Love At Work: Is It Ever OK To Date A Co-Worker?: Life Kit The workplace still ranks as one of the top five places where people meet their mates. Love is intoxicating, but you don't want a workplace romance to become toxic.
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Can I Date That Co-Worker? What To Consider Before An Office Romance

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Can I Date That Co-Worker? What To Consider Before An Office Romance

Can I Date That Co-Worker? What To Consider Before An Office Romance

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YUKI NOGUCHI, HOST:

Romantic love - think of all the crazy things people do in its name - launch a thousand ships, build the Taj Mahal or something a little less grand, like making out in a restaurant.

MITCH MITCHELL: We always had this holiday party at the end of the year. And one of my co-workers and I - you know, the classic, like, get drunk and hook up at a restaurant.

NOGUCHI: This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and we're talking about love at work. You know, the cute co-worker - so competent, so compelling. But also, mixing the personal and professional - so high-risk. Like, what if you break up?

MITCHELL: It was a solid, I think, like, six months to a year of just going into the room and feeling really embarrassed and kind of devastated. And all the co-workers already know your business.

NOGUCHI: And there is so much more to navigate.

MIRANDE VALBRUNE: I've heard the saying, always swipe right. And that's a reference to online dating apps. But the workplace is certainly not someplace to carry in that philosophy.

NOGUCHI: Relationships at work - it's complicated, especially after #MeToo. And yet, plenty of us are still doing it. The workplace still ranks one of the top five places people meet their mates. Love is intoxicating. It's just that we at LIFE KIT want to help you make sure it never becomes toxic. Don't even flirt on email or Slack until you've considered a few key things, like, is it safe to ask your co-worker out? And if you become an item, who needs to know? When? Plus, what's your backup plan? Our practical advice for navigating love at work.

This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Yuki Noguchi. I cover business, the workplace and life at work. Before we get started, I feel the need to begin by passing along a warning. Every dating expert I talked to emphasized that their primary advice is to not date at work.

DAMONA HOFFMAN: I have always advised my clients against dating at work. If they can avoid dating at work, they absolutely should.

NOGUCHI: That's Damona Hoffman, a Los Angeles dating coach who helps people set up profiles and strategize around relationships.

HOFFMAN: It comes with so many additional challenges that a lot of daters aren't thinking about.

NOGUCHI: Challenges that could impact your co-workers, your company and your career. But when it comes to love, we tend to ignore such sobering advice until the bad stuff happens to us. And that's how it went down for Mitch Mitchell. Mitchell worked in fundraising for his college in Arizona a few years ago. He's the person who found love at the office after-party. For Mitchell, it was serious.

MITCHELL: Yeah, it was a good time. But also, I'll be honest. It felt kind of cool to be like, look at me; I'm the - you know, the hot guy in the office. Probably looking back, I don't think anyone really cared, but it was an ego-booster, you know, too.

NOGUCHI: Then Mitchell discovered his girlfriend was secretly still dating her ex. And then that ex also got a job at the same place where Mitchell and his girlfriend worked. Imagine the humiliation. Mitchell sometimes even had to sit between the two of them.

MITCHELL: And then it fell apart. Then that ego just collapsed (laughter).

NOGUCHI: Exactly. Egos, heartbreak, jealousy and resentments don't mix well at work. So remember, there is a lot at stake here. And experts say, avoid dating a co-worker if you can, especially now, when workplaces are introducing new rules governing love in the workplace. You need to know what those rules are. So our first piece of advice or takeaway is this - do your due diligence. You do not want to run afoul of your employer's policies.

Jess Carbino is a Los Angeles sociologist who researches online dating. She used to work for dating apps like Bumble and Tinder. She says, first, check your employee handbook. Your relationship is a potential liability for your company. They have to worry about things like sexual harassment, favoritism, retaliation and abuse of power.

JESS CARBINO: There may be a variety of things that companies may want to do internally to protect themselves, which is why many companies now have anti-dating policies, anti-fraternization policies.

