I have a crush on my employee

A reader writes:

I’ve worked with a male colleague who is close in age to me (I am female) for several years, and last year I was promoted to manage him and others. We have a great working relationship and complementary skill sets; people have remarked on what a great team we make. We have tackled several daunting projects together that previous teams struggled with; I credit our ability to connect, communicate, and be understanding of each other’s strengths and limitations for this success.

From working closely, we know each other fairly well, which, over time, has led to me developing feelings for him (I don’t know how he feels and I’ve decide speculating on it is inappropriate and not healthy). I have never acted inappropriately, and I am not someone who is overly effusive at work, so I don’t think he or anyone else would ever guess my feelings. I have done personal work and therapy to manage how I feel; however, I have found that seeing him every day and working closely tends to prompt these feelings to recur. Short of avoiding him or changing jobs, I do not see this going away completely.

I feel inappropriate just for having these feelings, and I am concerned that I devote more attention to this employee than others due to working so well with him and liking/respecting him as a person. My questions here are (1) whether my concerns about bias are overblown (others I’ve discussed it with believe I’m overly worried about what is essentially a very human thing to feel), and (2) what is the most professional way to handle/compartmentalize personal feelings towards someone you work with regularly, especially if you are their manager and your good relationship with the person is actually often a positive for work results?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Elliot*

    I don’t know if this is helpful, but possibly remind yourself that the interpersonal skills you’re attracted to ARE skills. It’s not shameful to appreciate them, and he isn’t the only person in the world who has them. I got some great advice when on a dating hunt; finding a partner is like the most important hire you will ever make. I definitely think I have worked with people who would also make a wonderful romantic partner and developed a crush as a result; I can definitely see though that it’s a lot more awkward when you’re managing the person. But remember, he doesn’t own these skills. If you note something you like, or want in your romantic life, just view it as him modelling it for your wishlist while also appreciating how great the working relationship is as it is. I don’t know if it will help to separate the skills from the person, but I would try it.

    1. Typing All The Time*

      It’s true. Also colleagues can be very different outside of work. I developed a crush on a male colleague who was very ambitious and always off doing something. He was happy being a bachelor and it took him a long time to be open to changing his life for someone.

  2. lost academic*

    I agree with Alison and moreover, I think you should be tracking your management of your staff to support the evenhanded approach particularly because you know you have this situation. Write it all down. For one, it will help you understand with specific examples as you track your management if you are not handling things evenly or fairly, and secondly, it will also create a paper trail if anything is called into question in the future and you are not forced to just rely on your personal recollection to hold up against someone else’s opinions/observations. You can and should foster a positive relationship with coworkers that has nothing to do with personal feelings for them!

    I think I’d also reframe this as not a worry, which I think puts it in the emotional space and reframe it as a professional management situation, because the ways we handle these things in and out of work aren’t the same and the allowance you can give yourself in your personal life doesn’t hold up on the job. I know we’ve had commenters/LWs with the opinion of “I just can’t control how I feel!” but well… you can or you at least need to try. I don’t know how much success this will be, but my one piece of advice for biofeedback is reframing when you have thoughts that are based on your emotional crush vs your work – name the reaction and actively reframe it in the way you want to think about it that’s specific to the work action and outcome. Keep doing that every time and it’ll become habit.

    Do your best, document, and be honest with yourself about it so you can successfully reframe.

    1. 3DogNight*

      I don’t know if I fully agree with the paper trail portion of this. I get the reasoning behind it, but this can really bite you in the bleep if someone goes through your system for reasons. Keep the paper trail with your emotional info at home, not on work system, ever. It never actually goes away. It’s sitting on a server somewhere as a snapshot.

