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I run a small company and am wondering what the consequences are of starting up a romantic relationship with one of my employees, and how it will affect my business and relationship with other employees.

I know romantic relationships with people who work under you are discouraged, however why are they discouraged?

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Hi Dave, I've modified your question to address the concerns raised by @Chad, and have voted to reopen it. If I've changed it too much from your original question, feel free to edit it further or roll back the changes. –  Rachel Jan 10 '13 at 15:18
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That's easy and it can be answered in three words (so I won't post it as an actual answer) "Conflict of interest". –  Mark Allen Jan 11 '13 at 1:03
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Even if you are "sure" that you can handle things professionally and keep work and social life separated. Don't forget that a relationship consists of two people. –  AndSoYouCode Jan 11 '13 at 7:45
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I knew this PhD guy once. His wife was also a PhD in the same field. They met and started dating when she was studying under him. How could THAT go wrong, right? They probably broke all sorts of university regulations and crossed a bunch of boundaries. But hey, happily married with 2 kids. Like everythign else in life this is a riks/benefit tradeoff. Dating subordinates is almost always a bad idea, except when it's a great idea. –  MrFox Jan 11 '13 at 16:15
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Now 6 months later have you found out? –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 10 '13 at 13:47

11 Answers 11

It is a very risky business. Other employees may end up resentful and there will be a drop of productivity if so. Likely you will treat her differently than the others such as giving her information that she in her current position should not have, refusing to see her performance problems, etc. Likely she will act differently, letting others know she is privileged and that they had better not disagree with her.

I have worked several places where the boss was dating one of the employees and in two out of three cases, it was a cancer in the workplace. In the third case, the couple were able to totally keep their relationship out of the workplace but that meant no displays of affection (or worse closing the office door and having sex where the other employees could hear you), no special treatment in favor of the employee(in fact her promotions got held up and she was held to a much higher standard than the rest of the team), no insider information, and no acting as if you were more important because you were having an affair with the boss. In the worst case, the company lost several valuable employees because they couldn't stand to be managed by the secretary the CEO promoted to be the Project Manager because he was having an affair with her. In the end she lost her job too because he married someone else.

Ok let's be blunt and share some of the negative consequences I have personally experienced or observed from bosses dating their subordinates:

  • I have seen people promoted over qualifed people to jobs they were neither qualified for nor good at.
  • I have seen an unsatisfactory performance appraisal (which was well-deserved) be changed to an Outstanding
  • I have seen more qualifed people quit rather than work for the unqualifed person promoted over them
  • I have seen a co-worker flash her sexual parts in a meeting after she and the boss had had a fight. To say this made everyone else in the room uncomfortable is a mild understatement.
  • I have heard them having sex in his office during work hours which made for very uncomfortable meetings later on the same offce.
  • I have seen a subordinate who had no business knowing about a performance issue with another employee, come to work and brag about how she knew and how much trouble the other person would be in.
  • I have seen bad suggestions implemented because they came from the person who was in the relationship even though all the entire rest of the staff objected to the decision. BTW some of these decisions lost the company a good deal of money.
  • I have seen the entire staff complain to higher managers about a problem which the couple involved vehemently denied was happening. The couple almost always thinks their relationship is causing no issues whatsoever.
  • I have seen the workplace become absolutely toxic when the relationship breaks up until the subordinate finds a another job or is fired.
  • I have seen clients be appalled at the unprofessional behavior a person in a relationship exhibited in front of them and the manager not care to fix the problem because it would disrupt his social life.

If you truly want a relationship with this person the best thing you can do is find him/her another better job in a different company before you start.

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It is risky, it is far less likely to work than not to work. It takes a special amount of ability to separate work from home and to treat the person differntly in each situation. Very few people have the ability to do that in my experience. Clearly though you want to be told, "Go for it". Sorry, my advice is there are plenty of people who don't work for you to date. –  HLGEM Jan 10 '13 at 15:50
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I would +1 this just for the last line: "If you truly want a relationship with this person the best thing you can do is find him/her another better job in a different company before you start." The entire answer is excellent. Keep the personal and professional separate by not allowing there to be crossover. –  Adam V Jan 10 '13 at 17:23
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@DaveM - how do you know there weren't any negative consequences for Gates? –  JeffO Jan 10 '13 at 18:16
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Just because he's Dave and he's asking about a romantic relationship, doesn't necessarily mean the other party is a her... –  Konerak Jan 11 '13 at 7:58
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@DaveM - Dave, Dave, Dave. If you are interpreting this answer as saying "it can work in some cases" then you are hearing what you want to hear right now. Which means you aren't sounding like someone with an exceptional ability to pull something like this off. –  psr Jan 11 '13 at 20:03

Dating an employee is a bad idea for several reasons:

  1. Once it's out that you're dating, anything positive that you do for this employee can appear to be based on non-work-related reasons

  2. If you break up, anything bad that happens to her can appear to be based on non-work-related reasons

  3. It can bring non-work-related issues into the office

In short, there's a reason that many large companies explicitly state in their employee handbooks that supervisors can't date the employees they supervise, and if you run the company, you supervise everyone.