NOGUCHI: Carbino says more companies are trying to insulate themselves after the #MeToo movement exposed workplace abuses. This is where people like Mirande Valbrune come in. Valbrune is a Miami-based employment lawyer who's written a book on sexual harassment. She says #MeToo shined a spotlight on power dynamics and how those might play into relationships.

VALBRUNE: There are a lot of obvious concerns there. An employee may feel that they are pressured to enter into the relationship because of the inherent power dynamic there to the appearance of a conflict of interest - if other people on the team are looking at this and may perceive that, well, this person's going to be favored. And so, you know, for a number of reasons, companies may outline disclosure requirements or outright prohibitions of dating relationships between managers and their direct reports.

NOGUCHI: That's a big one. If you supervise the person, or vice versa, chances are your employer will take issue. And we should note our experts strongly suggest if you're thinking about dating someone you manage or you're thinking of dating your boss, do not do it. At the very least, it will require you report the relationship to HR, and HR is likely to shift your jobs around to avoid that conflict of interest.

But balancing those power dynamics might result in some bigger consequences, like losing your job. But let's say there are no rules, or few of them. Just because the paperwork checks out doesn't mean you should barrel ahead because you still need to consider what happens if things don't work out.

That's our second takeaway. Think through your worst-case scenario. Before you even go on your first date, visualize a breakup and how it might feel - not romantic, but smart. Damona Hoffman, the LA dating coach, says relationships can sour for lots of reasons.

HOFFMAN: If one potential outcome is that you could lose your job and you could lose your dream, you have to ask if this relationship is really worth it. And we've seen these scenarios happen time and time again. Last year, the CEO of McDonald's was pushed out for a consensual relationship. And Katie Hill left her position in Congress because of a consensual relationship.

NOGUCHI: You might not think that's fair, but it happens. Thinking with your head can be hard when dopamine and endorphins are involved. But Hoffman says consider your options.

HOFFMAN: Would I have to leave my job? Would I be able to ask for a reference for another job? Would I ruin my reputation?

NOGUCHI: These are things Andrea Grych wishes she'd considered. And she speaks from lots of experience.

ANDREA GRYCH: I like to say that I find all my husbands at work because it's true.

NOGUCHI: When Grych was fresh out of school, she met a guy at work. She thought he was cute and didn't care what their co-workers thought.

GRYCH: Honestly, it's not something that I worried about because it was such an intense relationship. We fell for each other really, really head over heels kind of from the first week.

NOGUCHI: Her first boss didn't care. Her second did. And Grych, who lives outside Boston, eventually left the company. In retrospect, she says, she wishes she'd kept more barriers between her work and private life.

GRYCH: That's not what you want people to think of when they see you. You don't want that to be the first impression. Like, oh, that's Andrea. She's - you know, she's dating so-and-so. It really should be, you know, that's Andrea. She's responsible for X, Y and Z. And, you know, here's what she's done for the company.

NOGUCHI: Grych eventually married him, had two kids and amicably divorced. Grych got a new job, where she also found her new man. After five years of dating, she wanted to marry. He did not. In that stalemate, Grych suddenly had to imagine her worst-case scenario.

GRYCH: Because at that point, we had really intertwined our friend groups, both, you know, at work and at home. So because the both of us have been here for so long, you know, we do have a network of work friends who are also our real-life friends. So you know, that was definitely added to the stress of, how is this going to work?

NOGUCHI: Fortunately for Grych, that never came to pass. He eventually proposed, and they had a Vegas wedding. But Mitch Mitchell, who we met earlier in this episode, will tell you workplace breakups are not fun. He says it felt like the walls closed in when he was sandwiched between his ex-girlfriend and her new girlfriend.

MITCHELL: I just wanted to leave. It was like - it might as well have been an elevator. You know, that's - the space is obviously bigger than that, but that's how small it felt.

NOGUCHI: The point is, you need to understand this might happen to you. Maybe it's something you can talk over with your love interest. Experts say you should discuss what it would mean if things don't work out. Do you both understand and accept the risks? At a minimum, be candid with yourself. Would you resent having to leave or switch jobs? Could your position potentially make a person feel you're pressuring them into a relationship, or, since about a quarter of workplace romances are affairs, are you risking family relationships, as well as your job? Also, remember, workplace romance always has HR as a potential third wheel because a relationship with someone at work also involves the people and projects at work.