      1. Lost academic*

        I’m not suggesting tracking personal feelings or using this as a therapy journal kind of approach. This is a recommendation to evenly track professional interactions with subordinates for professional review purposes. This is a useful tool for anyone with direct reports who need to be able to review employees for any possible reason. It is work product and it’s not something that should be viewed as a risk like that. If you’re not doing that, you really don’t know if you’re evaluating or managing people the best way. In this case it has the added benefit of supporting the LW in her effort to reframe her relationship with the individual.

        1. TechWorker*

          Yes I think Lost Academics suggestion is to ensure LW is documenting performance information about the employee *not* anything about LWs crush on the employee which I agree would be a disaster to document (!)

      2. Hannah Lee*

        I’ve seen people use these kind of management trackers, documentation before, and it’s actually very helpful even if you don’t have a strong emotional reaction to any of your employees good or bad.

        If you have a standard template / file for all your employees with sections for ticklers on periodic formal reviews, periodic informal check-ins, development and professional goals, project/assignment history, achievements, on going feedback, performance observations, etc, etc. Of course you’d keep the notes professional and work focused, like you would with any work product, even one you’re not planning to share widely.

        It’s one of those things that falls unto the Non-urgent + Important quadrant of management that can be really valuable if you make sure to schedule time to keep it up.

        It’s something that can be maintained over time, updated as events occur. Then all that information is available when it’s time to put together formal performance reviews, if something comes up mid-cycle like eligibility / interest in a new position, or performance issue.

        It’s also something that you can review periodically across all your reports to so you don’t lose site of higher level staff management, planning. It helps catch things like unconscious bias or inertia in your day to day management practices so that you can be more purposeful about assignment rotation, feedback, frequency and type of interaction, proactively keeping an eye out for development opportunities, and notice patterns in someone’s interests, performance.

        It doesn’t have to be too complicated … one guy I worked with just had a excel worksheet/grid with different categories/tick lists that he spent 5-10 minutes on each week (total for all staff) noting interactions, 1 on 1’s, significant developments/assignments but then would pull out and go through during his mid/LT planning time.

  3. So Tired*

    I saw the title and immediately said “yeah, you can’t really be managing him.” For all the reasons Allison listed. And also, there could be a chance that, in an effort to ensure people don’t catch on to her feelings, OP could actually be withholding opportunities or praise from him.

    Overall, there’s just not really a way for this to work fairly for him or for the other employees OP manages. I don’t know when this was published, but I hope OP was able to find some resolution for her feelings and that things worked out as positively as possible.

    1. B*

      I dunno, I think it is perfectly possible to act professionally and appropriately as a manager regardless of your personal feelings toward your employees. There’s nothing wrong with feeling a certain way about your staff members — good or bad! you could manage someone you really dislike! — as long as you can treat them properly. And you’re not responsible for your feelings, just your actions. I think the first step to addressing something like the OP’s issue is reframing the problem, because feeling ashamed or guilty for simply having a feeling does make it hard to ensure you are acting properly.

      1. MK*

        Sure, it’s possible. It’s just not particularly likely. The problem is that few people are able to compartmentalize the the degree that they aren’t letting their feelings influence their judgement on some level, which makes it hard to assess their own behaviour.

      2. Teapot_wife*

        I once had a crush on a new guy I hired and was managing in my corporate job. We’ve now been married almost ten years and have a two year old! (We were 25 and it was definitely unprofessional) I had to manage him for about six months while furiously trying to transfer him to another department. No one knew about it until the wedding.

  4. Beth*

    Honestly the best way I’ve found to get over someone is to look for someone else. It sounds like you’ve been really drawn to your employee’s competence, communication skills, and teamwork. Maybe it’s time to download an app or two and see if you can meet some new (non work) people who have those traits?

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      I agree! Or, at the very least, make sure your non-work life (hobbies, friends, family, pets, etc.) is in good shape and giving you sources of love and pleasure.