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I would change the can appear to will appear. –  HLGEM Jan 10 '13 at 15:51
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I would also add that in some types of jobs, having partners who are dating or married in particular roles can enable a number of internal control problems that could cause substantial injury to the company. For example, when one partner handles revenue/expense accounting and the other handles cash inflow/outlay. The –  JAGAnalyst Jan 18 '13 at 19:11

It's very simple. Dating someone who reports to you creates obvious conflicts between personal interests and business obligations. Every action you take regarding your romantic partner will be suspect. Worst of all, the subordinate party may feel pressure to continue the relationship for fear of consequences in the workplace. For that reason, most US companies prohibit romantic relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate.

Even attempting to initiate such a relationship creates problems. The subordinate may reasonably believe that rejecting the invitation will have adverse consequences at work.

Relationships between colleagues may be OK, but could still cause problems if one party has a higher position in the company, due to the influence the more senior person may have with the junior's supervisor.

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Yes I forgot to say that. The person can feel at risk of losing her job if he asks her out and she isn't interested or if she wants out and he doesn't. (you could of course use different sets of personal pronouns, this is just the most common scenario of the supervisor being male and the subordinate being female.) –  HLGEM Jan 10 '13 at 19:17

Ask yourself "how many people have I dated in my life?"

lets say you've dated 10 people. Since you are again dating, this indicated that at least, your success rate at finding a permanent partner are less than 10%.

How many of those relationships ended badly or turned ugly? Lets say its 3/10. for a 30% chance of it turning ugly.

So in other words... There's at least a 90% chance it wont work out and a 30% chance it will turn ugly. Adjust these statistics to your own personal experience. Chances are, however you slice it, you are making a gamble and you do not have the edge.

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As it was once explained to me by a lawyer some time back.

In the US dating in the workplace potentially falls under the case law of sexual harassment. The issue is basically the following:

  • 2 of the companies employees are dating or even possibly get married working for the same company
  • Then they break it off or divorce.
  • Once that happens one of the parties involved can claim sexual harassment against the other and under some state and federal statutes the company may be held liable.

Given that potential scenario the companies discourage dating in the workplace to the point of making it a cause for firing an employee.

The dating of employees within the company is usually allowed by a special dispensation from Human Resources after a consultation with lawyers. And usually involves some paperwork to protect the company from scenario I described above.

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Dear [grumpy HR manager]. I want to go out with Jane tonight. And I would want to inform you that... uhhmmmm, I would want to kiss her. Can you please give me a [special dispensation] for this? Thank you! I may come back again later... –  vasile Jan 11 '13 at 15:56
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@vasile Welcome to the murky legal world. :) Happy dating! :) –  Karlson Jan 11 '13 at 16:08

It's a bad idea because you cannot represent the organization's business interests properly in your role as boss, with respect to that person. You are likely to favor that person regardless of their performance in their job.

Since you run this small company, this might not be a problem. Your company, your rules, right?

But suppose you ran a very large company. Would you want your lower level managers supervising people who are their significant others? Or nephews, nieces, cousins, ...?

There is a word for this: nepotism.

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You mentioned "I run a small company". Means you may be the founder/Chairman. You are the person most respected in the company. By falling in love / having romantic relationship (sounds cheap, I'm sorry if it hurts you) may end up losing your prestige, dignity, respect. Because if you are in love and want to date and get married that will be great. But just "Romantic relationship which wont la(u)st long I won't recommend you to go on with such a decision.

  1. By losing respect, the value for your voice ll go down and to get optimum productivity you ll have to force the employees.
  2. You may earn lots of people to speak and spread rumors about you... that's nonsense.
  3. lot more to say.

To maintain your value in organization, if you still have a huge crush on her, ask her out for a date and tell her things, if you have good thoughts get her a good job in some other company using your contacts. Then you can date her, she will like you for your gentleness.

