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I'm a senior, C level executive at a relatively small company (~75 employees). A while ago, I became very close to a direct report. We began spending more time together outside of work; first in groups in normal work/social situations, but the size of the groups got smaller and smaller until we began spending one on one time together. Poor judgment in retrospect, but we really enjoyed spending time with each other and we were both in a similar place in our lives, both going through the ending of long term relationships. In any event, it all came to a head when the rumor mill inevitably started and we were noticed and questioned. We cooled it immediately and avoided being seen together at work or away from work, though we didn't stop talking altogether, and of course we continued to work together closely for the past year+. Note that our company does not have any kind of anti fraternization or workplace dating policies; something we need, but something that I've been a poor champion of for obvious reasons.

She found a different job; and large parts of why she was looking was to resolve the situation:

  1. it made something of a sensitive workplace dynamic and

  2. if we were ever going to enjoy each other's company outside of work, something we both wanted and discussed, we couldn't work together. It doesn't hurt that her new role is a step up in an exciting new direction for her.

So now here we are. Not to get too far ahead of myself, but I don't want to do this poorly and put either of our careers at too significant a disadvantage. I have no idea what the right way to approach this is with my current workplace, though. Considerations include:

  1. morale among current staff and peers, direct reports and otherwise, some of whom we'd consider mutual friends,
  2. perception of my boss and the board,
  3. a reasonable timeline to avoid the appearance of gross impropriety,
  4. other things....?

If and as we begin dating (which could all become moot if it doesn't work for all the reasons relationships don't work out) I don't exactly intend to take out an ad, but these things have a way of getting out, and I frequently attend industry events that often include an invitation for a spouse or partner. Thoughts? Opinions? Advice? In many things, you find that you're the only one who thinks to care about these things. In many other things, you find that everybody cares beyond all rational reason. This is salacious enough to easily be the latter, though I'm happy to be pleasantly surprised by the former.

Thanks!

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Apr 17 at 7:38

10 Answers 10

350

Go for it.

She sacrificed her job for you.

Marry her while you're at it so people can't talk smack behind your back anymore. Because at that point, attacking a colleague's spouse is an HR issue.

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    +1 sometime you just have to go for it, and stop asking yourself to many questions – user3399 Apr 16 at 6:40
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    A change of job is not really a sacrifice. It would have been a clear sacrifice if she remained unemployed, or went for a much lower paid job, only for the sake of the relationship. Otherwise, I agree. – virolino Apr 16 at 6:45
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    @virolino going through the trouble of leaving and finding a new job just to enable the relationship is definitely a sacrifice, sacrificing things has nothing to do with doing something silly. – lucasgcb Apr 16 at 7:06
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    "Let's get married so that we can involve the HR" sounds like a terrible excuse to get married. – Korcholis Apr 16 at 7:55
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    It's an HR issue if they're attacking a colleagues partner - no need to get married at all; because it's essentially an attack on that colleague. In fact, it's ALREADY an HR issue, because the in office chat has already resulted in someone leaving the company. – UKMonkey Apr 16 at 9:13
130

I dated someone from work at a similar size company who was senior to me (although I was not a direct report and she was the level below C-level).

When we made our relationship public (shortly before she left that job) we found that almost everyone who had an opinion was really happy for us.

We're married now, and there's no way that the opinion of anyone from that company could ever be more important to me than hers.

Ask her out.

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    Even not at that level, in a large enough organization, it is actually halfway common. My wife of 28 years and I both worked for a hospital when we met, but there were 1200 other employees and our departments had some interaction but not a lot. Plenty of other married couples there too. Same with the college I now work for - 1200-ish employees, several married couples scattered around. It becomes an issue in smaller orgs or when there is constant at-work interaction between the two involved individuals. – ivanivan Apr 17 at 0:56
  • Good for both of you! – Ian Kemp Apr 17 at 13:08
53

As long as private matters do not affect job matters, go ahead. The only rule that I know of is: there must be no personal relationship between two people which are hierarchically related (i.e. one is the boss of the other, even if not direct boss).

I had several pairs of colleagues which had relationships and some even got married and have children, and everything was fine.