      I have found in the past that when I get an “inappropriate” crush that I cannot easily shake, it’s because my non-work life is not fulfilling. It doesn’t necessarily even mean “I need a new boyfriend, stat!” Just “am I happy? Connected? Feeling like my life is going somewhere?” Crushes can be stand-ins for something else you need in your life. If you feel stagnant, then your feelings are more likely to come out inappropriately (a persistent, inappropriate crush, OR, losing your temper with others, compulsive shopping, other negative behaviors).

      You may or may not need/want to find a new date, but you probably should take steps to make sure you have an emotionally nourishing life, or at least a GOOD life, outside of work.

      1. Hannah Lee*


        It may also be a sign that work-life balance is out of whack in terms of the time/energy you’ve allotted for each, even if in theory your ‘real life’ is/could be very fulfilling.

        If you’ve had a series of consuming projects at work, it’s easy to let the work time and effort creep out, expand into space you’d normally hold for your actual life. *In theory* you’ve got good stuff going on outside of work, but *in reality* right now, just until end of quarter, or just until you land that big contract, or complete this one project… and then just the next one after, not so much. And in those cases, if an age appropriate, not-a-jerk co-worker happens there at work with you, especially if there’s been some high-emotion stuff going on, it’s human, normal for your brain to jump tracks and grab some emotional/human connection dopamine/oxytocin hits when and where it can. And then *bam!* crush!.

        Sometimes just resetting the balance of time/energy between work and life is enough without making other changes.

        That and maybe try picturing the crush flossing their teeth or picking their nose anytime hearts and flowers start floating into your brain.

      2. Cedrus Libani*

        This. Sometimes the existential itch comes out in strange ways. A few years out of college, I found myself dreaming of the Olympics…no, this was NOT normal, I have the athletic talent of a houseplant and I had been perfectly content with my life as the last person you’d choose for your sports team, yet I couldn’t get this obviously terrible idea out of my head. Turned out that I was bored. I was on the path to doing “meh it’s a paycheck” as a career, but I wasn’t ready to surrender quite yet. Needed a big, hairy, audacious goal, just not that one. So I went to grad school, which was a far more rational use of my time and energy.

      3. stratospherica*

        This is so true.
        I’ve had a crush on a coworker before, but once I’d started taking myself out and making friends local to my area, those feelings basically went away. Did I still think he’s a good looking guy? Sure! Would I want to pursue anything with him? Not particularly! Do we still have a good relationship? It’s somewhere between “about as warm as you need to be to a colleague” and “friends” so I’d say so!

  5. Silver Robin*

    For those curious, there was an update to this: OP still had a crush 6 months later and that, in combination of a few other career considerations, led her to getting a new job and leaving the company.

    1. Rondeaux*

      I just read that update… It wasn’t totally clear from the wording, but it sounded like there might be a similar situation going on at the new company?

      1. Silver Robin*

        I just read it as her realizing what was happening in her head through therapy and whatever other support she was getting, so now she is working on disentangling “wow, competent coworker” and “crush”.

        1. TechWorker*

          Plus it is waaaay less problematic to have a crush on a coworker not in your management chain. Not ‘definitely fine’ but like, lots of people meet their long term partners at work and.. that’s ok?

      1. Blarg*

        Thanks for sharing — the update on the letter about the boss saying the LW was lying about their health was a real doozy! Don’t know why I don’t remember that the first time around, but as I’m now dealing with a new diagnosis myself, I can’t imagine how awful it would feel if someone spread around that I was lying about it. Yeesh.

    2. Amber Rose*

      Yeah, it sounds like OP was realizing they confuse valuing a person for a crush and were working towards untangling that. I hope it went well for them, and that they found a counselor if they needed one.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        Oh, I’m glad to hear this! It sounds like OP had deeper issues that were coming out as work crushes. I’m glad she is getting therapy. This will help immensely.

  6. S*

    It can help to remind yourself that you don’t know what dating the person would really be like. People don’t bring every side of themselves to work, and anyway, dating is just a very different dynamic than working together. So the reality might not be that great compared to the fantasy, even if circumstances changed and you had your chance to pursue the person.

