Bad romance can jeopardize your career, wellness and work-life.

Is love in the air at your office around Valentine’s Day? If so, remember this: it simply makes good career sense to proceed with caution when considering workplace romance.

That’s because while work romance can potentially send you to the honeymoon suite, it’s more likely to land you in the heartbreak hotel or outside on the company doorstep.

Whether you’re shooting Cupid’s Arrow or being struck by it, workplace romance can have a detrimental impact on your professional life and personal wellness.

Being caught in a bad romance at work can not only damage your career, but negatively impact your mental and emotional well-being.

That’s why many people, like me, adhere to the age-old wisdom of not mixing business with pleasure.

Rather than embarking on what can turn out to be a fruitless fling, strive to maintain professionalism. Also, abide by the morals and values which represent your company culture and brand image. That’s the best way to thrive professionally.

Although a small number of co-workers may date and marry, many more end up with broken hearts and a pink slip. Therefore, it’s essential to weigh the pros and cons of work romance prior to making any rash decisions — which you may regret in hindsight.

This advice is especially pertinent around Valentine’s Day when you, and those with whom you work, might feel a bit risqué. Moreover, the same rules apply whether you’re a CEO or senior executive, mid-level manager/supervisor, or a subordinate front-line employee.

In short, it’s usually better for you and your employer to avoid the precarious predicaments that go along with mixing romance with working.

First, ask yourself whether workplace romance is really worth the risk? And, if not, then proceed accordingly by taking it outside of the office during non-business hours. This is not rocket science.

Love Contracts & Liability

Nevertheless, despite the potential downsides, romance persists in the modern 21st century workplace. This puts you and your employer at risk for any alleged misconduct or unlawful actions.

In fact, some companies have decided to shield themselves against legal liability by forcing workers to sign a so-called “Love Contract” — which have been around for years in corporate America. Perhaps you’ve already signed one?

Although the traditional work paradigm appears to be incrementally evolving to the virtual workplace, most people are still employed in a brick-and-mortar office environment. This means that even if you’re not looking for love per se, there’s still no telling when a mutual attraction might result in unexpected romance due to the intensity of work and close contact for long duration.

However, even in a virtual work environment, legal issues can arise when romance turns sour. This can result in online harassment via emails, tweets or Facebook posts, for example.

And while Valentine’s Day fell on a weekend last year, this year it falls squarely on a workday — which can have unforeseen implications for your office and company culture. Therefore, let’s consider the positives and negatives.

Pros and Cons

On the upside, some say that a positive workplace romance can actually elevate employee engagement, resulting in more motivation, better performance and higher productivity.

On the downside, getting caught in a bad romance can cause employee performance and productivity to plummet, in addition to a host of other potential problems.

People tend to get themselves in trouble at work when they are overzealous and persistent in making romantic overtures.

This can occur whether a sexual gesture is real or perceived, explicit or implicit, intentional or unintentional.

These situations usually become problematic after an aggressor receives a negative response the first time they act in a sexually explicit or provocative way. If this happens, the best course of action for the aggressor is to apologize for any misunderstanding, then turn around and walk away.

Otherwise, a bad romance can poison a positive office environment and negatively impact an entire team or group project if the situation becomes openly awkward or adversarial.

Work romance is especially troublesome when it involves a manager/supervisor and a subordinate.

Negative results can include allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. These issues can affect one’s pay and advancement, in addition to general terms and conditions of employment.

In a worst case scenario, one or both parties might be subjected to an internal or external investigation, as well as being demoted, forced out (“constructively discharged”), or just plain fired.

That’s because what one party judges to be innocent banter, horseplay, or even a sincere romance gesture might actually be perceived as rude, insensitive or hostile behavior by the person on the receiving end. Why take that chance with your career and livelihood?

Information for Dummies

While close working relationships may unexpectedly lead to something more, it’s prudent to tread lightly, exercise caution and common sense.

This may sound like basic information for dummies, but history and case law show that even the most intelligent professionals — from the C-suite to the factory floor — can unwittingly exert unwanted sexual pressure or undue influence on a disinterested party.

It’s important to recognize that sexual harassment is not always about sex.

