How to make an office romance work: tips on risks and challenges

  • For many overworked people, the office may be the only place they can find love. But office romances have the potential to ruin careers
  • Beware romances where one person has professional authority over another
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 5:03pm

Office romances are often complicated, challenging and sometimes taboo, especially when there is an unequal power dynamic that may even negatively affect the career of one of the couple.

Some fear an office romance could be a career killer if things go pear-shaped; others consider them unconducive to productivity because of the distraction, either in the passionate early stages or if things do not pan out as intended. But the romantics would have you believe that love in the office has its upsides, such as allowing overworked or stressed employees to seek solace in these affairs.

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Valentina Tudose, a relationship expert at dating agency Happy Ever After, believes that people in work-obsessed Hong Kong have little chance of meeting a potential partner who is not a colleague, especially for those not keen on dating apps. For them, finding love at work may be the only viable option.

“Having long working hours increases the likelihood that people will engage in office romances as proximity and familiarity are two of the most common reasons people fall in love,” Tudose says.

A 2016 census report by the Hong Kong government paints a bleak picture of work life in the city. Out of 3.43 million employees (excluding foreign domestic workers) in the city, 11 per cent worked at least 60 hours a week. Even worse, around 32,000 were putting in 75 hours or more a week.

For those who want to embark on a work relationship, Tudose says the rule of thumb is to keep it professional at all times, because love and work should not get tangled up.

“Love and work don’t usually mix very well because the typical emotions associated with love – jealousy and anger or even romantic excitement and infatuation – are not the qualities we usually display in a professional setting,” she says. In short, the phrase “don’t air your dirty laundry in public” is a handy mantra to have. 

Most big companies have official or unofficial policies around work relationships. Staff need to know what these are so that they don’t find themselves in breach of contract – especially in the era of the #MeToo movement, Tudose stresses.

When it comes to the dos and don’ts, her first piece of advice is asking yourself: “If things go south, can you manage the situation professionally at work?”

Tudose adds that managers’ chief concern is making sure nothing affects the stability of the team. If two of their staff members become an item, they will naturally ask: “Will a potential break-up affect the team? Will it create a toxic or negative environment in the office?”

She says workplace romances are more likely to survive when people are in different teams but holding positions of equal level; or when a couple keeps their personal affairs entirely off-site. Success also depends on the company not having any specific requirement against inter-office relationships.

If the toxicity is high, lateral moves within the company or even the dramatic step of finding another job can become a necessity
Valentina Tudose

Should couples keep their romances a secret? Tudose says it depends on individual situations.

“When the relationship is between two equals who have no authority over, or real dealings with, each other in the professional space, and there is no specific company rule against it, there isn’t much benefit to hiding it. But there is also no need to make it public,” Tudose says. She adds, though, that if the romance ends in a messy way – or not on mutual terms – it is best to keep things under wraps.

It is much more challenging when one partner has professional authority over the other, as there is a danger that other workers will assume favouritism, she warns. “These relationships are usually strongly discouraged as they affect team morale and usually end with the junior partner having to leave the office when the relationship is over.”

In the worst cases, anger, frustration, and other negative emotions can bubble up and overwhelm the workplace. Tudose’s advice is to avoid any public fights or vicious email communication.

“If the toxicity is high, lateral moves within the company or even the dramatic step of finding another job can become a necessity. But it is best to discuss these issues with your HR department and supervisor so that amicable solutions can be found.”

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Should you give up on office romances completely if you have already had a bad experience?

Tudose is encouragingly optimistic. “Office romances are not inherently bad. Many people meet, work together, and end up happily married without any drama. It is the same principle as not giving up on the world of dating after a singularly lousy date. The key to handling any relationship that doesn’t work is to learn from it – and do better next time.”

How to keep office romances in check

1. Tell your supervisor to avoid breaching company rules and prevent gossip

2. Avoid public displays of affection in the office

3. Handle all personal issues outside

4. Refrain from involving colleagues in any personal matters in case of a break-up

5. Stay professional, even if your ex starts dating another colleague

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post