In your case, it is the same. As long as you are not hierarchically related, make any life decision which you see fit.

If your girlfriend changed jobs in order to make things easier for the personal relationship, then it gives you an extra-hint about her intentions.


Edit after clarification from OP:

Especially that she sacrificed things about her job / career, you should understand that she is involved in the relationship. While you may have other reasons for deciding differently, the (former) work relationship is definitely not an obstacle.

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    Well, she changed jobs also because it's a step up. But yeah, it's a hint about her relationship hopes. – Harper Apr 16 at 15:53
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    Companies almost always forbid a reporting relationship, but there has to be some leeway to date before that is an issue. My VP, in a large company, started dating his administrative assistant. Once they got to a certain point she moved to a different role not reporting to him, and everything was fine. If your girlfriend doesn't report to you, even in the same company, most people will just be happy for you. They certainly don't have anything to complain about. – Sinc Apr 16 at 21:30
  • There is no such rule, a conflict of interest such as this is only a problem if it is swept under a rug (or there is harassment), otherwise it is only a potential problem. In many large organizations where such situations are simply more common due to human statistics (e.g. in Academia), the "rule" or requirement is a conflict of interest management plan, which may include removing the "boss" of the relationship from any compensation decision making, from direct management, or perhaps simply that any change in compensation requires sign off from a third party, usually a case by case basis. – crasic Apr 17 at 0:15
  • @Sinc Not to detract from crasic's comment, but just because someone got away with something doesn't mean everyone can. As far as we know, the CEO owed the VP a favor. – employee-X Apr 18 at 14:26
  • @employee-X My point wasn't that he got away with it. It was that he followed a reasonable procedure. In a reporting relationship, once you decide that there is now a meaningful personal relationship, you have to deal with the reporting relationship, much as crasic described. I don't think anyone would tell me that I can't have a date or two with my direct report, but the reporting relationship better be long gone (or managed) before we move in together. Detecting the critical point is the important thing to recognize. – Sinc Apr 18 at 15:43
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You don't work together any longer and even if you still did then I don't see why your relationship is something to be hidden away or to be ashamed of (especially since you indicate that your previous relationships had come to an end).

Lots of people meet their future spouses at work, it's normal and I'm almost sure everyone knows someone who met their partner at work.

You're not her manager any more, you're her partner. Stop overthinking this and worrying what other people will say, it's none of their business. Enjoy your time together!

  • Mind you, OP has further explained that it was a furore at the time. So, it's tricky. – Fattie Apr 16 at 12:43
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In my experience, the biggest source of rumors and conflict regarding workplace romances comes from the fact that no one (except the two individuals involved) can tell if the relationship is honest or not. I've never been quite in your exact situation as a C level, but I am married to someone whom I met while in a director role at a prior employer - we started dating when she was in a junior management role and about to be promoted to a director position. I left the company shortly after. The start of our relationship, her promotion, and my departure were all pretty close together. So I got a little bit of the flavor of "so-and-so is dating someone in upper management and one of the involved parties has left" that you're feeling.

When I say "honest," I mean it in the sense of workplace legitimacy - are the two people in the relationship able to function appropriately in their jobs, despite the personal connection? Or, are they using the personal relationship and/or workplace power dynamic for some sort of illicit personal gain?

And because no one really knows this except the people involved, there will be plenty of people who will either make up or at least hint at the worst case scenario especially if you give them reason to, and then the gossip train leaves the station and things get ugly.

Really, I think there are only a few responses to this threat:

  • Don't get involved in workplace romances. Some people consider this the only option. Good for them, if they can pull it off. Personally, I think it's a terribly limiting option, and unrealistic anyways. But that may be personal bias, speaking as someone who's married to a prior coworker.
  • Hide the relationship. Difficult - maybe impossible, at least very risky - to actually pull off. Plus, it gives a bad perception if/when people do find out. Even having a "cool down period" before making the relationship more official feels like it verges on hiding things to me, but that may be a gray area I suppose. And at any rate - if the relationship develops and becomes long term, it's likely to be literally impossible to permanently hide it from coworkers - they're going to find out eventually. Trying to hide it means they're going to find out in a way that paints you in a bad light. Better to let them find out in a way that doesn't give a bad impression. Which leads to,
  • Don't hide it. Don't give people anything to talk about. If your relationship is legitimate, you really have nothing to hide. You won't eliminate rumors, but you can at least reduce them, and preemptively set yourself up to defend against any that may be damaging.

