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Work Ethic

The truth about office romances

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Are office romances all they are cut out to be? (Thinkstock)

Are office romances all they are cut out to be? (Thinkstock)

Q. In office romances between a boss and a junior employee, what is the ethical line between a relationship based on mutual affection and attraction, and a coercive one where the superior has the power? Does it matter whether the boss and the employee are male or female? 

Let’s dispel two myths about office romances: you can’t keep them a secret from colleagues, and there’s always a power dynamic when the two people involved aren’t peers. “In the end, truth will out,” Shakespeare wrote. 

If it’s a coercive relationship, it surely violates the company’s policies and exposes the firm to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. But even if the employees involved are dating of their own free will, the one higher in the hierarchy will retain some measure of power, said Hilary Pearl, who runs Pearl Associates LLC, an executive coaching and organisational consulting firm, based in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, in the US.

This can wreak havoc not only for the two people dating but also for their colleagues. Pearl tells the story of one female client whose male boss was having an office romance with a woman who was the client’s direct report.  Of course the client found out about the relationship, which the pair had tried to keep secret. Then she started worrying about how she was expected to treat her own junior staffer, who was now the boss’s girlfriend.

“She saw what appeared to be favouritism in terms of the boss’s input into the more junior employee’s performance appraisal,” Pearl said. All this drama distracted her from focusing on her job, not to mention the fact that it left the company open to a discrimination lawsuit because of the boss’s behaviour.

Even worse: what happens when the couple breaks up? “Relationships that begin with affection and respect can end quite differently, with disastrous results,” Pearl noted.

Although Pearl says gender doesn’t change the ethical issues around office romances, she cautions that the woman may have more to lose. “Whether the superior or junior employee, the woman creates just one more barrier to tackle, and puts herself at further risk of hurting her personal brand and jeopardising her job security and career advancement,” she said.

Is that fair? No, but it’s the reality.

So how can one handle these challenges? Avoidance is the best rule. Try your hardest not to get involved romantically with others in your reporting line. If you do, think seriously about making a move to a different department or even another company. You’re in danger of damaging not only your own career, but also those of others in your workplace.

“Rarely does an office romance affect just the two people involved — it affects colleagues, the department, and the organisation especially if there is a reporting relationship,” Pearl said.

And if you’re stuck in a coercive relationship with a boss, that’s where the human resources department should get involved. Most companies have policies that prevent reprisals against employees who have been the target of a boss’s advances. Many companies forbid office romances, period.

"If there is a policy against relationships that have direct reporting (lines), then the employees involved in the relationship are guilty of violating their ethical and actual contract with the company to behave in a respectful, responsible, high integrity manner that upholds the company’s standards," Pearl said.

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Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com

Relationships that begin with affection and respect can end quite differently, with disastrous results. — Hilary Pearl