Valentine's Day: Is dating at work a good idea?

Valentine's Day may have some people looking for love in the office. That can be a good thing, but it comes with huge risks. Here are some guidelines for pursuing a workplace romance this Valentine's Day. 

By , Staff writer

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    A worker carries an armload of red roses at Winston Flowers in Boston before Valentine's Day. The workplace is among the top places people start romantic relationships, many of which lead to marriage. But there are major risks.
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It’s Valentine’s Day. You’re probably at work. And if you’re a single person stuck at work on Valentine’s Day, you may have locked eyes with some fetching colleague across the room. What do you do next? 

Many experts say you should go for it, with some caveats. Pay heed to a few logical guidelines, and an office romance can be fulfilling and worthwhile, bringing happiness and cohesion to your work and personal life.

The office is among the top non-online places we meet our mates these days. Some 39 percent of US workers have started a romantic relationship at work, according to a new survey by careerbuilder.com, conducted by Harris Interactive. The study surveyed 4,216 full-time workers. Among those, 30 percent office romances eventually led to marriage; 17 percent of respondents had dated a co-worker at least twice.

Recommended: Test your love IQ: Who said these romantic things?

Two-thirds of those workers were public with their relationships, while the other third kept them secret.

Other surveys have found even higher levels of office romance. A 2011 poll from the career advice website Vault.com found that 59 percent of workers had dated a colleague at least once. Power couples who met each other at work include Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, and, of course, the fictional Jim and Pam from “The Office.”

Employers, for the most part, don’t want to interfere. Outright bans on office dating are few, and 35 percent of human resource departments have no office dating policy whatsoever, according to a 2007 survey from Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, an executive coaching firm based in Chicago.

Dating bans are problematic, because productive work environments should treat their employees like adults, argues John Challenger, the firm’s CEO, in a telephone interview. A dating ban “ignores reality,” he says. “People work on teams, they travel together, relationships naturally occur, and sometimes they become romantic.”

“We have so little boundary now between our personal life and our work life,” he adds. “Technology gives us access to all aspects of our life at once. Some of your most important personal relationships may come from work, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

For a worker, the benefits of a successful office romance are obvious. Work becomes much more enjoyable. Similar jobs offer built-in common ground and conversation starters. There’s ample time to develop a friendship and get to know a potential partner’s qualities and quirks away from the pressure-cooker of a pre-arranged dating environment. You can carpool.

Employers can reap benefits as well, in the form of happy employees and strengthened company loyalty. “When outside areas of your life improve because of your work environment, that breeds commitment to the organization,” Mr. Challenger says. “It makes the workplace about more than just the money you get paid. And if companies can tie down two high performers, that’s a huge gain for them.”
 

But there are huge risks. A sour relationship can undermine the same productivity that successful ones engender, plus one or both employees could lose their jobs (or leave voluntarily, if working with an ex becomes unbearable). On its end, a company without at least some sort of dating policy leaves itself open to sexual-harassment suits, particularly if a supervisor dates an underling (something experts consider a near-universal no-no).  Plus, relationships that aren’t handled properly, especially between people of two different ranks, have the potential to breed resentment and a sense of unfairness from other workers.

Because of this, Challenger recommends that employers have at least some form of an office dating policy in place, and an avenue for employees to disclose the relationship if it gets serious. “I think you have to define the boundaries, what is allowed and what is not,” he says. “Define what the limits are, and what the steps people should take when a relationship reaches a point where it is something more permanent than just dating.”

If you are embarking on an office relationship, Challenger and others recommend the following boundaries: Supervisor/subordinate relationships are off-limits. If possible, dating someone outside of your direct department is ideal. Don't date a married person (this should be obvious). To maximize your chances of keeping your jobs should things turn south, have a breakup contingency plan.

“Draw up rules together for behavior at work, no matter what's going on at home, print it out, and sign it.,” The Vault recommends. "Hopefully you'll never need it. But if you do, it could be a job-saving measure should things sour.”

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