What to Do When You Have a Crush on a Coworker
How to safely mix business and pleasure.
Posted Aug 30, 2019
Working people spend a significant portion of their lives at work. Naturally, as people spend time together, professional relationships often become personal. The question is not whether such relationships are likely to develop (they are), but how they will impact the parties involved, as well as the workplace itself.
Workplace Romance: A Recipe for Scandal or Success?
From drama to distraction, workplace romance comes with both risks and rewards. When both parties are single and evenly matched in terms of position and power, the likelihood of success is higher than alternative scenarios. On the other end of the spectrum, marriage-wrecking affairs and back room quid pro quo arrangements between superiors and subordinates can be quite scandalous and dangerous for employee morale.
Consequently, couples dating at work must consider both optics as well as reality. Apparent impropriety may be anything but—although for some observers, including higher-ups with the power to hire and fire, appearances are reality. An appreciation of this common assumption often fuels stealth dating in many workplaces, even in the absence of an express prohibition of dating at work.
Workplace romance in a post #MeToo era brings an additional challenge faced by employees who are understandably reluctant and often unsure of how to test the waters when faced with what appears to be mutual attraction. With neither prospective partner wanting to be accused of being presumptuous, such relationships often move very slowly—which is probably a positive development in the grand scheme of things.
What about the downsides? What factors predict whether a workplace romance will turn into a story of scandal or success? Research has some answers.
Professional Paramours and Job Performance
Some employers discourage workplace romance because of the belief that it will cause disruption and distraction on the clock. They fear employees will waste time socializing, take unnecessary breaks, or use office equipment for private communication with other employees. But what impact does dating at work really have on job performance?
Muhammad Khan et al. (2017) studied the interaction between workplace relationships, performance, and wellbeing. [i] They began, however, with a research-based definition of workplace romance as “a mutually-welcomed and committed relationship between two members of an organization that may involve physical attraction and activities such as dating, hugging, kissing, touching, and sexual intercourse” (internal citations omitted).
They noted that existing literature on workplace romance suggests that it can be both destructive and constructive with respect to employee performance and behavior. They list some of the commonly reported destructive results—including cynicism, disapproval, and even hostility from managers and peers, as well as declining employee performance and productivity. They note that other undesirable destructive effects could be litigation and potential ethical issues.
Yet there is a bright side too. Khan and co-authors note that existing literature also suggests that romance in the workplace can have a positive impact on commitment, wellbeing, and even employee performance.
Perhaps due to its somewhat taboo connotation, particularly within some types of professional environments, romance on the clock has not been subjected to extensive empirical review. Indeed, Khan and co-authors note that despite the obviously important effects on employee performance and behavior, workplace romance has been recognized as “the most ignored aspect of organizational life.”
Using survey results from 311 doctors from five government teaching hospitals in Pakistan, Khan's team found that psychological wellbeing mediated the positive relationship between romance in the workplace and performance on the job. Regarding the impact of gender, they found that the indirect impact of workplace romance on job performance was stronger for men.
What kind of people would consider becoming involved with a professional colleague? Research has answers here, too.
Love on the Clock: Practicalities and Policies
Jessica Doll and Patrick John Rosopa (2015) investigated how factors such as attitudes, conscientiousness, prior workplace romance, and organizational policies predicted employee willingness to find love on the job. [ii]
Online survey results from 148 full-time employees revealed that both prior engagement in and positive attitudes toward romance in the workplace were linked with the willingness to engage in love on the clock. Prior workplace romance and conscientiousness were also both related to attitudes towards such relationships.
Their findings also found that the link between organizational workplace romance policies and conscientiousness “significantly predicted” employee willingness to participate in a workplace romantic relationship.
When Mixing Business and Pleasure, Motive Matters
Anyone thinking about dating at work should consider all of the potential consequences—both real and apparent, that can result from such a decision, as well as the underlying motivation. No one wants his or her impulsive moves at a work-related party Friday night to be the subject of conversation around the water cooler Monday morning.
For people who spend a majority of their day in the workplace, promoting an environment of peace and productivity requires a thoughtful balance of professional and personal interests.
[i]Khan, Muhammad Aamir Shafique, Du Jianguo, Muhammad Usman, and Malik I. Ahmad. “Moderated Mediation Model of Interrelations between Workplace Romance, Wellbeing, and Employee Performance.” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017).
[ii]Doll, Jessica; Rosopa, Patrick John. “Workplace romances: examining attitudes experience, conscientiousness, and policies.” Journal of Managerial Psychology; Bradford 30, Iss. 4, (2015): 439-453.