if you must have an office romance, here’s how to keep it professional

There are lots of good reasons not to date coworkers, but if you’re already caught up in a workplace romance, that advice doesn’t do you any good. Instead, your challenge now is how to make sure your relationship doesn’t jeopardize your professional reputation or make the rest of your coworkers uncomfortable.

We’ll get to that. But first, it’s worth noting that there are lots of good reasons not to date coworkers.

• You won’t be able to get away from work. When you and your significant other share the same professional world, it’s hard to avoid talking about work and colleagues, even when you’re trying to have a romantic dinner.

• You might become un-promotable. You won’t be able to accept any promotion that would have you managing your significant other since well-run companies won’t let you manage someone you’re romantically involved with.

• A breakup will be even worse than usual. If the relationship ends, you’ll still be seeing the other person every day, which isn’t good if you’re trying to put the person out of your mind.

Of course, if you’re already caught up in a workplace romance, that advice won’t do you any good now. Instead, your challenge is how to handle the relationship at work, so that you don’t jeopardize your professional reputation or make the rest of your coworkers uncomfortable.

The biggest key here is to be aware of why people get uncomfortable around office romances, so that you avoid those things. Specifically, coworkers and especially managers tend to worry about these issues.

• Will you and your significant other be able work on projects together professionally?

• Will you be inappropriately romantic or touchy-feely in front of other people?

• Will your personal loyalties cause bias in your work, particularly if one of you has control over something, such as budgeting or schedules?

• Will you each end up fighting the other’s battles? For example, if one of you is fired or treated in a way that you feel is unfair, will it affect the morale and working relationships of the other person?

• Will the relationship cause drama or tension in the office if you have a fight or break up?

Some of those concerns aren’t ones you can easily address. After all, no one can predict how a breakup might go. But you can assuage many of the other concerns by being scrupulously professional in your dealings with each other and with other people, and making a particular point of not trying to influence projects or feedback in your significant other’s favor.

You should also follow these five cardinal rules of office romance.

1. No public displays of affection. None. No hugging, no hand-holding, no caressing. These might seem like minor actions to you, but they will jump out as inappropriate to your coworkers and make everyone feel queasy. Spare them that.

2. Don’t close the door if you’re in the office alone together. You don’t need people speculating on whether you’re really talking about the Jones account or whether something more personal is going on. Keep the door open, and keep a reasonable distance from each other.

3. Don’t sit together at meetings. People are already seeing you as a unit, so do your professional reputation the favor of reinforcing that you’re still functioning independently at work. If you sit together, people will chalk it up to “couple behavior.” If you sit apart, people are likely to appreciate the nod to professional boundaries.

4. Don’t let people pass messages through you to your partner. If someone asks you where your significant other is today or why she wasn’t at that meeting, direct the inquiry back to your partner. Just pleasantly say, “I don’t know where he is.” Or say, “You should check with her directly.” At work, you’re not each other’s partners. You’re colleagues like everyone else.

5. Keep issues that arise between the two of you out of the office. If you’re having a fight, or there’s tension in the relationship, it’s crucial that you both leave it at the office door when you come to work. That means that you need to speak pleasantly to each other in meetings and continue to work together collaboratively if your jobs require it. It’s not fair to coworkers to make them accommodate relationship troubles.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Clever Name*

    My sister met her husband at work and started dating when they were both employed at the same place. I think their relationship didn’t cause any problems because they worked for a large organization in completely different departments, and their work never overlapped.

    1. CaliCali*

      I think the size of an organization is a HUGE consideration when talking about dating coworkers. I met my now-husband at work, but the org has 100K+ people, and we were based at different sites (we were temporarily working on a project together, but otherwise our paths didn’t cross). Couples meeting at this workplace was incredibly common, since even the individual campuses had thousands of people. I did end up working with my husband at certain points (throughout dating, engagement, and marriage), but we followed the rules above: no PDA, not being “coupled” in work contexts, and keeping anything at home out of work.

      And yes, the first problem Alison mentions WAS a big issue! But I work at a different organization now, so work doesn’t creep into our home life nearly as often.

