Shift Happens: How to mix business and pleasure without killing a career

The office romance is alive and well, but how can you engage without it affecting your—or your partner's—job?

iStock coworkers

Credit: iStock. Co-workers having a conversation

The office romance is alive and well, but how can you engage without it affecting your—or your partner’s—job?

You’re a top executive at a large company with many divisions. At a company retreat, you meet another executive—he’s on your level and works in an entirely different location. Things click over chit-chat and canapés, and you find yourself becoming…interested. Should you ask him to meet up for an after-work drink? Can you?

Journey with me back to New York City in the early 1960s, and to the fictional office of Sterling Cooper, the ad agency at the centre of the television series Mad Men. This was a different time, when advertising wasn’t just eyeballs and algorithms but also about work-life balance—at least according to the slyly named Joan Holloway, overseer of what was then known as the “secretarial pool.”

As she escorts the “new girl,” Peggy, through the office, Joan asks, “So how many trains did it take you?” Only one, Peggy replies—but she had to get up very early to catch it. Joan assures Peggy that if she makes the “right moves,” she’ll be living in Manhattan soon. “Of course, if you really make the right moves, you’ll be out in the country,” Joan adds, “and you won’t be going to work at all.”

Oh, dear. Today, of course, that paradigm is as dead and buried as the secretarial pool. That said, office romances can and do happen. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not always a quick path to a pink slip. Nor need they be. But how to ensure that your dating and work life don’t mix like nitro and glycerin?

First, a dose of reality: although the Rat Pack years are long behind us, office romances are hardly rare. “Realistically, that’s where so many relationships form—in the workplace,” says Robin Turnill, a human resources consultant with North Vancouver–based Pivot HR Services. “I think what’s really key here,” Turnill adds, addressing the introductory scenario, “is that they would be on the same level, so the concept of power differential really doesn’t exist.”

Things get challenging, however, when those differences are in play. “Let’s say the same executive wanted to ask [out] a member of their leadership team, or maybe even someone more junior. That gets extremely problematic.”

In this case, pressure is practically knotted into any overture. “No matter how casually a senior level person frames it to someone who is not on the same hierarchical level, because that power imbalance is there it makes it very hard for someone to say no, or to feel comfortable that they can say no,” Turnill says. And certainly, persistent unwelcome advances from someone in a position of relative power would fall into the sexual harassment realm—#MeToo is written all over this kind of move.

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This isn’t the only landmine. Even if the situation is wholly consensual, there’s also the way your colleagues might perceive the relationship. If there’s a whiff of favouritism, things quickly get more layered than a pousse-café. (Especially when salary decisions are involved.)

And if it doesn’t work out? Both parties are now in an impossible spot: the junior person may now fear reprisal or career stagnation, while the senior colleague may be unable to fully perform duties that should fall within their purview—like, for example, disciplining or even critiquing someone who works under them.

So what’s the company’s role in this? “The employer’s job is to educate their employees as to what they consider acceptable consensual workplace relationships, and what the parameters around those would be,” Turnill says.

For example, they could explicitly forbid relationships between different hierarchical levels. Or if a power imbalance naturally occurs—like when one person is promoted to a position of relative superiority over their romantic partner—ensure that the couple declare a conflict of interest, and that any decisions involving, say, salary or promotion are left to a neutral third party.

Clearly stated company guidelines are key. So is common sense. “If you’re in a position where you can make salary decisions or employment decisions for someone else,” Turnill says, “you shouldn’t be asking them out.”

Fictional scenario. Not intended as legal advice.