How to Keep a Hot Office Romance from Burning Your Career

How to Keep a Hot Office Romance from Burning Your Career

By Shanon Lyon, Special to PayScale.com

When Renee first met Brad through a coworker, she wasn't attracted to him. In fact, she wasn't really interested in seeing him again. But then he took a job in the same company, a few floors down. She's not sure whether it was his charming office persona or the respect he demanded as a supervisor, but the sparks started to fly and an office romance was born.

They exchanged lengthy emails at work, and she stopped by his office frequently. But when the office romance went sour, so did her job. Even before the breakup was official, Brad started dating another coworker. The rumors and uncomfortable encounters with the new couple made Renee's job nearly unbearable.

"It was so awkward," says Renee. "And the stress of the whole situation started to affect my work."

Eventually, Renee had no option but to leave and find another job. This is just one example of why office romance is not a good choice for some people.

Unfortunately, Renee's experience isn't uncommon. "When you're in an office environment and you're working on something you're passionate about, you might be more attracted to someone than you would in real life," says career expert and author Nicole Williams.

And although some office romances do end up happily after, as the old adage goes, if you play with fire, you're bound to get burned. According to Williams, from the first flush of love to the potentially messy breakup, an office romance can be distracting, which can directly affect your career and salary potential.

"It's hard to concentrate on the big meeting or proposal when you've got the love of your life over your shoulder," says Williams. "And, if you end up angry and hating each other, it has the potential to really damage your career."

But with half of the employees in CareerBuilder's 2006 Office Romance survey admitting to an office romance, abstinence may not be the answer. Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen, authors of Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding - and Managing - Romance on the Job, both met their spouses in the workplace. The office, which they describe as the "village of the 21st century," can be a promising place to find a mate, they say. In fact, an office romance can enhance your career (and your life) if handled carefully.

Their best piece of advice for avoiding conflict down the road is to have a conversation about the end of the relationship at the beginning.

"We suggest people enter into a breakup agreement the equivalent of a pre-nup," says Olen. "You talk about the breakup and how it could end and lay down certain ground rules in terms of behavior."

Williams agrees. "It's almost like you have to expedite the situation more quickly than you would with someone outside the office," she says. "You have to decide as a couple that there's something bigger than you to protect and respect each other enough to not damage your careers."

So what constitutes good office romance behavior? It starts with a clear separation of your work and personal life.

"You met this person at work, but you don't conduct your relationship at work," says Losee.

This means no personal visits to each other's cubicles, no emails on work time, no fighting at work, and no instant messaging. Even if it's not love notes you're exchanging, your behavior won't always be perceived as innocent. "Perception is reality," says Williams. "And if people perceive that you're flirting instead of working, it can really hurt you."

Williams does caution against hiding your office romance, however. "It's never really hidden," she says. "Everyone loves to talk about the thing that's seemingly taboo. So, if you don't bring it out into the open, people are going to talk about it and make it much worse than it actually is." There are always office romance signs.

Once the office romance is common knowledge, Olen suggests indulging your coworkers with only the most basic information about your relationship. If you keep discussions about your office romance to a minimum, there will be less opportunity for gossip during and after the relationship. "Conduct yourself with grace and dignity," says Losee, "and others will take their cue from you and do the same."

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