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Dating a co-worker: are office romances really that taboo?

From Bridget Jones to Barnaby Joyce, office romances have flooded our screens and our everyday lives for years. But is the seemingly common office affair as bad as the salacious situations and Hollywood variations that stick in our minds?

Dating a co-worker may not actually be as commonplace as we think – and it doesn’t necessarily always end in heartbreak or scandal. We spoke to Associate Professor Gery Karantzas from Deakin University’s School of Psychology for his advice on workplace relationships.

What do we mean by a ‘work relationship’?

According to Assoc. Prof. Karantzas, not all office romances are the scandalous, secretive situations we often see in movies or through the media.

‘A relationship that blossoms between two single people who work together may be very legitimate – this is something quite different to a workplace fling that sees one or both parties engaging in an affair, trying to leverage their way up the corporate ladder, or looking for quick sex,’ he explains.

Assoc. Prof. Karantzas cautions that these type of office affairs should not be painted with the same brush. ‘One long-term relationship that’s fulfilling for both versus wanting to meet needs that are not being fulfilled in another relationship are two very different things.’

Why do we fall for colleagues?

Although no real scientific research has been conducted around workplace romances, there has been considerable research done on attraction. Assoc. Prof. Karantzas explains that attraction has two main variables; familiarity and similarity.

‘The sentiment that “opposites attract” is all hype,’ he says. ‘When you work with someone who has similar interests and values, and you are working towards a common goal, the more we get to know that person, and the more you may feel attracted to them.’

Assoc. Prof. Karantzas explains that people meet in a variety of different ways. He is quick to point out that in principle, beginning a relationship with a work colleague is not altogether wrong. But it is what happens from there that can bring complications.

‘Providing that the romantic relationship doesn’t yield conflicts of interest or doesn’t promote leveraging from those in power, there is nothing wrong with connecting with someone at work,’ he says.

'When you work with someone who has similar interests and values, and you are working towards a common goal, the more we get to know that person, and the more you may feel attracted to them.'

Assoc. Prof. Gery Karantzas,
School of Pyschology, Deakin University

But what about when it goes bad?

So, what happens when work relationships turn stale? Assoc. Prof. Karantzas warns of situations involving extra-marital affairs or conflicts of interest. ‘When there’s power-dependant relationships and different treatment occurs, where partners are provided unfair opportunities, or when people use their position to leverage the other partner, this is when things can go bad,’ he says.

It can also end in tears when couples choose to keep their relationship secret. ‘You can understand why people are fearful, and often people simply want to be sure that the relationship is steady before telling others, but keeping it secret can give the perception of suspicion, even if it is a legitimate relationship,’ Assoc. Prof. Karantzas explains.

‘Both partners should engage in open and honest disclosure to all relevant parties; transparency is key,’ he says. If everyone is kept informed, any conflicts of interest may be addressed to ensure those involved are engaging in best practice.

Will the thrills really last?

When looking at the thrill of a workplace fling, Assoc. Prof. Karantzas agrees this can be appealing, but warns it is hedonistic and often short-lived. ‘When we chase immediate rewards for a quick hit and a shot of excitement, these rewards don’t last long, and their appeal can wear off,’ he says. In the case of a workplace fling, one partner usually becomes tired with the situation, or fed up with hiding.

Often in entertainment we see powerful men engaging in office romances with their younger secretaries. While Assoc. Prof. Karantzas agrees this can happen, he suggests it’s not as common these days. In the past it happened more when men were frequently in higher positions of power, and women were traditionally in admin roles. ‘There is enough anecdotal information to suggest this kind of office fling did occur, but it really was just a function of the way the numbers stacked up,’ he says.

How bad can it get?

For things to turn awkward is a given, according to Assoc. Prof. Karantzas. ‘Being civil sounds good in theory, but unless the relationship ends very well, working together after a split requires a lot of regulation of emotions, as seeing them can often bring memories of the relationship,’ he says.

It’s ultimately your decision if you choose to remove yourself voluntarily from your workplace, or to another department because it’s too difficult, Assoc. Prof. Karantzas points out. But forcible redeployment can come into effect for those in power-dependant relationships. Here, the person in power may move the other partner along, or make life more difficult for their ex-partner.

However, Assoc. Prof. Karantzas is quick to warn of the ramifications of this kind of behaviour. ‘This then starts to play into other workplace issues that have more serious legal ramifications,’ he explains.

Not all workplace romances are necessarily bad; some can lead to genuine, healthy relationships. Sometimes, it’s just a natural progression of two available people working in close proximity developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

But be warned that if things turn sour, your heart may not be the only thing on the line.


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Associate Professor Gery Karantzas
Associate Professor Gery Karantzas

Faculty of Health, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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