Of course, that third point can be easier said than done. In the practical sense, especially if there is a leadership/subordinate relationship involved, it can be difficult. For my wife and I, we tried to actively take specific steps related to the workplace aspect of our relationship. These steps were not only to allow us to be honest with ourselves that we weren't hiding anything, but also to give us the capability to show or prove that we weren't, if it was ever challenged.

  • When we were interacting one on one in the workplace about day to day workplace topics, we made sure there was some sort of basic paper trail, i.e. an appointment in our outlook calendars listing a subject for the meeting. This was done as a basic cover in case there was ever any question about if we were chatting about our weekend plans for two hours on Friday - when we were really focusing on the proposal for That Big New Client or whatever.
  • When we had any level of official, important interaction that may even hint at favoritism, we made sure there was a paper trail or process that was either in someone else's hands, generated by someone else, or validated by someone else. For instance, part of my role was churning data from our core system to generate numbers that were used for performance metrics (quality control, throughput, etc). I made sure someone on my team besides just myself understood that process and was involved in coding the queries used, just as a fail-safe from people trying to claim that I was padding her numbers because we were sleeping together or anything like that.
  • When we first reached the point of entering into a meaningful relationship, we made sure we understood and followed company policy. It turned out that our employer basically did not have a policy that applied to our relationship (which we were a little surprised by), but we made sure to find out. And, as an additional measure, I disclosed the relationship to my boss anyways, as an insurance against him "finding out" via some untrue rumor. He and I had a great personal friendship and a good workplace relationship, so it was natural to tell him, anyways.

A lot of this advice may be "water under the bridge" for you, as she doesn't work for your employer any more, but I think at least some of it will meaningfully translate to your situation. At least, the "don't hide things" part. For instance, you mention industry events that include an invite for a spouse or partner. My advice: go ahead and bring her. If you're dating, it's likely people will know you're dating. And if people know, and you show up at the Big Industry Dinner without her, people will assume you're trying to hide the relationship. You don't want that.

My wife still works for the employer we met at, and through the early phases of our relationship (after I'd left that employer but before we were married), I went to a handful of company/industry events with her. People were glad to see me there, and it was no big deal. We took the steam out of any rumors. Meanwhile, a mutual coworker friend of ours, who had also started dating someone from the workplace who'd left in similar timing to me, chose not to bring her to those events. You can guess which couple was the focus of the rumor mill. In fact, that other couple had a pattern early on of taking steps to try to hide their relationship, despite it being completely legitimate, and I can absolutely tell you it went very poorly and was a huge cause of tension and stress for them.

4

Most people will have a concern about two co-workers becoming close friends outside work, or dating, for obvious reasons, that it could create unfairness or lack of professional approach at work where the two people's work interacts or they have to work together.

(Although oddly, if two people are already dating, or a spouse joins a company where their spouse already works, there is often less upset, unless actual unfairness is visible)

But your partner has left their work to avoid any workplace issues, for professionalism. I think most people would respect that, a lot. Since she was liked at work, or an accepted member of the team, if people now hear you're close friends or dating, or they see her again in your company, their reaction will probably be that they're glad to see her again, interested in what she's doing, and appreciate/understand why she left. A bit like a workplace reunion.

In short, I would actually not make a big deal of it, and I'd expect positive reactions.

  • If you aren't dating, then if anyone asks, you just need to say "We didn't want to rock the boat, but we wanted to be friends outside work as well, and it didn't feel right for us to both stay at the same company with that. So we talked, and she decided to move to a new job to keep it all on the level. It's worked out really well for her, she loves it, she's now doing <whatever> at <wherever>. We aren't dating, but at least we can see how our friendship develops without having to worry that we're upsetting anyone. Honestly it seemed more professional to do it that way. But right now all it is, is good friends. If anything happens, I'm sure you'd be one of the first to hear about it, but so far it hasn't, and it may never, so you can skip the gossip :)"

    You might want to broach this yourself, to defuse the risk of gossip, and I would do so if it were me. A bit like this: "By the way, <her_name> sends her regards. We caught up a few days ago over pizza to chat about work..." and then same as above.