Employment attorney Mirande Valbrune.

VALBRUNE: There is a possibility that you will have to eventually discuss or defend this relationship to a third party, perhaps HR. And in that case, will you feel confident that as you talk about your behavior during the course of this relationship, that none of the things that you talk about will cause you embarrassment.

NOGUCHI: So let's say you've done the due diligence and considered all horrible outcomes, and still that hasn't turned you off. However, you're not sure whether the person is interested. This is where things can get very tricky.

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NOGUCHI: Our third takeaway is this - gauge interest and make it safe to say, no. Jess Carbino, the online dating researcher, says this is a very common dilemma.

CARBINO: It is very difficult for people to try to decide whether to take the leap of asking someone out. Do I tell this person that I'm interested in them? And I think that is the hardest thing for people to deal with.

NOGUCHI: Dating apps have made it easier to ask people out in general, and sometimes they might even try to pair you up with co-workers. That presents a new minefield of no-no's. Damona Hoffman says, do not swipe right, wink or message your colleagues this way.

HOFFMAN: If you see someone that you know or someone that you work with, there's like, oh, I'll swipe right just because it's a, hey, I see you too. But it could set up a dangerous situation because you don't know if they've swiped right on you because they saw you or they've swiped right on you because they want to date you.

NOGUCHI: In fact, Carbino says, post-#MeToo, many people don't want to ask people out in the workplace.

CARBINO: Now they are more likely to try to interact with them in a group environment where there are other people around and can witness their behavior and try to gauge whether or not there's any interest beyond the platonic workplace friendship.

NOGUCHI: Several people told me a group gathering is the safest place to suss out feelings. It's neutral ground where the person can feel free to flirt which, in turn, might give you an opening. And once you're pretty sure you have that opening, what do you say? It's super awkward. So Carbino's advice is to proceed with extreme caution. Honor the other person's wishes and make it as comfortable as possible for them to say no. Something like this.

CARBINO: I have grown to like you, and I would like to explore, potentially, what it might be like to see you in a context that's not exclusively work.

NOGUCHI: Like I said, it's going to be awkward.

CARBINO: How do you feel about that? If this is something that you're not comfortable with, I will accept your decision completely. But I would like to know if you're interested as well.

NOGUCHI: Now, you don't have to say that exactly, but put your own spin on it.

CARBINO: I would try to keep it as open as possible and try to understand that the person's coming from a position where they may not feel necessarily comfortable saying no to you.

NOGUCHI: And what if the response is not a clear yes or no? Like, they'd like to think about it or maybe.

HOFFMAN: If you got a maybe, a maybe is a no, and there's no gray area in that. If you've asked them out on neutral territory and you get a maybe and you keep pushing, that's when you have stepped into the zone of sexual harassment. Or even if you get a - I would, but - that is also a sign that you have to back off.

NOGUCHI: Backing off means not asking a second time. But let's say, lucky for you, they agree to go on a date and it seems to be going well. You post it on Instagram. Talk about it with your boss. At what point is it OK to put a photo of your new love on your desk? All that is tricky stuff. That's why our fourth takeaway is this - be on the same page about who you're going to tell and what you're going to say.

How to approach disclosure is a sensitive issue common to everyone I interviewed. Candi Woodruff kept her relationship with her colleague under wraps for months. In Boone, N.C., that wasn't easy.

CANDI WOODRUFF: Living in a small town, you know, we bump into co-workers and of course we would separate immediately. Like, he would go to the deli section at the grocery store if we saw a co-worker, and I would run the other direction.

NOGUCHI: Normally, the protocol is to tell human resources. The problem is Woodruff is the HR director for her manufacturing firm. In fact, she interviewed him for the job two years prior. She was not his supervisor, but she worried that it might be perceived as a conflict of interest or an abuse of power.

WOODRUFF: I had no say about what his pay rate was or any kind of bonuses that he got and vice versa, but we didn't want to give off that appearance before we even knew that this is what we wanted.

