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I'm dating my coworker. Help!

Navigating romantic relationships at the office can be as treacherous as it is thrilling.
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Navigating romantic relationships at the office can be as treacherous as it is thrilling.

If you've ever wondered if things were more than just professional with someone from the office, you're not alone.

Over the past year, nearly half of U.S. workers had a crush on a coworker, more than one in five went on a date with someone from work, and more than one in ten matched with a colleague on a dating app, according to areport out this month from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The report also found that engaging in a workplace romance can have a positive effect on overall mood, motivation and sense of belonging at work. But navigating relationships at the office can be as treacherous as it is thrilling.

Consent from your office crush is crucial before jumping into a relationship: "With consent, there is no sexual harassment. With consent, there's no sexual abuse. And with consent, there are no issues with dating in the workplace," said Marjorie Mesidor, an employment discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual abuse attorney who only represents plaintiffs.

A 2020 story from NPR's Life Kitadvised, "Read the social cues carefully. If you do ask someone out, emphasize that you are not trying to pressure the person, and make sure the person won't feel like it's awkward to say no. Only ask a coworker out once. And remember: Anything less than an unqualified "yes" is a "no." There's no gray zone."

Mesidor, 45, is the mother of four girls (three Gen Z, one Gen Alpha) and says the way consent is defined can differ among generations.

"When we were growing up, it used to be 'no means no' when it came to consent. Now, it's 'yes means yes,'" she said.

Mesidor says that what used to be viewed as flirting with someone who is "playing hard to get" may now be seen as harassing them.

Amy Gallo is the author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) and the co-host of Harvard Business Review's Women at Work podcast. She's not surprised at how many people develop crushes on their colleagues.

"We spend a ton of time with one another. We're often having vulnerable conversations. We're seeing each other thrive in our jobs," Gallo said. "It's understandable that we would become interested in someone we work with."

And that time spent together doesn't just mean time spent in person. Workplace romances actually increased during the pandemic, in part due to the constant contact that remote work gave way to, according to Amy Nicole Baker, a psychology professor at the University of New Haven who studies workplace romance.

"They may not have been communicating face to face, but they were communicating over Zoom and sometimes communicating privately during Zoom [meetings] and sharing more intimate, off-the-cuff kinds of insights," Baker said. "Those kinds of shared experiences bond people."

If you're still considering whether to date a coworker, you may be figuring out whether they like you back, or whether they'd feel safe telling you "no" if you ask them out. But, if you're already romantically involved with someone at the office, workplace coach and author Amy Gallo has a few tips for navigating it.

First: make sure it's allowed

If you choose to date a coworker, Gallo says to proceed with caution. Some companies have policies against office relationships, and in some states, "it's legal for a company to put a policy in place to fire people if they end up having a relationship," she said.

Get on the same page about whether, how and when to share the news

It may be tempting to keep the relationship under wraps, but that can backfire, Gallo says.

"The real risk is that you try to hide it, but that people find out about it anyway, because that erodes trust," she said. "You have to really be careful that you're not holding it secret out of fear that people will judge you and then they end up judging you anyway, because now they feel like you're a secret keeper."

But that doesn't mean you need to tell your boss after the first date — or even after the first few.

"If you see yourselves having more than a casual relationship, I'd recommend letting your manager know (at a minimum) and anyone who works closely with both of you," she said.

When you tell your coworkers, Gallo suggests keeping it simple and straightforward, such as, "I don't want to get into all of the details, but I did want to let you know that so-and-so and I are in a relationship. We don't know where it will go but I felt you should know."

She says that disclosing a relationship can be harder for LGBTQ employees in less-than-accepting environments.

"The general rule is that honesty is the best policy but carefully consider the potential implications," she added.

If you're not forthcoming about your romance, office gossip may start to circulate.

"If you hear, 'Oh, so-and-so is talking about you, they think you're involved with so-and-so in another department,' I think it can be really helpful to make clear [to your coworkers], 'What happens between me and my colleague isn't your business. But I want to be clear: I am maintaining professionalism,'" Gallo said.

What if I'm dating my boss?

It's widely believed that dating your boss is a bad idea. There are conflicts of interest — for example, it's hard to give objective performance reviews to someone you're dating.

"I would really, really caution against having a relationship with anyone up or down the hierarchy," Gallo said. "Because once that power dynamic comes into play, then people really start to assign motive."

When a direct report starts dating their boss, Gallo says coworkers may wonder, "Are you pursuing this person because you want a leg up or you're hoping for a promotion, or you want to be perceived as someone who is associated with this person in power?"

Mesidor, the employment attorney, says that the #MeToo movement changed the way she views workplace romances, especially those that involve power dynamics.

"The #MeToo movement has highlighted that the very existence of the power dynamic in and of itself can be enough to create a harassing situation," Mesidor said. "Even if the person was not otherwise inclined, they may believe that they have to, because the person is their supervisor."

If you find yourself in a relationship with a boss or a direct report, Gallo says consider transferring to a new boss — or reassigning your direct report to another team.

If we're on the same team, should we keep working together?

The more closely you work with someone you're dating, the messier things could turn out in the long run.

"If it wouldn't be a major disruption to the project or to your career, it's a good idea for you all not to work directly together," Gallo said. "It will avoid any awkwardness between you and it'll make sure that you don't make others on the project uncomfortable. Also, if you break up, it'll be less painful if you don't have to continue working closely with that person."

Unfortunately, this might be disruptive to the project and it might not be possible. Asking to be taken off of a project could put you in a position where you're forced to disclose the relationship before you're ready.

"It doesn't have to be you that asks to be taken off the project," Gallo said. "The person you're dating could ask too. I'd recommend discussing it between you and deciding who it would have less of an impact on."

Most relationships don't last — so talk about what happens if you break up as soon as you can

"When you decide to pursue a relationship with a coworker, as uncomfortable as this may feel, you have to talk about what happens if we break up because you're still going to be coworkers," Gallo said. "Ideally you have that conversation early on, because, let's be honest, most relationships don't last."

Gallo suggests setting an intention to have as little drama as possible in the wake of a coworker breakup.

Among U.S. workers who broke up with a colleague, 62% continued to work with their ex, and one in ten say they "left a job they liked because of the breakup," according to SHRM's report.

"Don't try to draw your coworkers into the breakup," Gallo said. "You want to keep it professional and you want to make sure you're protecting your mental health at the same time."

When you do break up with your coworker, Gallo recommends leaning on your support system, but that might not be enough.

"If you find it so painful that you cannot actually do your job or you feel like it's taking a real toll on your mental health, you might consider switching jobs or asking to be reassigned to another project."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.