    1. Awlbiste*

      That’s really not how asexuality works, plenty of people who identify as asexual are in relationships.

      1. Fiona Orange*

        But a relationship between a sexual person and an asexual person wouldn’t work, and it sounds like LW is sexual.

        1. Elsewise*

          I’m an allosexual person in a relationship with an asexual person! We have sex. Asexual people can and often do feel sexual urges, just not sexual attraction. Allosexual people sometimes don’t like sex for various reasons. Also, there’s no evidence that LW is allosexual, as asexual people often have crushes!

          I’m sure you don’t mean to, but a lot of what you’re saying really contributes to stereotyping and alienation of asexual people and other queer identities. This might be one where you should let people with more experience talk, please.

        2. Beth*

          Awlbiste is right–this isn’t how asexuality works. I get where the assumption is coming from, but 1) asexuality is a spectrum and not all people who identify with it are celibate, and 2) relationships between asexual and allosexual people do happen and can work just fine.

        3. K*

          An asexual person and an allosexual person can have a fulfilling relationship. That relationship may or may not include sex. Being asexual doesn’t mean someone will never have sex. Asexuality is a spectrum and individuals will have individual experiences. Also, it’s really not appropriate to speculate about people’s sexualities; please stop.

    2. Chicken Little*

      Without overgeneralizing, it should be stated that many Asexual people have relationships. Sexual attraction is not the same as romantic attraction.

      1. Santiago*

        What’s funny? Sometimes I don’t understand nuances of English. Isn’t asexual someone who doesn’t want relationships?

        1. Elsewise*

          Asexual is a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, but may want a relationship (with or without sex). Aromantic is a person who doesn’t experience romantic attraction, but may or may not experience sexual attraction. (Don’t drop the n! Aromatic is something that smells good.) Laughably in this context doesn’t literally mean funny, just “so incorrect that I’m laughing in disbelief.”

          1. Santiago*

            Thank you. That makes sense. Some people don’t like sex. So Fiona could have said imagine he is aromantic?

        2. LaurenB*

          I’m with you. I can easily accept that there are people who don’t feel sexual attraction, but now it’s ridiculous to suggest that people who identify as such don’t want to have sexual relationships?

          That said, I don’t think it’s a good thought experiment for the OP. You can have huge, distracting crushes with the full knowledge that a sexual relationship will never happen. It can be as much about the fun of the fantasy.

          1. Santiago*

            I guess some people don’t mind the sex even though they don’t care about it and the word for that is asexual. And the word for no relationship is aromantic. And so I guess someone could be aromantic and still sexual and do hook ups.

    3. K*

      That’s absolutely not how asexuality works. Asexuality does not mean a person cannot have a relationship. Please learn about this more before making stereotyping comments; they can be harmful. Thanks.

    4. Not my coffee*

      Another thing you can tell yourself is that you are only seeing a portion of this person and their life. Further, what you are seeing is the “very good version” of themselves. The very good version is well-groomed, polite, friendly, happy…please add whatever other adjectives apply. No one is very good 24 hours of the day, 7 days a week.

  7. Sally Rhubarb*

    That’s rough. I had a crush on a coworker and it suuuucked. I didn’t want to make it weird so basically I felt miserable the entire time. But every time I interacted with that person, I asked myself “would I do/say this for anyone else here?” & it helped.

    1. ElinorD*

      That’s good advice.

      I once had a crush on a coworker and kept it to myself, tried to stay professional, and just do my job. He could tell, however, and told the *entire* office. Everyone but me also knew he was engaged. I was hurt more by the gossip than anything, and I never admitted to anything.

      I think it shaded my reputation permanently, even though I didn’t do anything wrong.

      awful memory. *shudder*

      1. ElinorD*

        i cannot believe I posted that story. *embarrassed*

        To come back to the point of the thread, OP, you have my sympathies. The only thing I could ever suggest is to put your head down and keep your distance as much as possible.

