and sexual orientation is not a federally protected class (yet, I hope).

          Reply
    2. Aunt Margie at Work

      I am 100% with you on that impression.
      As I read OP’s question regarding what to do about the breakup, I really felt the all language came from ex-GF supervisor. It seems she is laying groundwork (and successfully) to build a post relationship work environment without OP in it. She told him: don’t tell anyone at work, step down from work assignments. She is going to wipe him from her world personally and professionally and he better go along because…well, because her veiled threats to his career indicate that she knows she has more to lose.

      Reply
  16. Jessesgirl72

    OP, this is how I see it- I don’t know if you both are really going to get in trouble with HR for having dated. (I suspect that not being her direct report wasn’t really good enough for the fraternization rules, since you DO report to her. And if that is the case, you are not the one who is going to take the brunt of the consequences- for the very reason the rules get put in place!) But regardless, if you let it happen the way your Ex wants, it’s going to negatively impact your professional reputation there because she suddenly wants you off her projects. I strongly suggest that you go directly to your boss and report this. If you didn’t know there is something fishy here, you wouldn’t have written into Alison about it. Don’t let your guilt for having ended the relationship let her manipulate you and your future at the company.

    Also, it’s probably a good idea to polish up your resume and start looking around at what jobs are out there.

    Reply
      1. Jessesgirl72

        It depends on the structure, but I have worked in two companies where it’s been so… let’s say fluid to be polite… that even though someone didn’t have the power to fire or determine raises over someone more junior, they did have a large amount of control over directing their work and the power balance was pretty unequal. It’s the power imbalance, and not the actual titles or report structure that makes the situation ripe for abuse- as you well know (SEE, I overexplain! LOL) , and is why HR frowns upon it. He even says as much- that it’s because she can impact his assignments that HR would intervene, and even in her statement that she’s so high up that he’s the one easily replaced.

        It doesn’t make any material difference, but wanted to point out it’s not best practice to try to be that legalistic with HR.

        Reply
  17. OP

    OP here. Thank you Alison for your input on this, and thank you to the commenters for your earnest replies/questions.
    I’d like to provide a bit of an update and hopefully address some questions being raised as well.

    Since this has all happened – and there’s been some time for processing emotions – my ex and I have had the chance to have a calm and rational conversation about this. The outcome being “Option 1”. We agreed that we would remain on the same projects and won’t move of of anything we’d be working on as part of the same team, with the understanding that, yes at first it’ll be a little awkward from time to time, which is understandable shortly after a break up.

    Ours being a large corporation, they do discourage relationships of this kind with people that are able to impact things like assignments. I don’t report or have ever reported to my ex – in fact when this first started we reported into completely different teams, which later changed – but it would fall under that guideline. In this kind of environment and situation our supervisor might be, or feel, obligtated to report it to HR if we were to disclose it.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m glad you’re here in the comments! Can you say more about what makes you think there would be severe consequences if HR knew about it? Even with this additional info, it doesn’t sound like that would be the case.

      Reply
      1. OP

        I don’t know how severe they could be, but I understand things like this raises a flag about people involved for being a possible liability. I assume if would also impact reputation, accountibility, judgement,etc. At least that’s what the concern would be. It’s really just not knowing what could happen in general that has been concerning. Big companies being risk averse, it might be construed as some kind of liablity they’d rather get rid off. I do realize I might be exaggerating it in my head, but I’m not very knowledgeable about these things.

        Reply
        1. Liet-Kynes

          My feeling is that you’re exaggerating it. People date coworkers all the time, and it’s not necessarily a liability. Where your reputation and judgment start getting called into question is, ironically enough, if one plays high school games like demanding one’s ex be taken off all one’s projects and otherwise making a spectacle out of things.

          Reply
          1. Jessesgirl72

            I don’t think he’s exaggerating. I think he’s trying to downplay the power differential between them. It’s that which makes companies worry about liability. I know someone who had to be transferred after someone called the ethics hotline to complain when coworkers got engaged. They had reported their relationship early on and she wasn’t technically his direct report, but she still was junior and worked on his projects and he was the one who determined her work, if not her raises/promotions. HR and Legal decided the only way to prevent trouble was to transfer her out of the department (and building) entirely. Which also froze both their careers with the company, because the company wouldn’t risk that either of them would end up connected again.

            Reply
          2. mimsie

            This really doesn’t ring true to me either. From my experience it’s the opposite attitude in a large company. For a small company, sure. Any ramifications from a relationship with a coworker may impact the atmosphere of the whole office. But I worked for a huge multi-national several years ago and I can name enough couples dating within the company using both my hands and my feet (In fact I met my husband at that job!) . Similarly in a 1200 person company I worked at, although that had fewer couples. Note: I mean dating peers or people in different departments. Dating direct reports was absolutely forbidden. But your co-worker from a different department? They couldn’t care two licks as long as you stayed professional. You’d probably get eyes rolled if you even “reported” the relationship.

