Dov Charney, the former chief executive officer of American Apparel who was fired for inappropriate sexual conduct, now says he regrets nothing about what he did. “Sleeping with people you work with is UNAVOIDABLE!” he exclaimed to the Guardian, declining to say whether he is still seeing employees. Charney’s workplace relationships — and the power imbalances inherent to them — cost him his ultimately job as CEO of the company he founded. (Charney was not immediately available for comment.)
But one-quarter of Americans have been romantically involved with a colleague, according to a new study released in May by recruiting software Jobvite. Perhaps the extracurricular work activities shouldn’t come as a surprise:The vast majority of people — 80% — consider themselves close to the people they work with. “We are spending more time at work,” said Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert. “Relationships are now becoming more acceptable — especially because our work environments have become a lot more casual than they were in yesteryear.”
This comes as we are spending more time than ever in the workplace — the average work week in 2015 was 38.7 hours, compared with 38.1 hours in 1980 — and more than half of American employees didn’t take all their vacation days in 2015. Swann said it’s only natural to get close to the people we spend so many hours with each day. “The opportunity is there for us to form lasting and meaningful relationships,” she said. And with open offices, casual Fridays and CEOs who go by their first name, the old hierarchies in workplaces have gradually broken down.
But employees should enter such relationships (or casual flings) cautiously, given the amount of time they will spend together should the relationship break up. The study found that less than half (42%) of people who said they had ever had an office relationship are still with that person. For those who broke up, 46% of men report it ended amicably compared with only 38% of women. Peter Post, managing director of the Emily Post Institute and author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business,” said it’s important to follow a few guidelines to avoid conflict.
On that checklist to ensure everything is above board: Check with someone in human resources and alert superiors before entering a workplace relationship, Post says. It may not seem romantic to get your dates approved by HR, but it’s better than facing the consequences otherwise. Employees should also avoid relationships with people if there is a power imbalance — even if it means swapping jobs or departments. Navigating such a relationship could be even trickier and easily seen as sexual harassment or abuse of privilege, like in Charney’s case.
And hold off on romantic emojis on Slack. Just because workplace romance is becoming more accepted culturally, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to broadcast the romance or, worse, the graphic details — good or bad — across the workplace, Swann said. Avoid putting your relationship on display at work and making co-workers uncomfortable, and save any disagreements for before or after office hours. “Some companies don’t allow it,” Post said. And even secret romances will come to light sooner or later. “If you don’t tell and you get caught that could be a problem.”