      2. GreyjoyGardens*

        Ouch. That sounds awful. He sounds like a jerk who was stringing you along, and the rest of the office sounds like a gang of Mean Girls and Guys. Glad you are not there anymore.

        Pre-social-media (when it was harder to find these things out) I knew a couple of guys who had steady partners, were engaged, or in one case, married – but kept it hush-hush at work so that they could flirt their little brains out and get high on that sweet, sweet crush energy. Thankfully, these workplaces were not full of meanies, so someone would usually pull any new gal (or guy in one case) aside and say, “Just FYI, Fergus is engaged, NOT single like he wants you to think.” That eventually put a damper on the shenanigans because everyone was wise to their little reindeer games.

        I’m sorry you got treated so shabbily. And it usually is the woman who gets the fallout, unfortunately. Especially if the man is well-liked “he’s SUCH a nice guy, so handsome, too! Of *course* he attracts bunny boilers! How could he not? Tsk, tsk, some women have no shame!”

  8. Barefoot Librarian*

    Work crushes happen. I’ve had a few myself over the years. You see people performing at their best and showing off those sexy brains and it just sparks something. The good news is that left unwatered and untended, those plants eventually die on their own. The bad news is that it can take some time to get there. You aren’t a bad person for how you feel, but your actions can be unethical if you aren’t careful.

    Some things that have helped for me in those situations are:
    1) if you feel an urge to say or do something in appropriate, imagine that person in the most unflattering situations (yelling at another driver in traffic, vomiting because they drank too much…you get the idea);
    2) deliberately ask about their spouse or partner, if they have one – consciously make the person real in your mind;
    3) mentally go through the steps of what would happen if you acted on your feelings (embarrassment if they turned you down, explaining the situation to coworkers or your boss or HR, having to possibly quit your job or move to another position, how awkward it would be if you broke up with them while both working at the same place);
    and 4) turn your romantic energy to something or someone else, if possible (go on some dates, watch a romantic movie with your favorite actor, play a romance sim).

    Hang in there. Our hearts aren’t reasonable sometimes, but you’ve got this.

  9. Mad Mac*

    Dunno if it’ll help for you LW, but whenever I feel crushes threatening to go from being something that’s harmless and fun and, instead, start dangerously teetering on full-blown infatuations that may leak into the world outside my head, I remind myself that crushes are just a lack of information. No matter how many times I have to do so to bring myself back down to earth.

    1. Salsa Your Face*

      “Crushes are just a lack of information”

      I’ve been harboring with an incredibly intense work crush for the last few months (thankfully for someone who is not involved directly with my team or reporting structure at all) and I think this way of framing it is really going to help me. Thank you.

  10. LisaD*

    Possibly not the most mature way to handle this, but when it happens to me I just find some unflattering trait of theirs and let myself be completely judgmental and decide that this one flaw proves it would never work. Successfully banished an intense workplace crush once by seeing the guy stomp on a grasshopper for no reason, which obviously proves he wouldn’t be a nurturing father to our children. Never had the hint of a feeling for him again, but we ended up close friends.

  11. GreyjoyGardens*

    I read the update that said the OP moved on to a new workplace, got *another* crush, realized she was confusing admiration with love/infatuation, and is getting therapy. Which is great! It sounds like there were deeper issues afoot than that one work crush.

    Just want to agree with what other people have been saying – when you see someone at work, you are seeing them at their best. Well-groomed, well-mannered, professional, courteous (one hopes!). You are not seeing the grouchy down-with-the-flu, hasn’t showered in a couple days, complaining that the kids are making too much noise version. Or for that matter, you’re not seeing the “wonderful to work with but nasty or even abusive to their family” version.

    Crushing on a coworker is a watered-down version of crushing on a celebrity; in the coworker case you do meet and know the person, but you are seeing them at their professional best, not “warts and all.”