            OP who is feeding you this information? Are you just making assumptions or was this part of official work induction or from your manager?

            Reply
            1. OP

              It’s largely me making assumption, but partly based on feedback I’ve gotten from friends and other people (not anyone from work).

              Reply
        2. Shadow

          Hr frowns upon coworkers dating because it frequently forces the company to get involved in what should be non work related issues.

          Reply
        3. val

          OP, thanks so much for clarifying! I suspect that especially since the two of you started this relationship before you were even on the same team, it wouldn’t be seen as a big deal. The much bigger deal is having the breakup affect your ability to work together, and it sounds like the two of you have moved past that.

          Reply
        4. Aunt Margie at Work

          We have 1400 people. Right now from my cube I can see two women who are married to men who work here. Walk down the hall and pass a man and woman who are married to two other people. They all met while working here. I ‘m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s a reality of the workplace. This is new to you and the break up puts you under stress. I’m glad your ex had the time to rethink and act appropriately.

          Reply
        5. AnotherHRPro

          OP – I work for a very large, very old, very conservative Fortune 100 company (they don’t get much more conservative or risk adverse than my company). The reality is, the bigger and more conservative the organization, the safer it is to report such things. Having a relationship with a co-worker may be frowned up (mostly due to issues like this and pure convenience of being able to move people around without having to deal with relationships) but it happens ALL OF THE TIME. If things go sideways with your ex, please know that you can and should report it. You do not want to end up in a situation where you are being retaliated against because you broke up with her. A large corporation will have a non-retaliation policy in place. This is in place to protect people from being unfairly impacted negatively due to things that should not be considered in the work-place (in your example, breaking up with a person).

          Reply
        6. Gaia

          I hope you know, OP, if that is true that it would reflect far worse on your Ex than on you. She is the one in the position of power that should have known better.

          Reply
        7. Jessie the First (or second)

          OP – can you clarify what you mean by “being a possible liability”? That’s a vague term. Liability for what? Basically, I am trying to get at: I am skeptical that you need to actually keep this quiet and under wraps, as long as your company did not actually forbid dating coworkers (skeptical of your ex, I mean, not of you). That means the company doesnt consider it to be a terrible thing, just something that maybe can get messy – in which case, they may well rather know so that they can be aware of, and head off if needed, any inappropriate pushing-my-ex-off-project activity.

          Reply
          1. OP

            With that I basically mean being seen as someone who got involved in a situation that – in the worst case – could potentially lead to issues around harrassement, etc, basically a headache for the company. Not that this is currently the case, but again, corporations can be very risk-averse about those things.

            Reply
        8. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          OP, thank you so much for responding! I’m also really glad that your ex has come around to sucking it up and dealing with the fact that you are both on the same teams. My fingers are crossed that things will be fine after the initial awkward period.

          When you talk about being a “liability,” do you mean in the sexual harassment sense? (That’s the only thing that makes sense to me if you have two people of different seniority levels who work together dating.) Otherwise, I think you may be overestimating how severe the repercussions of disclosure may be, which is something to think about if things deteriorate going forward. I’m wishing you peace and good luck—no one deserves to have a roiling stomach at work :(

          Reply
        9. Grecko

          OP, please got to HR. If they’re worried about liability then if something comes out they’re going to be extra mad you didn’t come forward before.

          Reply
  18. Contracts Killer

    I was in a similar situation where my company knowingly hired my then-boyfriend into my department. We shared a supervisor. When we broke up, I requested he not tell anyone for a month. My main reason was I wanted to be able to tell my coworkers nonchalantly and hopefully they would see the last month’s working relationship had not been different than before. Secretly, and this one I’m not proud of, I also didn’t want anyone to know so he wouldn’t try dating any coworkers right away. I wonder if OP’s boss is thinking the same thing.

    Reply
  19. ThePM

    Please consider the ramifications to YOUR career of letting her control the narrative (good way to describe what’s going on here!). Removing you from her projects? Are they good projects that provide good visibility for you? Then, nope. How exactly would she remove you from her projects without explaining why, in a manner that isn’t detrimental to you? She’s (attempting to) punishing you in the only way she can control, FYI.

    Here’s what I’d do – first, go to your ex, and say that you’ve thought about it and you’re uncomfortable with her proposal from a professional standpoint. Propose that the two of you speak to the manager together, explain that you’ve dated for over a year and have broken up amicably but are committed to being professional. Propose any accomodations that you’d like / that make sense / don’t impact the company. Then drop it with the boss and coworkers and move on.

