The Question You Must Ask Before You Sleep with a Co-Worker
Hours before I heard that CIA director David Petraeus had had an affair with the woman who’d written his biography (and worked with him for long stretches), a reporter asked me if I thought it was okay to date someone you work with. Yes, it can be, I told her. That is as long as your company doesn’t have either a written or unspoken policy against it, neither of you is married, neither of you supervises the other, and you plan to be incredibly discreet about it.
She seemed a little surprised by the fact that I was endorsing the concept of office romance. Well, maybe I’m a romantic or softie, but let’s face it: it can be tough to meet a good guy these days. When you find yourself attracted to a work colleague who you’ve spent days or weeks interacting with, it can seem like a far saner way to forge a romantic connection than picking up a stranger at a bar or sorting through the lame-assed liars on Match.com In fact, according to some studies, at least 40 percent of people have dated someone they met at work.
But I added a caveat to my answer: before you date a “safe” candidate at work, you have to realize this: People will find out—no matter how careful you are. Your co-workers see you all day long and they’re attuned to nuances in your behavior that you may not even be conscious of. I was briefly married in my late twenties and after it ended I decided not to broadcast it in the office. But a 23-year old guy I worked with asked me if everything was okay because he noticed I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring. Jeez, Doogie Howser, P.I.
Plus, when you have the hots for someone, it’s just hard to keep a lid on your feelings. You act weird or goofy when the other person is in your presence—avoiding eye contact or saying dumb stuff. Paula Broadwell told a reporter that Petraus considered her his “avatar.” You don’t make a comment like that about the subject of the biography you’ve written. You say that about a guy you’re totally whipped over.
Okay, once you’ve accepted the fact that THEY WILL FIND OUT, you need to ask yourself a question before you say yes to that drink that you know is more than a drink: “When people higher up in the company find out, how will it alter their impression of me?” If you’re 24 and fairly low on the totem pole or you work in a very easygoing, entrepreneurial setting, it may not be a big deal. But if you’re more senior and your company and/or boss are fairly buttoned up, it could negatively color their perception–even if you theoretically are doing nothing wrong. Your boss may get this idea, perhaps not even fully formed, that you are the type of person who puts a need for romance above your work priorities, that you don’t really care what other people think, and that you don’t mind being the subject of gossip (and there will be gossip, trust me).
None of this may make a higher up want to fire you, but it might affect your performance reviews, the assignments you are given and the chance for promotion.
I’m not saying don’t go for the romance. But be sure to ask yourself that question—and listen hard to the answer.