Office romance is tricky

Most people agree that finding love is no easy mission, and for the many people who spend most of their waking hours working, the office may serve as the perfect setting for a romantic relationship.

It’s not difficult to imagine bonding over a project, sharing daily problems and triumphs, and enjoying the benefits of an understanding ear from someone who is often dealing with the same issues as you are. It can also be pretty difficult to concentrate and tamp down physical attraction when the person sits in the next cubicle over or in the office down the hall. I met my husband at work, after all, so I can testify to these claims. We were co-workers very briefly before he moved on, but when someone asks how we met, the honest answer is, “we met at work.”

I was thinking about the quicksand qualities of office flings after reading that McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired before Christmas for having a consensual relationship with an unnamed employee. About a week before that firing made big news, Republican Katie Hill had announced she was resigning from Congress after being accused of having had relationships with both a subordinate and a campaign staffer.

The two should’ve known better in 2019. Like many employers, the House of Representatives and McDonald’s prohibit romantic or sexual relationships between supervisors and employees, for good reason, honestly. The optics and the pitfalls of these relationships – the imbalance of power, the possibility of accusations and lawsuits – are awful. We’ve all heard news headlines about the many high-profile predatory bosses who have demanded inappropriate contact from employees in exchange for jobs or promotions, a practice that’s a lot more common than we care to admit.

Yet, I know of couples, still married decades later, who met in the office when he was the boss and she an employee. Microsoft founder Bill Gates began dating his wife Melinda when she worked for him. Back then, few companies had a policy to ban such relationships. In the case of the people I know, both couples disclosed their relationship to superiors, with one being willingly reassigned, and the other leaving shortly after the relationship began for a better job.

But would those romances have been possible in the #MeToo era? I doubt it. It’s safer for gun-shy companies to ban potential landmines instead of waiting for the explosion. There are far too many possibilities for favouritism, or for retaliation.

More and more companies are doing more than prohibiting boss-underling relations. They’re also issuing bans, partial or otherwise, on office dating between peers. Google, Facebook, and Airbnb, for example, allow employees only one shot when asking out a fellow employee. So fellas (or ladies) – comb your hair, smile pleasantly, and practice in front of the mirror before firing off that proposition, because you don’t want to blow your one chance.

I suppose companies want to avoid the awkwardness or hostility that follows a series of ask-outs and turn-downs. They also want to steer clear of compromising situations, such as the one this past September when two airline employees were videoed spitting, slapping, and punching each other in the hallway of the Denver airport. No word on what led to the fight, but it was well known the two were in an “intimate relationship.”

Still, I doubt a date ban at work is realistic or even really enforceable.

A 2018 Career Builder survey found that 36 per cent of employees have been involved in an office romance, but here’s the real eye-opener, about 25 per cent admitted to an affair with a colleague when one of them was married to someone else.

One quarter, I was shocked.

If romantic relationships weren’t complicated enough, this same survey found that 70 per cent of those work romances didn’t pan out, and about six per cent of the decoupled ended up leaving their jobs as a result. That’s understandable, I suppose. No one wants to see an ex for eight hours a day.

While every company should protect its employees from harassment and exploitation, I can’t imagine policy, written or implied, guaranteeing a workplace free of the inevitable attraction that bubbles up when you throw people with common interests together in an office for eight hours a day.