    If your ex refuses, tell her you will be discussing with boss and do it as factually and without emotion as possible. FWIW, I would tell the boss that you broke it off, there is some hurt and anger, and while you believe ex will be professional, she has expressed a desire that you not work together. Express that you want to be sensitive but you also want to continue to excel, progress, etc.

    Note – is there a controversial aspect to this relationship (in the context of your professional setting) that is influencing this situation at all? Along the lines of a same sex relationship in a Catholic organization (for example) or where there is a bizarre moral expectation / code that you’ve run afoul of. That might be important to the advice being provided here, and my advice might change if this was job-threatening.

    Reply
  20. Janelle

    Something about his letter makes me think that he is the issue not her. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is but something smells wrong to me here. I suspect her “lashing out” was likely more just a simple being hurt and not a huge deal. It seems she simply said “get out of my space” and he is making it into a HUGE thing.

    Reply
    1. LQ

      If someone who controls the business areas I work in part of the time said get out of my space? That would be a huge thing. Leaving the home or shared living space I get. But get out of my space when that is literally my job to be there? That’s a lot harder. Yes she might be hurt, but you have to be able to behave better than that if you are going to date coworkers. (And honestly? I couldn’t, so I won’t.)

      Reply
      1. Janelle

        I agree. I was more saying she just wants a break from him. Not that it is necessarily doable but I get her thought process. I just spoke to my ex out of necessity and my brain is currently saying “please go away!” haha

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          She can’t have a break from him; that’s part of the deal when you date someone you work with. It sucks, but that’s the bargain (unless she’s willing to leave).

          Anyway, I don’t get that from the letter at all. It’s pretty fact-based rather than emotion-based, and what she’s asked for isn’t reasonable.

          Reply
        2. Liet-Kynes

          And like I said above: when you date a coworker, you implicitly accept some realities of that situation, including the fact that you don’t get a break from them when and if the relationship ends. The “I can’t see your face for six months!” reaction is understandable and natural, but it’s also not a realistic demand from the situation. If you need that, you need to date outside the workplace exclusively.

          Reply
        3. Chosen One

          I think your own situation may be clouding your take on this more than you realise. I hope you can find some peace.

          Reply
    2. Future Homesteader

      Interesting – I don’t get this vibe at all. I definitely know how sometimes people believe their being wronged during breakups by small things, when they’re perhaps in the wrong, but I got the completely opposite sense here. OP seems to be quite conciliatory toward the ex, when the ex has asked for concrete steps that seem (to me) to be out of line and not in OP’s best interest.

      Reply
    3. AvonLady Barksdale

      Eh, I don’t agree. I think they’re both acting kind of rashly– first, hers is an immediate reaction to being dumped, which sucks. Second, she was all, “I don’t want you on my projects,” and his immediate reaction is to say, “Whoa, what do we do, what happens now, etc.” which I think is pretty normal for these situations. I think, especially given the OP’s comment above, that emotions are riding high and they simply haven’t had a lot of time to process.

      To be honest, I don’t think either one of them is an issue. I don’t see either of them as vindictive– maybe a little professionally misguided and trying to protect themselves in the wake of some understandable hurt.

      Reply
      1. OP

        Thanks. Yes, I think it’s more this than anything. Emotions were really running high and both of us were on the defensive in a way. Things have fortunately settled down quite a bit after. For me it was never about escalating anything, but I wanted to have outside perspective and feedback, which is why I wrote in.

        Reply
      1. Tobias Funke

        Same. I’m reading an undercurrent of “she became so crazy when I started treating her bad” in this. But I am struggling to put my finger on it.

        Reply
  21. Lily in NYC

    I think the update from OP (thanks OP!) is reassuring. I was going to write that the GF needs to suck it up and deal – if you are willing to have a romantic relationship with a coworker, then you need to be mature about it when it ends. But it sounds like she cooled off after a bit.

    People were so shocked when a coworker and I broke up because we still sat next to each other in our morning meeting the next day and joked around with each other. I guess they expected us to act differently, but I would never have gotten involved with him if I wasn’t positive that we would both handle a breakup without drama.

    Reply
  22. Misquoted

    I’m getting a “something’s missing” vibe as well. Either the company is very old-fashioned or in an industry where dating a coworker is really a no-no (not sure what that would be), or there’s a piece of this puzzle that’s just missing.
    But, yeah, trying to get a coworker off of a project for some made-up work-related reason just seems so very odd that it would raise eyebrows at the very least. I, too, am interested in why the OP feels HR would come down so hard on them for having dated and then broken up. It happens, and yeah, there’s the risk of not being able to work together comfortably, but coworkers know that risk going in, and it shouldn’t turn into a scheme like originally described.