    1. Emily Byrd Starr*

      “ Crushing on a coworker is a watered-down version of crushing on a celebrity; in the coworker case you do meet and know the person, but you are seeing them at their professional best, not “warts and all.””

      How is that any different from crushing on, say, a friend, neighbor, classmate, etc?

      1. Sacred Ground*

        The key is “professional best.”
        Your friend, neighbor, or classmate are not necessarily under any pressure to be on their best behavior all the time you’re around. They’re more likely to be their more relaxed social selves than your coworkers.

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          Exactly this. Friends, neighbors, and to an extent classmates, are free to show their true selves in front of you. People see friends in the hospital, they console them after crying jags, they are privy to the fact that Hanson’s “Mmmbop” is the best song in the whole world. Neighbors? You hear them telling their dog to sit and stay, you see them retrieving the mail in their bathrobe, you know their love of 80’s hair metal because you hear it when they’re partying in their backyard.

          Classmates are usually on *better* behavior (there are things you can’t do or say in a classroom) but classroom behavior is no where near as “buttoned down” as most professional behavior.

          With coworkers you see the very polite surface – most of the time, anyway, unless you’re in one of the more infamous AAM legends! LW knew nothing about this man other than “he’s a nice guy at work.” Plenty of people are nice at work and horrible to their families. It’s practically a meme at this point. (It’s doubly ironic when Dr. Jekyll who is Mr. Hyde to their significant other and/or kids is in a caring profession, but such stories are legion.)

  12. BellyButton*

    In the update OP wrote ” I’ve realized in my new position that I’m mistaking a professional relationship I value for feelings for a person. I’m still working through that and trying to clarify it for myself, and that part is more difficult to summarize.”

    I find this really interesting (and very self-aware!). I wonder how closely that is tied to how much of OP’s identity is directly related to their job?

    1. Banana Pyjamas*

      Could also be family of origin stuff. I had some very troubling family of origin socialization. Essentially ANY positive feelings for a person of the opposite gender meant you had BIG FEELINGS for the person. Additionally, any positive actions on their end were PROOF they felt the same. You can’t undo decades of socialization with one realization, but it makes it very easy to recognize what’s going on and put the feelings aside when they occur.

  13. Anon for this*

    I’ve had a couple work crushes over the years and was married (unhappily) during all of them, so had to figure out a way to not let them affect my life. First one that I had worked out really badly, to the point that I had to change jobs twice to get away. (And then almost 20 years later, his brother and SIL bought a house next to mine and I started losing my sleep thinking about how the odds of that guy showing up pretty much in my driveway were now greater than zero. His brother and SIL were great neighbors that I loved living next to, but the fact that he could come visit them and run into me when he and I hadn’t parted ways on good terms and I absolutely did not want to see him ever again, gave me the motivation I needed to sell the house and move away. Now living in the area I’d been wanting to move to for years, and loving it. Thank you, crush #1, for lighting that fire under my butt, albeit unintentionally!)

    Second big one that I had was a close work friend and part of a coworker friend group. He broke up with his gf at the time and two days later, brought a woman friend into our group. I could tell he was really into her, but he told me she’d said to him before that she wasn’t interested. She was really cool and quickly became friends with people in the friend group, including me. I invited her to lunch, and over lunch I told her basically that I had a big crush on the guy, thought he was great, wished I could have him myself, but I was married so I couldn’t, that I could tell he liked her a lot, and that I highly recommended him to her as a possible date or partner. Yada yada yada, I was a guest at their wedding 8 years later, they are happily married and we still keep in touch.

    And then I ended the marriage and just like that, poof! stopped getting crushes on random people after that. I hope LW was able to address the underlying cause of her crushes too.

  14. ToS*

    If anyone wants a visual of how this can look Netflix’s Kim’s Convenience has a plotline with the son’s rental car company manager – you don’t want to be her, it’s a dose of awkward/cringe.

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