      1. Solidus Pilcrow*

        Very true about the size of the org and where each half of the couple works. The husband of one of my co-workers also worked for the same fairly large company, but in a very different department and in a different building. We never saw him and, I assume, his co-workers never saw her. The only indication that my co-worker’s spouse was also an employee what that he would occasionally get company-wide announcements from his manager before our manager distributed them. (These were never confidential or controversial announcements – it was limited to if the company decided to close early because of weather or sometimes they’d decide to let people get an early start on a major holiday weekend.)

    2. Mike C.*

      Yeah, size is a huge thing. A great deal of my coworkers have ex-spouses who work here, but because it’s so large it never becomes an issue.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      This. I don’t think it would be wise to date someone who worked on the same floor, let alone the same department. I always err on the side of what-if-we-broke-up.

  2. K.*

    My former coworker met her husband at the first company she worked for (she was laid off – not because of him, her department was eliminated – and he still works there) and as a result, was always encouraging single folks at our office to look to other single folks there because that had worked for her. I strongly prefer not to mix business with pleasure, so I eventually had to tell her to quit nudging me whenever she walked past a guy who wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. (Pickings were very slim anyway – there were a lot of “not my types” there.) There were a fair amount of couples at our company, including a rumored affair between a VP and one of his most prominent direct reports (both married to other people).

    1. Allison*

      Ugh, that’s so obnoxious! I’m dealing with something similar where I work, a coworker told me someone in the company had a crush on me, but despite me telling her I wasn’t interested she seems intent on seeing us get together. Probably because I’m in my mid 20’s and not in a relationship headed for marriage, and she feels the need to help fix that.

      It’s one thing if two people in the office happen to fall for each other and decide they want to take the risk, but to encourage a relationship between two coworkers is super inappropriate, regardless of the reason.

      1. K.*

        Yeah, it got to be annoying. She was really into being married, so she thought everyone should be married (and have kids – she was horrified when she learned that her friend and friend’s husband didn’t plan to have children). When I laid down the law about not mixing business with pleasure, she started asking if I was online dating. “[Other coworker] met her husband on Match! Have you tried that?” I actually was online dating at the time, with some success, but I kept it vague with her. I just didn’t want her all up in my business.

  3. some1*

    Expanding on #3, I used to work with a husband & wife who were nice enough, but every meeting where they both were turned into the Jane and Wakeen Show where they ended up spending a lot of time talking about their family, vacation, etc. I can see how it would be easy to go there when you work with your spouse but it can be kind of annoying for everyone else.

  4. Lily in NYC*

    Ha, I’ve only had one office romance ever, and oddly enough, it was when I worked at USNews, which is where Alison’s article is posted!

    We were friends for 4 years before we dated and I knew that we would both handle things maturely. We broke up because he was going to move to work out of the NY office (I lived in DC back then). It was so funny to see coworkers’ reactions after we broke up – it’s like they were hoping for drama. We had an edit meeting every morning and everyone was staring at me when I walked in. But we disappointed them – I walked in and sat next to him and we laughed about something and that was it. The boss’ gossipy EA tried to start a rumor that we broke up because he was a cheater but I actually confronted her and told her to shut her fat mouth (I generally don’t respond to that kind of crap but I knew it was the only way to stop her).

  5. lionelrichiesclayhead*

    I met my boyfriend at work three years ago and the best decision we made was to basically keep it a complete secret at work, even to those who we considered friends. Just because they are your work friend doesn’t mean they don’t have a big mouth! People found out eventually but it wasn’t until we had been together for almost 2 years. It was basically old news before it was news! I’ve since left that job and most people still didn’t know at my going away party.

    I definitely agree with Allison’s point about the issue of bringing work home. Especially since I left that job, I want to be supportive to my boyfriend but I also don’t really want to hear all about the drama at the office. I left because it was killing me mentally and emotionally and being reminded of that is sometimes hard. Fortunately I moved on to a much better job so that makes it easier but work relationships can definitely make it hard to get that separation.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I remember being really, really surprised to hear that two people I’d worked with at the same place were getting married. I’d had no idea they were dating. Maybe a few other people did know, but if so, they were discreet as well.

      They worked in different departments that interacted regularly (like, design and manufacturing; or similar).

  6. em2mb*

    I think Allison’s advice is spot-on. I work with two married couples (in an office of about 20), and this describes both couples quite well. Neither of the couples work directly with each other so I think it helps make things less uncomfortable for the people around them. One of the couples is older and usually takes lunch together. You’ll see them walking around the nature lake that’s across the street from our building. They save the kids/home chatter for these strolls. The other couple is younger. I know they use Gchat if they want to talk about something not related to work during the day.

