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Is there a future for romance in the workplace?


Workplace romances have always and will always exist.

Birds do it. Bees do it. Cleopatra, Angelina Jolie, Bridget Jones and even John F. Kennedy did it. I’m talking about love affairs in the workplace. With all the attention on the #metoo movement and the exposing of predatory bosses, it’s easy to be confused about what is now considered acceptable or unacceptable flirting in the workplace. A group of high profile women including Catherine Deneuve in France is speaking out against extremism in reporting bad behaviour. The French women maintain that flirting and bantering between the sexes is normal and acceptable. I don’t think anyone can argue with that but when one person crosses the line and infringes upon another’s personal boundaries or uses their position to jeopardize and manipulate another’s security or career, then it’s a whole different ball game.

A large percentage of the population met their spouse or partner at work. I’m one of them. In fact, I met both my first and second husband through work. It’s an ideal place to go prospecting as you get to see people at their worst and best behaviour.  Being exposed to someone for eight, ten or more hours a day, five days a week provides a pretty accurate indication of that person’s true character. We see how they respond to stress, whether they’re honest and ethical, smart or lazy, and if they’re known as the office gigolo we can opt out. Finding a romantic interest at work eliminates a lot of the guess work.

The power dynamics depend on who’s on top.

The political dynamics of office liaisons, however, are rather tricky. Peers are the safest bet while cross-pollinating between upper, middle and lower ranks is riskier. The inherent problem is if or when the relationship disintegrates, how do the parties handle the fallout? Participants are left in the uncomfortable position of working together when there may be considerable animosity or one partner may be left to witness the other embarking on a new relationship. Not fun and often painful. There’s also the career/business advancement component and women are most often the losers when the male in the relationship is in a more senior position. Chances are one of the parties will have to change jobs and probably leave the company. With all the potential risks associated with office or workplace liaisons, people are advised to enter into relationships with a large dose of caution.

Negotiating the hazards of an office romance can be tricky.

So, what’s a person to do? Long hours at the workplace, particularly early in one’s career often make socializing outside work difficult. When you’re young, single and beginning your career, the opportunities outweigh the pitfalls and if the relationship fails the fallout is less likely to be as damaging. During my forty years in the corporate world I lost count of the number of successful, lasting relationships I saw launched at office baseball games, Christmas parties or after-work drinks at a local pub. Some of these pairings that resulted in marriage and children have successfully produced second generation employees who became part of the corporate ‘family’.

As long as there are men and women, they will pair up in logical, illogical, beneficial and destructive relationships. It served Cleopatra well, but only for awhile; not so for Marc Antony. Brad and Angelina’s relationship fell off the rails in an industry known for risky outcomes. If J.F.K. were alive today, we would like to think his shenanigans would not be tolerated, but consider the track record of the current President of the United States. Workplace romances certainly have their place and will always be part of life but there are no guarantees and should be entered into only after carefully considering the consequences. Not all stories have happy endings.

The #metoo movement is making everyone pause and reconsider what we once considered acceptable behaviour. All flirting is not just cause for dismissal. Not all accusations automatically denote guilt. That’s the challenge. If there are multiple accusers, then odds are “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. But perpetrators also deserve a fair hearing.

Workplace romance is a complicated business and with the increasing awareness of sexual harassment and pushback from opposing viewpoints the discussion is far from over. The current spotlight on the issue will ultimately generate positive change but not without some bumps in the road. As women become more empowered, the rules will become more clearly defined. In the games people play, it’s essential that everyone understands the rules. Both men and women stand to benefit from the outcome.

You’re beautiful mes très chères.

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