Ever had a coworker you wanted to take from the boardroom to the bedroom? Of course you have. Office romances are the juiciest of forbidden tropes: You want to sleep with your colleague even more because you know you’re not supposed to.
Your grandparents might have met at work and caused absolutely no issues in doing so, but in the #MeToo era, things are different. Hooking up with a coworker can be awkward at best and disastrous at worst. Also, your company doesn’t want to deal with any power imbalance-related legal issues, so you already know your HR rep might be less than thrilled that you even Googled how to get away with this. (Hope you’re not using your work computer! You know they can monitor that, right?)
And yet, you, like so many office workers before you, may persist. With that in mind, read on to learn how to best hook up with a coworker… if you must.
Find out if they want you back
The first step here might seem obvious, but we all know from the past few years’ news coverage that there’s a big difference between two equals at a company hooking up and one powerful person lording their status over an inferior to get some gratification. Don’t be that person, ever. If you’re in a position of power over your work crush, don’t pursue it. Don’t waste your time. It’s unethical and it’s gross. It can also get you sued or cost you your job.
Conversely, if a person in a position of power over you is pursuing you, don’t be afraid to tell HR, especially if you feel conflicted or nervous their interest could somehow affect your job. (If you actually want to attempt to sleep your way to the top of your industry, maybe we’ll do a follow-up to this article in the future, but for now, that’s not what we’re here to discuss. Focus on doing your job well.)
It’s easy enough to feel out whether a colleague sees you in the same way or shares your fantasy of hooking up with a coworker. Office Christmas parties, post-work happy hours, and general banter on Slack can pretty much give you all the clues you need. If the object of your interdepartmental affections doesn’t seem into it, leave it alone. Don’t be a creep. Don’t make them dread coming to work. Find a different fantasy and let them do their job in peace.
Check the company handbook
Most companies don’t actually have rules against coworkers dating or hooking up. Despite what rumors you may have heard around the water cooler, it’s highly unlikely you can be fired for getting frisky with the person on the other side of your cubicle, though your employer might still hand down a few consequences.
“I have fired a lot of people for a lot of things,” said Laurie Reuttimann, a former human resources leader who recently published a work culture manifesto, Betting on You, and just so happens to have met her now-husband on the job. “I have never fired anybody for dating a coworker. Really, never. Not once.”
It’s different, of course, if you and your professional paramour have different amounts of power within the organization. In 2019, the CEO of McDonald’s was pushed out of the fast food giant after his consensual relationship with a lower-level employee was made known. The company forbids managers from having romantic relationships with subordinates.
Jo, a 28-year-old food service worker in the Midwest, also faced consequences—but again, not a firing—for becoming involved with a coworker at her restaurant. She told Lifehacker that once management found out, the two were placed on different schedules.
Decide whether or not to let the boss know
Whether you’re just hooking up or dating someone, every couple faces the “What are we?” conversation at some point. In the same way you have to mutually agree when to start posting each other on Instagram or meeting each other’s families in a standard relationship, if you’re seeing a coworker, you have to work together to decide if—and when—to let your boss and HR know.
Jo explained that she and the coworker she was dating decided to keep their relationship a secret from their colleagues. She doesn’t know how to this day, but the duo’s coworkers figured it out anyway, then ratted the lovers out to a manager, who confronted Jo and her new boyfriend separately.
“We had said that we were gonna deny it, but under pressure I told my boss the truth. We literally told no one so I honestly felt really uncomfortable that someone was so interested in what I was doing outside of work. Since we had agreed to deny it, when she confronted him right after, he told her we weren’t together,” she recalled.
That, obviously, only added more suspicion and drama to the situation. They were separated shortly thereafter, at least on the schedule.
“It’s so arrogant to assume that two people working an hourly job can’t be trusted to show up and work” if they’re hooking up, said Reuttimann, decrying that “paternalistic approach” as one of the reasons people hate their jobs in the first place. She said the decision to tell HR “depends on the type of relationship, the length of the relationship, and the intensity of the relationship,” and as a veteran of the industry, she has never particularly wanted to know if employees are involved unless it could pose a legal problem.
Be an adult
Don’t get handsy at work. Don’t bang at work. Don’t let your relationship or hookup status distract your colleagues, make them jealous, or draw any unwanted attention to your situation. This isn’t high school. You don’t have to let everyone know you’re getting it in, we promise, and if conquest-related clout is what’s really motivating you here, rethink your priorities, please. As Jo’s experience proved, your coworkers will probably figure your business out anyway, so don’t give them additional reasons to turn your hookups or relationship into the drama du jour.
While Reuttimann maintained she’s never fired anyone for an interoffice relationship, she said she has definitely had to ask lovers to “get [their] shit together” and grow up a little.
“As long as there’s no drama, nobody cares,” she said. “When you give people a reason to talk, then the talk gets to HR, and HR starts to get worried: ‘What if there’s a lawsuit? I don’t know why there would be, but what if there’s a lawsuit? What if people fight in the office?’”
That brings us to another important point: If you break up or stop hooking up, don’t let any animosity affect your work. Don’t fight in a break room. If you don’t think you could keep your conduct professional after a breakup, don’t pursue a work hookup at all.
Reuttimann has seen work breakups “over and over again,” and noted that they’re especially tricky because the parties involved still have to see each other every day through the grieving process. You’ll potentially be reminded of your ex-fling every time you walk to your desk, open your email list, or get drinks with colleagues after clocking out. You might even be part of such a close-knit team that you’ll learn, whether you want to or not, when they’re seeing someone new.
“But you know what?” she offered. “What if you live in the same neighborhood as someone [you break up with]? And you’re at the same grocery store? Breaking up is never easy, so while work does add dimensionality to it, it’s complicated no matter what.”
The American employment experience is best summed up by Blink-182: “Works sucks, I know.”
Work does suck. We do know. Sometimes, you need a distraction or something to look forward to. You need a partner who understands what you deal with at your stressful job or can hang out around your demanding schedule. You might not have time to date someone outside of your organization if you’re filing overtime every week and pulling late nights at the office. There’s no shame in falling for—or just wanting to sleep with—someone with whom you already have so much in common.
Remember that if you and a coworker pursue one another, even just for a few romps, you should enjoy your time together. Life is short and work hours are long.
“Even if you’re working at the intersection of purpose and meaning, there are days of work that just suck, right? It can be a slog, even if you love what you do and it’s really a sign of optimism and a sign of hope that you can go to someplace for money that’s not always great and fall in love with someone, even if it’s just a brief fleeting moment of love,” mused Reuttimann. “I think that’s a really nice, sweet commentary on the human condition, that in any environment-good, bad, indifferent—we can still make really important meaningful connections.”