    The one note I would add is that if you do have couples in a smaller office like ours, your contingency plans should take that into account. For example, last year one of the couples had an unexpected death in her family and they both ended up being out for about a week. We could have planned better that if she was unable to do her job for some reason, his capacity to do his would also be limited (in this case, they both went out to California for the funeral). Now the younger couple is having a baby, and I know we learned from what happened last fall with the other couple that if she needs to start her maternity leave early, it will also impact when he takes his paternity leave and plan accordingly.

    1. TootsNYC*

      If the romance gets serious, the other thing to remember is this: If your company tanks, you will BOTH lose your jobs.

  7. Samantha*

    There are plenty of reasons not to get involved with someone you work with, but at the same time I know several people who have met their spouses at work, including me. The organization we worked for at the time was fairly small and fairly gossipy and we didn’t want to deal with the rumor mill and other issues that arise when the whole office knows you’re dating, so we kept it under wraps for 8 months, until I found another job and left the organization. It wasn’t the only reason I left, but at that point we knew we wanted to get married and I definitely didn’t want to work at the same organization as my spouse (too much togetherness, all your eggs in one basket, etc). Looking back I’m glad we handled it the way we did, even though toward the end we were both getting tired of keeping it a secret!

  8. Dawn*

    I have massive respect for my current company’s President and CEO (wife and husband team)- the company is over 20 years old and you would absolutely *never* know they were married unless you were told. Even though they have the same last name I still had to ask to get confirmation- they don’t even commute together. Absolutely the most professional working relationship between a married couple I’ve ever seen.

  9. Cambridge Comma*

    I met my fiancee at work. (‘We found love in a hopeless place’ is ‘our’ song.)
    I left 5 months later. Probably after being really irritating to everyone else.

  10. Koko*

    Alison, what’s your take on the promote-ability of someone whose ex would end up in their management line? Does it make a difference how long ago they broke up, how well they’ve worked together since then, or is it still just a no-no?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ooof, great question. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but in general I wouldn’t want to promote someone to a role where they’d be in a management line over an ex. Too much potential for issues. (That doesn’t mean they’d be unpromotable, but it does mean that it would be an issue that would need addressing, such as by ensuring that person had a different line of management, which may or may not be practical.)

  11. Bend & Snap*

    The head of my department met his wife at work (different company). His POV is that when you work all the time, where else are you going to meet someone? They’ve been married a long time and have a beautiful family.

  12. Evan Þ*

    Good reminders should I ever get into this situation. Of course, even here at Very Large Software Company, there are very few young women in programming…

    But back on-topic, I think there can be a few exceptions when passing messages to your partner can be appropriate. For example, two math teachers at my high school were married. They were great at #1, 2, and 3, so it hardly ever came up – except a couple times when Mrs. R. let one of her students turn in an assignment late after she knew she’d be off campus, so she said to just hand it to her husband. I guess this’d be rarer in most other jobs where things could be emailed, but it could happen.

    1. learningToCode*

      23 yr old software engineer here… how you doin’? ;)

      Though, seriously, there’s very little single guys in tech as well. Though coding has such a reputation for long hours, it would make sense for all the coupling to happen here. Don’t need to explain working late to a spouse every day, don’t really meet anyone outside of work anyway, etc

  13. Leslie Knope's Waffle*

    I’ve only dated one person I met through work. It was years ago, but it still makes me cringe. At the time, I was in charge of a small team of entry-level employees. Shortly after one of the employees (“Ted”) left the company, Ted and I started dating. People assumed that Ted and I were dating while he still worked at the “Parks & Recreation Dept” but that wasn’t the case at all.

    We dated for a few months before Ted started cheating on me. I found out via FB that I had been dumped (ouch!). After that experience, I promised myself that I would never date another coworker. Luckily, I’m now engaged to a wonderful man, so hopefully there won’t be any dating in my future. ;)

  14. Witty Nickname*

    I met my husband at work. I did end up leaving the company at one point, and was able to easily get back in a couple years later (we got married in the interim), which would not have been possible if we hadn’t followed Alison’s rules and kept everything professional when we were dating. We did work in the same department (reporting to the same manager) for the first few months after that, but we both moved into other positions pretty quickly after that. Now, we work on the same projects from time to time, but otherwise, don’t have a lot of interaction at work (we try to eat lunch together when we can, but these days that seems to be maybe once a week).

