Work Romance

Questions to ask before you sleep with your colleague.

MaleEdit | Work Romance

Sexual relationships between colleagues have fuelled years of storylines for viewers of The Office, The X-Files, Grey's Anatomy and Australian Parliament House.

"It's work and it's sex, so it's very relatable," says Robyn Johns, senior lecturer of human resource management at UTS.

It's also extraordinarily common. Between 40 and 52 per cent of people have had a sexual relationship with a colleague.

But just because these relationships are common, it doesn't mean it's easy to balance professionalism and romance.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to avoid making a delicate situation into an uncomfortable one. 

Is it mutual?
There's no excuse for pursuing someone in the workplace who isn't interested in you. If you think that is what's happening, then stop immediately.

In the words of the Australian Human Rights Commission:

"Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour where a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would feel offended, humiliated or intimidated … An unwanted request to go out on a date can also be sexual harassment." 

MaleEdit | Is It Mutual?
MaleEdit | Permission and Consent

Do you have permission and consent?
Even if you've started sleeping together and everything is going well, it doesn't give you permission to behave inappropriately at work.

Revealing sexual details to other colleagues, or being sexually suggestive in front of other people at work, can be harassment.
While harassment can happen within consensual relationships, it can come from other sources too.

"Sexual harassment is derived from people abusing their power in organisations in order to intimidate people," says Kathleen Riach from Monash University, who's extensively interviewed workers about their office romances.
"It's far more likely for abuse and harassment to come from other avenues than consensual relationships." 

What does your workplace say?
When you're entering a workplace relationship, don't forget to find out what your organisation's policies are.

"A lot of people would be surprised to learn their organisation does have some kind of disclosure policy," Dr Riach explains.

While it can be embarrassing to talk about a new relationship with your manager, you could get into trouble with these policies down the track if your boss discovers the relationship.

"Where it can jeopardise people's positions is usually about a lack of disclosure, and to what extent there's been conflicts of interest that have affected the business," Dr Johns says.
Is your love interest your equal?
Between colleagues there can be 'hierarchical' relationships, which involve a power difference between the two of you, and 'lateral' relationships, where neither of you have any power over the other.

Hierarchical relationships are more common. In the US, 29 per cent of workers have had a romantic relationship with someone higher up the food chain at work.

"We might be more attracted to colleagues in a senior position if they praise our performance," Dr Johns says.

But having a relationship with your boss is also riskier. The more senior person can be accused of abusing their power to benefit their partner, while the lower person can be vulnerable to being 'managed out' if things go badly.

"They're often the one who has to leave if there's an issue," says Suzanne Chan-Serafin of UNSW, who has studied how people treat co-workers involved in workplace romances.

Dr Chan-Serafin's research shows the lower person in the workplace hierarchy is less likely to be considered for promotion or training, which obviously affects their career progression.

"The negative consequences [from a workplace sexual relationship] really stem from negative perceptions from others," she says.

If you're at a similar level or in different sections of the business, "it doesn't tend to be as big an issue," Dr Johns says. 

MaleEdit | Your Workplace Policy
MaleEdit | Gender Play

What roles does gender play?
In Australia, just over 38 per cent of managers in Australia are women, making it more likely that men will be in senior positions than women in the workforce. This means it's more likely women will find themselves in the position of being the lower person in the hierarchy.

"The taint of having a relationship sticks to women more than it does to men," Dr Riach says.

"The man is perhaps seen as 'the charmer' or 'a bit of a character', whereas there are more negative names or labels that stick to women."

There is often an accusation that the woman is motivated by career advancement, an assumption which isn't backed up by the research, Dr Riach explains.

"In fact, women often go out of their way, working harder or distancing themselves from conflicts of interest, to make sure they're not using the relationship in that way," she says.
In the instance the junior employee is a man, Dr Chan-Serafin says her research into training and promotion opportunities suggests this group may get the worst treatment of all.

"I was quite surprised that it's the lower status men who had more negative consequences than the women," Dr Chan-Serafin says.

She says it might be because this type of relationship goes against traditional stereotypes about gender power — co-workers might react by thinking of a man dating their female boss as 'weak' or 'not doing his job properly'.

There is little research into same-sex relationships in the workplace, although Dr Chan-Serafin hopes this gap will be filled in coming years. 

Are you snogging in the tearoom?
If you want to be taken seriously, Dr Johns says making out or cuddling during office hours is probably not the way to go about it.

"It really upsets people," she says. "It undermines … credibility — people don't see them as being professional." 

MaleEdit | Tearoom Fun
MaleEdit | The One

Could they be 'the one'?
"We're encouraged to bring our hearts and our minds to the workplace, to align our identity to the organisation," Dr Riach says.

"But often organisations aren't good at dealing with matters of emotion and sexuality."

Having said that, some research shows up to nearly half of all workplace romances in the US lead to marriage, so it could be worth the effort, depending on the context.

It's all about understanding the situation, workplace and managing it delicately. 

This story was originally published on ABC Life.


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