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I'm gonna be very honest and serious with you on this one. It's highly unlikely that the situation will have a good ending. There is a chance but it's a very small chance that things will not end up catastrophically for both or either of you.

A certain level of unprofessionalism will be displayed by one or both of you, which will disturb the workplace and might cause problems with your clients.

Please accept this as a very sincerer advice. Looking at the wording of your original question, I'm almost certain that you will display unprofessional behaviour and in turn cause disturbance in the workplace.

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The OP is asking why it is bad between subordinates, not why it is bad at the work place. The issue is one of perception. Many will perceive that the relationship is not one of mutual, personal romance. But instead a relationship based on leveraging company opportunities and company money for manager's dating opportunities.

If you think that having a poor perception of both your company and your relationship with this person is acceptable, then go for it. Otherwise try to tackle the whole not dating your subordinates lifestyle first, to at least look like you don't need to leverage your ownership/managerial position for dating.

Lastly, keep in mind that some people do come into companies with the open mindedness of dating their coworkers. Others already have relationships or established dating lives or do not want to date anyone. There are many different perspectives and differences in the workplace. Bare that in mind. Someone people only want to work for your company for money making opportunities only, and will see this as a poor decision. They do want to see you happy in your dating life, but they don't want to see their firm's reputation suffer because they have families/wives they need to provide for. Try to think about all those decisions BEFORE you think about your situation. It's not an easy one to make.

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I'm surprised that no-one has cover the power differential yet.

How can you be 100% certain that your subordinate shares your feelings?

Because if they don't, and you approach them, the subordinate may rightly think that saying no could harm them professionally. The reason why employer/subordinate as well as teacher/student relationships are frowned upon is they can easily be seen that the senior person is taking advantage of their position. If pressured to enter a relationship or even just hearing your advances can be considered sexual harassment in most jurisdictions.

Regardless of what you think, you hold a position of power over your staff and you must respect that. Unfortunately, what you need to do is nothing. Don't bring it up... at all. Even mentioning that you had considered it can cause tension. Your feelings are your problem, and should be professional enough to not make your staff subject to unwanted advances.

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There are some good answers here from the company point of view, but look at it from the human point of view, too:

1) Do you really know the other person is interested in you, or is it just a shared interest in the type of work that you do? I know I leave a great deal of my personal interests in the parking lot when I arrive to work. I focus on my work and ensuring that I am supporting my coworkers and meeting my objectives. I don't bring much else. Since you are a business owner, I imagine you are much the same. Your employee may also be the same, meaning everything you see about them "lines up" with you, but you are both (likely) leaving a huge amount of who you are outside the workplace unexamined. How do you even know you would be compatible?

2) You have authority over the other person at work. How could you ever have a relationship of equals when you have power over their means to make a living? The power dynamic in a relationship can get really messed up if there is a disparity in income between the two. You are the income source for the other person. How could you ever hope to have an equal, balanced relationship?

3) What happens if they get a good job offer from a competitor? You would feel personally betrayed if they took it. They would be resentful if they didn't take it because of this relationship.

4) Their relationships with their coworkers at the office would be devastated. No one would ever have a "gripe session" about the company with them. No one would trust them with any confidence, believing (and rightfully so) they were more loyal to you than anyone else. I'm sure you're the world's greatest boss, but running a business means making your employees unhappy in order to satisfy your customers. That's why you have to pay employees in the first place. Would you avoid giving them difficult assignments or "problem" customers in order to safeguard your relationship. Maybe not consciously, but it would happen.

5) You would never evaluate them equally, again. "Bob" is always late, so you discipline him. Your interest is always late, but you cut them some slack because you took them out the evening before and you feel it's partially your fault. Bob isn't getting a fair shake.

Look at it from the relationship side, and not just the company side.

Now, the only way to fix this is to not work at the same company. Who has to leave and who gets to stay? Who gets to pick? In your case, you and the company are the same thing, but not so in most situations.

Say I'm a rock-star senior salesman, been in the biz 20 years and have 5 or 6 million in annual sales that I bring in. You're an inside sales rep who answers to me supporting my customers. We get serious, and it becomes a problem in the workplace. You would have a hard time finding another job in a slow economy, but I can hop over to "Brand X" and bring at least 2 million in sales with me. Brand X says, "Great. Welcome aboard." The first company now just lost a good salesman, $2 million in business, and has an inside sales rep with questionable loyalties that "cost" them all of the above. How do you think your chances of promotion are, now?

That's why intra-office dating is never a good idea. Working with a spouse is another potential disaster, but for entirely different reasons.

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