HR Hero Line

A practical look at dating in the workplace

by Kylie Crawford TenBrook

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it’s a good time to review the problems that can arise from office romances and outline some steps you can take to prevent them from occurring at your workplace. It’s no secret that workplace relationships can lead to trouble, particularly when they sour.

One of my friends from elementary school, Erin Tillman, is the Los Angeles-based Dating Advice Girl. As the Dating Advice Girl, Erin hosts a radio show, has authored a book, and provides dating coaching and tips to singles. I recently called her to get her point of view on dating in the workplace. 

Kylie: In the time you’ve been doing this, have you worked with people who have dated in the workplace?

Erin: For sure. I’m even guilty of it. In 2014, most of us work a ton, and most of us don’t have a ton of free time. You spend a lot of your time at work or doing work-related things, so it’s inevitable that you’re going to meet somebody you find attractive in the workplace. I’ve had a lot of clients who have dated people they’ve worked with, and it can get messy. I’m not saying it can’t work. I do know some people who work with their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend, but it can get a little messy in terms of, for example, jealousy. Or maybe somebody gets promoted and someone doesn’t and there’s some resentment.

Kylie: Besides the downsides you’ve already mentioned, are there any other downsides?

Erin: The other thing that personally would annoy me is that I’m an independent person. This sounds terrible, but I don’t want to see the person I’m dating all the time. I want to be able to miss the person I’m dating. Those little things that might not have annoyed you before start to annoy you a little bit, like the way they drink their coffee. Those little things can get annoying if you are with that person at your job for eight [or] nine hours and then go home and see that person for another whatever number of hours.

Also, there’s the aspect of inappropriateness in the workplace. Some people are very touchy-feely or demonstrative in their affection. Who wants to see that? You always want to remain professional, and if you are dating someone that you just can’t keep your hands off of, it could get a little inappropriate.

Kylie: That’s when it usually gets referred over to me.

Erin: Then Kylie’s involved. And who wants that?

Kylie: No one. Are there any upsides to dating in the workplace?

Erin: I guess, yes. The opposite end of what I said in terms of seeing someone too much: You get to be around your love interest all the time. That’s a perk, so long as you’re not annoying each other. I think every dynamic is different. I think we’ve all been in relationships with people that we could see being with for hours on end and there’s never a conflict, and then [there are] others where it’s a fiery relationship. It could be positive if you get along well with your love interest. You can go to lunch together, it’s really cute, but I do think there are more negatives than positives. [Pause.] I’m not going to swear.

Kylie: Please do.

Erin: Well, you know the saying, “Don’t poo where you eat.” [Lots of giggling.] Because it can be messy, and you’re really opening up your workplace and colleagues to whatever domestic issues are going on. You just have to be careful. There’s also the issue of a breakup. Then you’re working together still, but it’s awkward because you just broke up and you might hate each other a little bit or you’re not over them and you’re sad. And instead of work being your focus, you’re thinking about the person you used to date, and it makes you crazy.

Kylie: What advice would you give to someone who is contemplating dating or is dating in the workplace?

Erin: I would say number one, keep a low profile. If you are dating someone in the workplace, you might want to shout it from the rooftops, but I don’t think that’s really smart because anything can happen. You don’t want people in your business.

And people love gossip. The other thing I would recommend is dating someone who is not in your department. So, if at all possible, try to be attracted to somebody who works on a different floor than you or who works in a different department because then there’s a little more separation between work and love life. Then it’s not in everyone’s face every day. Finally, I would also say it’s about respect and keeping clear boundaries. It’s a professional environment, and it’s important to stay focused on your job.

Kylie: Those are good things, and they actually bleed over into what I do: creating boundaries and making sure there are no direct reporting relationships. Do you have a favorite story about you or someone else dating in the workplace? It can be a learning lesson or humorous—I’m good with either.

Erin: Working in TV, film, and radio, you hear about people in a movie together ending up together. You spend so much time—15 hours a day—on a set with somebody, especially if you’re an actor. You’re already pretending to be in love with this person on camera, so it’s inevitable. I have a lot of stories.

Kylie: If you want to incorporate a story about celebrities, that would be awesome. I’m just kidding. No, I’m actually not.

Erin: For example, this is kind of a minor celebrity thing, but on Dancing with the Stars, it seems like every season there are rumors about which teams are dating. So this year it’s Maksi —I can’t say his last name—and the girl who is the Olympic figure skater (I think she might have won gold or silver), which is totally unfair, by the way. Her whole life has been spent training in some sort of dance—even though it’s ice dancing, it’s still dancing.

So anyway, they’re teamed up this season, and it’s funny because they’re trying so hard in interviews not to appear like they’re a couple. They’re trying not to touch each other. This is interesting for the workplace, too, because when two people have chemistry, it’s really hard to ignore it—you can see it.

Even if you’re not touching somebody, it’s like you can see the waves of energy going back and forth between the two people and what’s happening with them. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying with words, we can see it. And dancing with someone is a very intimate thing, especially some of the dances they’re doing—Latin-based dances, which are all hip action. Of course, there’s going to be some kind of chemistry.

Kylie: We’re face to face 18 hours a day. We might as well date, right?

Erin: Yes! Eventually, if you’re dancing, you’re touching each other, and he’s holding you. Please. Now, to turn the tables, I have a question for you. Are there some instances where it would be OK to date someone in the workplace, or is it a no-no—there’s no room for that?

Kylie: No, that’s definitely not the case. The biggest problem arises legally when there’s a reporting relationship, like when a supervisor becomes intimate with a subordinate. That’s when there’s a problem because you never know if the conduct and relationship are actually welcome. But as far as two employees who see each other every day dating, the situation can be OK, so long as both parties are OK with it, continue to be OK with it, and conduct themselves professionally.

Erin: It’s interesting you say that. One level shouldn’t be dating another level. And I’m sure you’ve also seen this—if a supervisor breaks up with an employee, that employee can be totally disgruntled and do some damage, which could ruin reputations and relationships. I do have a few random stories I’ve heard about interns getting involved with supervisors, and that’s never good. But hello, the first person who comes to my mind is Monica Lewinsky. She just wrote a book about her time as a White House intern—it’s out now, and everyone’s still talking about her relationship with Bill Clinton even though it happened way back.

Kylie: It’s still fresh.

Erin: If ever there was a story about not doing anything with a subordinate in the workplace, it’s that.

Kylie: Yeah, and that kind of exemplifies what we’re talking about. If the commander in chief is coming on to you, there may be some sort of pressure to comply.

Erin: Oh, maybe a little. And at the time she was, what, like 19? First of all, everyone I know who has met or interacted with Bill Clinton has said that he’s extremely charming. Guys and girls. He’s a really engaging person. So for someone who is young, it would be overwhelming for the leader of the free world to be interested in you and proposition you or whatever. And then for him—people will never forget. No matter how much humanitarian awesomeness he does, people will never forget Monica Lewinsky. Never. And Monica—people will always know her for that. So remember that.

Kylie: Don’t hook up with the leader of the free world. Got it. Now, here is a look at the main legal issue associated with dating in the workplace, potential policies on workplace dating, and some additional considerations for HR and legal professionals.

Tune in for the next post, where Kylie will discuss policy, chain-of-command, and other legal issues that come with dating in the workplace that HR must address.

Kylie Crawford TenBrook serves as corporate counsel for Best Western International, Inc., in Arizona. Previously, she practiced labor and employment law exclusively.