    Reply
    1. OP

      The concern wasn’t that they would come down hard on us merely for having dated, but that they would for having it impact our work and projects by me having to move off of them. I hope that is clearer.

      Reply
  23. LSP

    In an attempt at being fair, you should consider telling your ex that you have thought about your agreement and feel uneasy about the potential effect it could have on your career. You would prefer to speak to your boss about it, and hopefully she’ll be willing to come with you and discuss this together, so everyone is in the know. Unless you think she might try to find a way to seriously torpedo you, I think it’s the kind thing to do to let her know you’ve changed your mind.

    If she isn’t willing to come with you and fights against you bringing in your boss, just calmly and firmly tell her that you have to do what is best for you, and that you hope she can understand.

    Beyond that, if she keeps fighting against this plan, or refuses to speak to the boss about it herself, she’s going to paint herself in a bad light, and you will end up looking more professional.

    Reply
  24. RegularAnon

    So I’m nonmonogamous (I love my spouse but they have medical and psychological issues that make it hard to have sex often, and some common sex acts for queer people like us are right off the table with her. So we agreed it’s okay for me to occasionally have casual sex, and she is bi and can sleep with a dude sometime if she wants).

    Anyway, I am just glad I never dated anyone from work who I see daily! My advice is first to NOT do that, but that ship has sailed, so remain professional and friendly. Even if she can’t manage that, you’ll come off the better for it. But you should disclose if she is harming your work or reputation.

    Even dating someone not as close to you at work can be a bit awkward; I didn’t know when I met her, but I later discovered that the woman I am casually boffing…is my organization’s IT person. Argh.

    Reply
  25. LiveAndLetDie

    OP, considering you have said that your ex is already lashing out at you outside of work, I would not trust her to be kind to you when giving a “not the breakup” reason for removing you from her projects. Please consider going to HR and being honest. Think about it this way, you have two scenarios: First, you’re removed from her projects for whatever reason she comes up with, charitable or not, resulting in a professional reputation ding on your part. Second, you come clean to HR about your relationship, which if it’s not against any policy at your office may only affect you on the social-repuation-at-work level, and if it *is* against policy, it’s more likely to ding your ex due to the power differential. Coming clean to HR is in your best interest professionally speaking.

    Reply
    1. LiveAndLetDie

      I see now that I’ve commented that you’ve replied, OP, I’m glad to hear it went well. :)

      Reply
  26. kms1025

    Having met (and subsequently married) my best friend/spouse at work 16 years ago, the non-fraternization advice has always kind of amazed me? Of course dating a co-worker is potentially awash with crises, but so is dating in general. OP it sounds like you and your EX are handling this as best you can. Just continue to tread carefully and don’t allow any guilt to lull you into accepting job restrictions that aren’t inherently fair to BOTH of you.

    Reply
  27. phil

    I’ve been in this exact situation: I dated my manager-but she wasn’t my direct supervisor-for 3 years before we broke up.
    And it worked out fine. Not only no problems at work but we remained friends until her death 35 years late.
    So it can be done but depends totally on the people involved.

    Reply
  28. Czhorat

    I think everyone else pretty well covered this. I’ll add that you need to give a reason to the boys an HR because having someone not want to work with you for an unspecified reason is a bad thing. It’s the first step to being considered a problem child and not worth keeping around

    I’m all honesty, this reflects badly on both of you in terms of professionalism. All you can do is minimize the damage to yourself and, as others have said, not let the ex control the narrative.

    Reply
  29. Philosophy Prof...

    What she’s proposing seems a lot like sexual harassment to me. Reverse the genders and imagine a young woman being moved off of project so because she broke up with an older senior male colleague.

    Reply
  30. JD

    I’ll come clean here and admit, I was the woman who got dumped (not in this actual situation, but in one that sounds nearly identical). I told him I wanted him off my projects. This was not me trying to exert dominance, nor damage his career in any way. This was me trying not to fall into grief so deep, I could never recover. Fortunately and graciously, he was able to find another role in the company that suited him and he moved to that department. Unfortunately and ungraciously, I still saw him all the time. I never got over him, probably never will, and the only way the heartache mildly subsided was when he left the company altogether. Just offering this perspective as a way of saying, not all bitter heartbroken demands are means to revenge or spite.

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      That may be so, but they’re still unreasonable demands, and they can unfairly harm somebody’s career whether or not you are actually trying to do so.

      Reply

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