To the contrary, sometimes it’s about making a power play and exerting one’s control over a subordinate. Some may recall the 1994 Hollywood blockbuster film, “Disclosure” (movie trailer) in which a boss (Demi Moore) sexually harasses a married male subordinate(Michael Douglas).

This results in an untenable situation leading to legal action.

Millennials & Gen Z

Workplace romance can be particularly dicey for a new generation of young people. This is especially worrisome because many Millennials — along with their younger demographic cohort, Generation Z — are often experiencing their first jobs. Therefore, they are not always fully aware of their employment rights, statutory legal protections, and general codes of conduct while working.

Millennials and Gen Z may just assume, for instance, that sexual harassment is part of the work culture because they don’t know otherwise.

Young workers could also be fearful of speaking out due to victimization, embarrassment and retaliation. No one wants to be fired or receive a bad reference when embarking on a new career.

While harassment of teens and 20-somethings can occur within any industry, some jobs tend to be more prone to trouble than others (based on case law and anecdotal evidence — see below). This is usually due to working in close confines amid an informal business structure. In these environments playground antics may largely go unnoticed due to the fast pace of work.

Worrisome Workplaces

Some industries are arguably more prone to harassment of young workers than others, even though it might appear inconspicuous to outsiders. They include eating and drinking establishments (such as fast-food chains, casual dining, bars and pubs), as well as hospitality and entertainment venues.

These industries can inadvertently promote an informal ambience which morphs into a fraternity-like environment.

Sometimes, managers/supervisors in their mid-to-upper twenties end up overseeing high-school or college-aged workers.

In these workplaces, certain employees may assume that patting, touching or rubbing up against a co-worker or subordinate on the backside, buttocks, or shoulders is merely innocuous behavior. Yet the worker on the receiving end could easily take it the wrong way.

Further, if such unwanted conduct is openly opposed and persists, it could lead to an unlawful hostile work environment — which is always bad news for the employer.

That’s why a literal “hands-off” policy at work could be the best option altogether, as some people just don’t want to be touched by anyone at work (perhaps with the exception of a professional handshake).

If one is unsure what constitutes bad behavior at work then it’s wise to abide by the maxim, “If in doubt, leave it out.”

It should be noted that many savvy employers have been proactive in implementing “Zero Tolerance” policies and procedures against harassment and discrimination. This makes good business sense by encouraging potential victims to come forward without fear of reprisal.

Still, it’s important for employers to effectively communicate and reiterate such policies and procedures to the workforce, rather than leaving employee handbooks on a shelf to gather dust.

My Take

In my view, all employees should do their best to keep workplace romance out of the office, period. This is a sound approach regardless of one’s work status or position in the workplace hierarchy.

Nevertheless, despite the potential pitfalls, if one chooses to pursue a workplace romance then be absolutely certain it’s consensual — not a one way street.

Being struck by cupid’s arrow at work can, at times, be unavoidable. This is due to basic human nature.

People can’t always control where and when they meet or become romantically involved. Sometimes it’s just a matter of fate. In fact, I would be remiss without pointing out that some successful long-term marriages have been known to originate from budding office romance.

While there will always be pros and cons to dating coworkers or supervisors, I would again emphasize that the risks generally outweigh the rewards. However, even with that said, workplace romance may sometimes be unavoidable if cupid’s arrow strikes and sticks.

This is particularly true on and around Valentine’s Day when love is in the air — or at least the perception thereof.

Thus, whether you’re the person struck by cupid’s arrow or the one shooting the arrow, always think before you act and proceed cautiously. Recall the age-old saying, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

In essence, remember that many jobs are temporary in today’s fluid labor force and many romances are tenuous. That’s why it’s prudent to consider the consequences, both good and bad, before pursuing romance at work.

Put simply, try to focus only on work while you’re at work. The problem is that this is easier said than done.

What do YOU think?

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  • David is a strategic communications consultant delivering high ROI via earned media, social media marketing, branding, blogging and ghostwriting. As a former federal government spokesman, he’s held political and career positions in the White House, Congress, EEOC and OMB. A native New Yorker, David graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in Journalism and worked in the national news media prior to his public service.