    Because we are both hardworking, conscientious, and good at what we do, we’ve built strong professional reputations; so when people find out that we are married, that’s just one minor detail in all of the info they have about us.

    Sometimes work does follow us home, but I’m the type of person who would do that even if we didn’t work together, and he’s good about telling me when to shut up about work already, so we don’t let it get out of control.

  15. UKAnon*

    I’d add another, personally : if you are in the same team in any way (not line management, but department perhaps) give your manager a professional and discreet heads up. I found out on the grapevine about a romance between two team members, and although neither one was managing the other there was seniority disparity. Because it was not mentioned to me, I had big concerns that confidential performance or other management issues could get back to the more junior team member, and it massively impacted my opinion of the professionalism of the more senior team member. This could have been easily avoided with a quick conversation that told me the basics of what was going on and assured me that no professional boundaries would be overstepped.

  16. cleo*

    I used to work in academia, where married couples are very common. I met my husband at work, my dean met her husband at work, I think the college president met his wife at work, when they were both professors. It was usually not a problem – once I had to firmly remind a co-worker that while they thought they were complaining about their spouse they were actually complaining about my colleague and putting me in a very awkward position.

    And it was really hard to leave work at work. I’m glad that my spouse and I no longer work at the same place.

    1. Fawn*

      I’d venture to say that it’s not just academia in the formal sense, but in post-secondary institutions overall. I think the norm of having a long-term career on campus, a wide variety of departments and offices, and, often, being one of the largest employers for a given area tends to foster an environment where this exists. It is very, very normal for people to have spouses who work on campus where I’m at.

    2. fposte*

      That’s a really good point–that it means the usually acceptable complaints about an offstage spouse are now trash-talking your audience’s colleague, so you have to be more circumspect about basic daily life irritations.

  17. Lisa*

    I think (based on the situation I’m dealing with that I’ve posted about here in open threads) that there’s another cardinal rule missing: If the relationship starts to go downhill, go extra out of your way to make sure the other person feels like they can break up with you without affecting the working relationship. I can imagine couples staying together way longer than they should because the person who wants out is too scared of losing their job and their relationship at the same time. Even if there isn’t a huge power differential, if the other person is just more popular at work…

  18. videogame Princess*

    Idea for ask a manager fanfic: An office couple where one of them is a complete jerk and dates another person in the office without telling the first, and has the first show the second person how to be a good SO before the actual breakup occurs.

  19. Hotstreak*

    To avoid issues, focus your social networking within departments that are as separate from yours as possible. If you like three people, don’t date the one who sits directly next to you!

    Since you are working together you are able to contact the person relatively easily, so there’s no need to ask a lot of people on dates, and get rejected or just not get past 1 or 4 dates. Take the time to get to know them a bit before things become romantic and you will better avoid the reputation of the serial dater. Once someone has been on a few dates they will never look at you the same in a professional context (and see Alison’s note above about not allowing ex’s to manage each other – could be terrible for the career!).

  20. SAHM*

    I’m another who met their spouse at work. But in my case it was the college bookstore that we were both working at, which, because it’s college, might not really closely follow these guidelines. Everyone knew we were dating but besides me flirting with him a bit at work (I was a cashier and he was IT/the computer guy), it never affected how I worked. I doubt I’d ever have dated anyone at any of the places I worked post-college, but I never had to make that choice!

  21. newreader*

    My husband was hired to work at my organization about 12 years after we started dating, but in a completely different department and our work doesn’t overlap. We’re careful to follow most of Alison’s rules, particularly no PDAs.

    One additional rule I’d add is not to try to “fix” issues for your spouse. Over the years my husband and I have both encountered difficulties at work and discussed them at home. There can sometimes be the urge to try to intercede on the spouse’s behalf to alleviate a stressful situation or speed along a process, if one of us thought we might have some sway with one of the people involved. But we’ve agreed we have to fight our own battles at work and can’t try to help each other out, other than being a sounding board or offering advice.

  22. hamster*

    I think getting involved at work is kind of a rite of passage. If you get a breakup at work it will be so annoying and it hopefully put you off doing this EVER again.

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