    By doing that, you cut all the wind out of any gossip, by telling people straight up what it is. While there's no duty to tell them at all, they have known her and you, they have seen you close, and if anyone ever saw you together it would be natural to assume, which is how gossip starts. So I'd be proactive but at the same time cut the wind by making clear what's actually happened. After you've told one, or at most 2 people, you can assume everyone will know. So pick someone to tell who is down to earth and respected, and just mention it in passing ("By the way, X sends her regards") over lunch or in office chatter, not as a big topic or "announcement". That way the version that others hear will be sensible!

  • If you did end up dating, I would go to a company event with her in a while (where at least 1 or 2 other people's partners are likely to be attending), and she (or you) can simply say to anyone who asks, "Yes, we're now dating. We didn't want to rock the boat so I left to a new job. It's worked out really well, I'm now doing <whatever> at <wherever>, but it didn't feel right for us to both stay at the same company when we wanted to get this close personally. No idea where it will end up, but its really good seeing you again here! I miss this place! How's it going anyway?"

My guess is there'll be a bit of curiosity, but you will find almost no buzz or salacious gossip - because you've simply defused it all. It'll simply be accepted within minutes, and by next company event nobody will think twice of it.

If she's liked at your place, you might even get quite a few comments afterwards saying good on you, or lucky you, or congrats. Maybe a nudge or wink or two if there's alcohol at the event, because there's always one person who will act up that way at anything to do with relationships. But if you rebuff those with good humour ("Hey, that's my partner/friend/our ex manager you're talking about, can we tone it down a bit?") or by turning it around ("I think you'd better ask her that yourself, hang on, I'll phone her so you can get it first hand" and start to dial) people will probably cool it and get the idea to treat your connection with respect. Which is also probably a good thing.

1

Realize that people will talk no matter what. I once took up with a coworker (not a hierarchical relationship in any way) after we worked together (I liked the dashing way she quit :-)) and for over two years my manager tried over and over again to make us confess that the relationship had started while we were all working there. He never stopped, we just dropped all away eventually. Basically he was enraged/baffled/incredulous that he didn't 'see it' while we were all there. So what I'm trying to say is you can't win whether you wait or not..

If I were you I would wait a couple months after she leaves, then just make it public in a very matter of fact way, like bring her to a spouse-included party or after-work drinks and act like it was understood all along. If anyone works up the nerve to ask, confirm that yes, you met at work, and that's partly why she's now working elsewhere. Don't give any further details. It'll all die down soon enough once you're out in the open.

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As I see it, there is no real need for you to approach this topic at your workplace at all.

But you might want to do it anyway for the following reasons:

  • To let people know because many of them are friends
  • To preclude ugly rumors (e.g. that you got her fired because of a relationship spat)
  • As an overture for installing a dating policy

In any case, I'd say the best way to do it is an email where you simply describe what happened, similar to how you did it here (a bit more briefly).

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You say people at your work had already noticed and commented in the past, although you "cooled it" since then. So they are not likely to be surprised, and are very likely to assume your relationship continued from then till now (as it did, just not in an inappropriate way). That perception is not going to change if you wait a month or two.

So I would suggest going the other way instead. Start dating now & make it noticeable. Mention it to the mutual friends in the company and say how happy you are that you are no longer working together and can now start dating. That way, you are reinforcing that you were not dating while you were working together and were behaving professionally. The one thing I wouldn't mention was any suggestion that you girlfriend changed jobs partly so you could - I would emphasize the step-up (as you have in comments here). Hopefully, if there are any other comments in the workplace your friends will be able to set them straight.

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She's at a different company now. She's not your direct report anymore, nor even is she your coworker at all. She is just another person, outside your work environment, and she should be treated as such. Which is to say, if you met someone outside of work in any other social situation, you'd go for it right? So this shouldn't be different. Just go for it!

If people in your company start talking, then whatever. What are they going to say? You're dating someone outside of work? So what?

protected by mcknz Apr 17 at 21:12

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