NOGUCHI: So a few months in, she and her partner agreed to tell her boss, the chief financial officer of the company. The strategy and timing was something they decided on together, and timing can be tricky. You don't want to disclose too early or too late. Many people said they waited until their relationship seemed solid. But Hoffman says make sure the other person is aware you're doing that.

HOFFMAN: Usually HR will go to that person and have them also co-sign on the document that discloses the relationship. If you go to them and they are like, what relationship, we're not in a relationship - then you're in an even more awkward position.

NOGUCHI: In fact, Valbrune, the employment attorney, was recently in the uncomfortable position of intervening for a man who'd gone on a date with a female colleague who then kept pestering him.

VALBRUNE: And, literally, the first thing that she said was that that was her future fiancee and her current boyfriend.

NOGUCHI: That was not a happy moment for anyone. But hiding a relationship for too long can also backfire.

Jess Carbino.

CARBINO: People who think they've hidden their relationships are probably relatively naive.

NOGUCHI: In short, it's far better to be upfront than to get busted. That's not to say you need to go public with all your co-workers. In fact, the less they see of your relationship, probably the better. That means no public displays of affection, no playing favorites. Put yourself in the shoes of a colleague who doesn't want the team dynamic or their chances at a promotion affected by an interoffice romance.

Not being overly affectionate at work also has another benefit. If you break up, the change might be less obvious to those around you. And who wants to field questions about a raw breakup at work? Which brings us to our fifth and final takeaway - if things don't work out, be professional. You have to see past your own red, puffy eyes, says Damona Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: You have to step back, see the bigger picture and see where you're headed at that company. And how you can refocus your energy to something more constructive than pining over someone in the workplace or being distraught over a workplace breakup.

NOGUCHI: This is work, after all. And we've been telling you throughout this episode to conduct yourself professionally. Be cautious mixing the personal, so post-breakup is no different. Or if you simply cannot focus, request a transfer, or a shift in location or schedule.

HOFFMAN: I did have a client actually who - her ex-husband started dating someone that they worked with. And she just made it so that their schedules did not overlap. She orchestrated a lot of space between the two of them. And she did that so that she could still enjoy her job and not have to be faced with that continual pain being presented to her over and over again at work.

NOGUCHI: Hard as it may be, think back to when you interacted with each other before the relationship. Carbino says, go back to that level of engagement. Don't seek your ex out. Don't avoid them either. Talk by email if it's easier, but get the job done.

CARBINO: I think by avoiding the person, they may be indicating that the person is being retaliated against, perhaps, which could hurt them in the long run.

NOGUCHI: And if all else fails, then perhaps it's time to leave, says Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: If the workplace is no longer somewhere that you want to be because of a breakup, then you owe it to yourself to move on and to look for another opportunity. You're at work not to make friends, but to be productive and to learn and grow.

NOGUCHI: See it as a chance at a fresh start. Whether it's love or jobs, it's likely there are plenty more fish in the sea.

So just to review our five takeaways - if you're flirting with the idea of flirting with someone at work, first, do your due diligence. Make sure you know your employer's rules and then abide by them.

Then it's time to think through your worst-case scenario. That's the second key takeaway. Lots can go wrong. And if it does, how are you going to feel? What are the downsides for the other person?

The third thing you have to consider is how to gauge interest, and make it safe to say no. Tread extremely lightly. Be clear, but also back off quickly if you're getting anything other than an unqualified "Yes."

Be on the same page about who you're going to tell and what you're going to say. That's the fourth takeaway. Disclosure is something you should handle carefully - and in conjunction with your new partner.

And finally, remember that this is work. So the fifth and final take away - if things don't work out, ask for a transfer or shift in schedule. Be professional.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have an episode about how to quit your job, one on how to make friends - and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter. And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from listener Kerry May (ph).

KERRY MAY: Hi. My tip is for when you're making guacamole, to make sure you save the avocado pits. It helps the guacamole stay green if you put avocado pits in the guacamole when you're finished. It will prevent it from browning. All right. Thanks.

NOGUCHI: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. Or email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. And our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Yuki Noguchi. Thanks for listening.

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