What Happens if your Office Relationship Goes Sour

Office romance is alive and well. Not surprising considering how much time we spend at work these days.

Nearly 40% of workers in the US have dated a colleague at some point in their career, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. And one-third of those relationships end in marriage.

In Germany, the numbers are even higher where 60% of workers admit having been involved with a colleague, according to a survey from job portal kalaydo.de. In Japan, the numbers are much lower with only one in three workers having found love at work, according to a survey by global staffing firm Randstad.

But what happens if your office relationship goes sour? Is dating your gorgeous colleague really worth the risk? And, what if that person is your manager or junior – or even more complicated – married? Are you required to disclose this relationship to the company?

Early days

For Kelly Finn, principal consultant with Boston-based talent acquisition firm WinterWyman’s Information Technology division, it made sense to keep her budding relationship quiet at first. Finn met her future husband while they were working in different divisions at WinterWyman.

"We dated for eight months and didn’t tell anyone at the company," she said in an email. "The relationship was new and we didn’t want to be distracting or the subject of company gossip and drama."

But then a company-sponsored trip that both Finn and her future husband were scheduled to attend cropped up. "We knew things were serious and we didn’t want to hide our relationship on the trip, so we called a meeting with the company president and let him know first," said Finn. "We didn’t want him to hear about it through the grapevine."

Finn recommends telling senior management when the time feels right. "Assure them it will not affect your performance at work, and that you will handle the relationship professionally in the office," she said.

Keeping it under wraps

But not everyone chooses to kiss and tell. One third of workers who have had an office romance kept their relationship a secret at work, according to the CareerBuilder survey. "Whether or not you choose to keep it a secret, it is important to be discreet, professional and treat each other as colleagues at the office, and not as romantic partners," said Chicago-based Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s chief human resources officer, in an email. "Give each other some physical space and respect your fellow employees."

Leave it at the door

Dating a colleague can be a great experience, according to Elaine Varelas, managing partner with Boston-based Keystone Partners, a career management firm. But you need to be cognisant of where you are.

"You have a lot in common and you see each other all the time, but one should remember to keep public displays of affection out of the office," she said in an email, as it can make others uncomfortable and make you appear totally unprofessional. "While work might be the place you met your true love, the business day is the time to work on work — not on your relationship."

Know the rules

Rare is the worker who actually reads the company handbook. But if you are about to embark on a relationship with a colleague, this would be the perfect time to take a look at it. That way, you will know if there are any official guidelines on office romance, according to Varelas. "It's crucial to do this before you disclose your relationship to anyone, including human resources," she said. "You'll go into that meeting knowing what issues —  if any —  you will face."

Are both parties mature enough to nurse their heartache in private?

And, depending on your company, you might not have the choice to keep it quiet, according to Austin, Texas-based Sharon Schweitzer, founder and chief executive officer of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide and a former employment lawyer. "It may violate the company’s sexual harassment prevention policy," she said in an email, particularly if one of you is more senior than the other. "You may be required to report that you are dating, and romantically involved.

And even though you may not be in the same department or division when you first start dating, positions can change, according to Schweitzer. "Keep in mind that you may be transferred and end up supervising your paramour in a different department," she cautioned.

Transferring is one option. "If you fall in love, think seriously about transferring to a different department or even another company," she said. "Don’t damage your own career, that of your mentor and colleagues in the process."

Can you handle the fallout?

Remaining professional in the workplace is important, according to Dr. Lorraine Tilbury, founder of personal and professional development firm HorsePower International, based in the Loire Valley in France. But this can be challenging if the relationship ends. "You will still have to work together," she said. Ask yourself, "Are both parties mature enough to nurse their heartache in private, remain civil to each other in public and still meet their professional objectives?"

Tilbury said that she has known colleagues who were on an emotional roller coaster because of office romance heartbreak – becoming depressed and physically absent because they couldn’t face seeing the person they had broken up with at work. "If the very thought of seeing your ex every day puts you in agony, you may want to avoid the idea of office romance in the first place," she said.

If the very thought of seeing your ex every day puts you in agony, you may want to avoid the idea of office romance.

Not just about you

For Rachel Sutherland, the risk was worth it after she met her future husband at The Battle Creek Enquirer, a small newspaper in Michigan. "My husband and I were young, but we were very serious about our work and knew going into our relationship that being in a relationship in such a small workplace could have negative implications," she said in an email. "That's why we took so much care to make sure we did it right."

But Sutherland said that she would have felt differently had it just been someone to pass the time with. "Break-ups are tough regardless of location," she added. "Having to see your ex while out with friends and at work is tough on you and your colleagues, and has the potential to sabotage your career if you're unable to handle the stress of the situation."