When office romances go on the rocks, employees must work hard to stay focused on the job.
Michelle Moore, the president of a public relations firm in Columbus, Ohio, was married to her husband for 10 years before they divorced in 2008. Before their divorce, they worked together on several freelance projects. Today, they interact regularly while working together on client projects.
Sharing an office with an ex might be torture for some people, but Moore says that the arrangement suits them. “We actually make a great team professionally,” she said. “My ex appreciates my creativity and public relations skills. I appreciate his design talents and branding instincts.”
With traditional communities weakening and people working more hours than ever, the office has become a breeding ground for romantic entanglements. CareerBuilder.com conducted a survey last February in which 38 percent of 7,780 workers said that they had dated a co-worker at some point in their careers. Thirty-one percent of those people said they had gone on to marry the person.
“Offices are where we spend the majority of our days,” said Helaine Olen, author of "Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry" and co-author of "Office Mate: Your Employee Handbook for Romance on the Job."
“To tell people not to date their co-workers goes against common sense. As the age that most people marry creeps up and you’re not meeting people in college, where on earth are you meeting them?”
Love on the job is all well and good, but when a relationship turns sour the office can become a minefield of anxiety and distraction. People who successfully work with an ex rely on common sense and a heavy dose of maturity. Regardless of how hurt or awkward you feel, keep your emotions to yourself. Don’t discuss your issues in public or badmouth your ex to colleagues. “Don’t give your colleagues anything to gossip about,” Olen said.
If you and your ex worked on a team with other people, they may feel uncomfortable when a chill appears between you. Moore suggests praising your ex in public. “It will help you behave and feel better around him or her, and it will put other people at ease,” she said.
Throw yourself into your work. Compartmentalize your emotions and try to focus on excelling at your job. When you dig into work, you’ll have less time to worry about your ex. “Plenty of great people, eager to work hard and focus fully, are unemployed, waiting to take your place if you can’t focus on results,” Moore said. “You have time to be great at what you do. You don’t have time to fret about an ex.”
Keep your correspondence offline. Don’t exchange personal messages on your work computer or phone. “Emails and texting, like diamonds, last forever,” said author Olen. “But unlike diamonds, they don’t belong to you. Don’t assume that you have privacy, or that the guys in tech don’t get bored every now and then and read your emails.” Be mindful of what you post on Facebook and other social media sites where you may inadvertently be broadcasting to colleagues.
Always take the high road when you interact with an ex. Remember what you liked about him or her, and deal only on that level. “If you began your romance in the workplace, chances are you were attracted in some way to how he or she does a job,” Moore said. “Appreciate that quality, and work from there.”
Tread carefully if you report to your ex. “If you have a direct reporting relationship to your ex, you might consider coming clean to that person’s superior,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder.com. Haefner says that the decision to do so depends on the size and culture of the company and the terms on which you and your colleague have parted ways. “Use your best judgment, and make sure that whether or not it works, you’re not doing anything to hurt anyone’s career,” Haefner said.
The professional and economic stakes of a breakup are higher if your romantic partner is not just a colleague but your business partner.Linda Kerns, a Philadelphia divorce lawyer, recalls a client who ran a cash-based business with her husband. When the duo began having marital problems, the husband began taking thousands of dollars from the till.
“My advice to my client was, do what you can to get him out of there,” Kerns said. “There was no way that they could operate together. We immediately came to an interim agreement that excluded him from the business. She let him keep the cash. She was able to make that back and rebuild her business.” Kerns says that couples who double as business partners need to have the same checks and balances that corporations use. Both parties should have equal access to a company’s financial records, at the very least. “It’s natural that when you start a new business you’re not thinking about this,” Kerns said. “But relationships don’t always work out.”
This article is an update of one by Helen Coster that originally ran in 2010.