Barack Obama met Michelle Robinson in 1989 at the law firm Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago. Michelle was a first-year associate, and Barack was a summer intern. Despite the fact that she was assigned to be his mentor, Barack asked the 25-year-old associate on a date about a month into their working relationship. She initially declined, but eventually relented. Today, the former first couple has been married for more than 25 years.
Barack and Michelle Obama are an example of a workplace romance that worked out well; in fact, they're probably many people's relationship goals. There are plenty of other stories of successful workplace relationships that became romantic, long-term relationships: Bill and Melinda Gates, Tina Brown and Harold Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr., and Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth, to name a few.
But for every workplace romance gone right, there are just as many—if not far more—that have had disastrous consequences. Take Bill Clinton and Monia Lewinsky. William Oefelein and Lisa Nowak. Kwame Kilpatrick and Christine Beatty.
The Prevalence of Office Romance
According to a report by CareerBuilder, office romance is at a 10-year low, with only 36% of workers saying they've dated a co-worker. This is at least in part because of the #MeToo movement. With heightened sensitivity to unwanted sexual advances and the effects they have on people's careers—as in the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and many celebrities, whose careers have ended as a result of their workplace harassment—people may be reluctant to initiate relationships with colleagues.
Still, for those of us who don't have the status and power of the men who seemed to "get away with it" because of their wealth and celebrity for so long, is an office relationship ever okay?
Colleagues do date and can sometimes have successful relationships. But before you embark on an office relationship, read our list of dos and don'ts for cultivating and maintaining a successful—and hopefully drama-free—romantic relationship with a coworker.
Dos and Don'ts of Office Romance
1. Do consult your employee handbook and policy on dating.
Many companies have established rules or guidelines for employees on handling workplace relationships. Read the dating policy thoroughly before you take any next steps—even asking your coworker out for a drink that's anything aside from a work happy hour or catch-up conversation with a colleague. Different companies' rules may vary—some may even prohibit sexual relationships of any kind among employees—but many do allow consensual relationships, as long as they're not between at different levels in a chain of command (e.g. you and your boss's boss or you and your report).
Your company may define other parameters as well. (Remember how Michael and Jan and later Pam and Jim had to report their relationships to HR on The Office?) If your employee handbook doesn't clearly define the rules for romantic relationships at work, ask your HR department about it.
2. Do ensure that the relationship is entirely consensual.
Initiating unwanting advances can end someone's career. That's just one of the reasons why you need to make sure both you and your colleague are on the same page before embarking on a relationship. You both need to be very sure that this is what you both want because any sexual harassment claim, later on, can ruin both of your professional and personal lives.
On a similar note, it's best to avoid one-night stands and hookups within the company. Even if you're both on board with a brief, no-strings-attached affair, this type of relationship can get messy quickly—and messier still when you're working together. Remember: You'll be seeing this person on a regular basis, and it's hard to avoid complications if you're having a casual office affair, too.
3. Do plan ahead.
The reality is that many relationships end. This can be especially brutal when you work with your former partner. Not only will you have to continue to see the person, but you'll also have to maintain professionalism, as much as you may want to lash out.
Before you begin an office relationship, plan for what you'll do if and when it ends. Will you stay at your job? If not, think about what you'll do next. If you can't fathom the idea of seeing the person after ending your relationship or leaving your job because of him or her, it's probably not a good idea to start an office romance at all.
4. Don't date subordinates or superiors.
Even if your company policy doesn't explicitly prohibit relationships with direct reports or managers, it's still a good idea to avoid them. It's very, very difficult to maintain a relationship in which one person (usually the higher up) doesn't wield the power if it involves a superior and subordinate. Even if you feel like your relationship is completely separate from work and one of equals, other people aren't going to see it that way, and you both might end up with bad reputations that could impact your career in the future.
5. Don't flaunt your relationship at work.
Work is a PDA-free zone. If you're having a relationship outside of work, it needs to stay outside of work. That means no public displays of affection. That will only make your colleagues uncomfortable. At work, you should be working; keep your two lives separate.
6. Don't fight in the office or in front of other employees.
Something else that will make your coworkers uncomfortable is fighting in the office. You may have fights; most couples do. But you need to be mature about your relationship and keep your love life out of the workplace. Make sure to discuss how you'll handle fights with your partner before they arise; it's best to save them for later.
Workplace relationships can work, as long they start with willing participants who understand the potential consequences. But be cautious, and spend some time considering your priorities and how your potential romance fits into them.