Interested in dating the CEO? Or, perhaps, you’re the CEO interested in dating an employee. Or maybe you’re a general counsel or people team member watching this hypothetical unfold in realtime. Regardless of the scenario, things have the potential to get messy very quickly.
Early on in our company, my co-founder jokingly asked me, “Are you sad you can’t date anyone at Ethena?” I am not. And to clarify, mostly for her husband, nor is she. This was a hypothetical relevant to a discussion we were having about the recent firing of a CEO for a consensual relationship.
We talk about dating a lot at my company, especially with our academic researchers and industry experts because the line between office dating and harassment can be tricky to spot. This is especially true in tech and scaling companies where there’s been a conscious effort to blend the personal and the professional spheres.
While “bring your whole self to work” can be great advice when it means you tote in your yoga mat, this advice can be troubling when it means, “Sure, ask out Pam in Product. The heart wants what it wants.”
On the flip side, it seems absurd, especially in large companies, to mandate a “No dating, ever,” policy and pretend office dating won’t happen. This approach is like the Whole30 of HR — way too extreme to be effective.
A healthy compromise between “date everyone” and “date no one” is to avoid romantic hierarchical workplace relationships. We shall explain with attempts at wit and lots of footnotes because research is helpful.
Before we dive in, let’s clarify that this is about office dating and developing effective policies, not legal advice. We also want to be very clear — the inherent complexities of office dating do not excuse workplace harassment of any kind.
Workplace dating happens
You lock eyes across the room and suddenly, you’re thinking about how you can properly weave the phrase ‘open-floor-plan-crossed lovers’ into your wedding vows. You’re not alone. In fact, 36% of employees have dated a coworker. Not to state the obvious, but just because everyone seems to be doing it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. (Ahem, vaping.)
Though all workplace relationships have the potential to be as messy as your office microwave, experts warn against one type of workplace relationship, in particular: relationships that involve employees with different levels of power in the organization, aka, hierarchical workplace relationships.
What is a hierarchical workplace relationship?
A hierarchical workplace relationship is between employees of different levels of management. For example, when the CEO dates a vice president or when a manager dates a direct report — those are hierarchical workplace relationships.
On the flip side, you have typical workplace relationships — when employees with the same level of power are dating. This might be two managers in different departments, or it might be entry-level employees on the same team.
6 reasons you shouldn’t date the CEO
We know that your mom told you that there are plenty of fish in the sea, but we don’t think she meant your C-level executives. (badum bum — we’re so sorry) And we’ve got six reasons why hierarchical relationships are not good best practices.
1. Rumor has it…
It’s inevitable that, over the course of the 40+ hours you spend at work, your coworkers may start to talk. Teams often resent hierarchical workplace relationships because of the potential for favoritism. If Kristen, the Director of Customer Success, is dating Jenny from Design (and the block), maybe there won’t be too much gossip. But if Kristen is dating a new help desk hire, her help desk colleagues will almost certainly have thoughts. Can you blame them?
2. Powerful power dynamics
Power dynamics are real. Adding dating to the equation only amplifies them. In the case of any relationship, consent is paramount.
A power imbalance leads to the possibility of a relationship forming out of coercion rather than mutual desire. CFO Jim approaches new analyst Karen in her first week on the job. He says, “Hey Karen, want to grab a glass of natural wine after work?” Karen thinks, “I do not care for sediment nor do I care for Jim, but I’d like to keep this job, so…” Even if Jim genuinely believes he isn’t pressuring Karen, there is no way of getting around the power of his position.
3. Beheadings and other break-ups
We want to believe that all love lasts forever but Nicholas Sparks says otherwise. And when breakups make their way into the office, it’s a recipe for disaster.
In the case of a breakup, the superordinate (Jim, or, the person with more power in the workplace) holds problematic power over the subordinate (Karen, or the person with less power in the workplace). We’re not saying that every relationship will end a la King Henry and Anne Boleyn, but there’s the chance that the breakup can result in punishment at work.
More specifically, Karen said no to drinks and suddenly, she’s on the lame project.
In equally serious cases, the superordinate may attempt to resume the relationship with a quid pro quo. “You sure you don’t want to go for that glass of wine?… because it’d be a shame for you to have to redo the Excel model you spent all last week building.”
Karen is in a crappy situation, which is the most important consideration. But there’s also a problem for the company — greater legal liability for the company should this situation escalate and turn into a formal complaint. Managers are supposed to be the first line of defense against harassment.
Finally, keep in mind that 6% of workers have left a job because a romantic relationship with someone at work went sour (9% of women compared to 3% of men). Note that this is true of work relationships in general, not even specifically hierarchical ones. Talk about risky business.
These relationships can be bad for business: companies immersed in scandals can see morale plummet and key talent leave. Leaders of these companies also suffer; research shows that executives with work experience at scandal-plagued companies go on to earn less money than their peers. Creating healthy boundaries and respecting power dynamics are attributes of strong, inclusive leadership. Good leaders prosper, bad leaders get pooped on by pigeons and the press.
Speaking of, when the power imbalance in a couple is particularly pronounced (think: Queen and commoner or Beyonce and anyone), regardless of the quality of the relationship, it can attract negative media attention, in part because these relationships are usually against company policy.
5. Now I ain’t sayin’ she/he/they a gold-digger
We already touched on the rumor mill, but it’s worth noting that hierarchical workplace relationships may have tangible effects on your career.
Research shows that people view members of a hierarchical relationship to be less worthy of career advancement. This is particularly true of the subordinate. There’s the (perhaps unfair) assumption that the subordinate is motivated to be in their relationship for career advancement rather than love. Perhaps because of this, team members also tend to be more skeptical of a subordinate dating a superordinate. There’s a lack of trust. (Not exactly notorious for being a way to build a business.) In fact, many say they would be more likely to manipulate the information they give that person, for example, by telling white lies or withholding knowledge.
We know what you’re thinking. “I’m not the subordinate, so I’m probably safe from scrutiny.” But much like an audience participation show, no one is safe. Being the superordinate member of the relationship can also come with costs: Research shows that a team leader engaged in a relationship with a subordinate team-member is less respected and more likely to be blamed for negative outcomes that happen to the team.
6. When things get awkward, HR has to get involved
To be fair, the vast amounts of complaints and confidential information an HR department has to deal with everyday probably makes your dating situation a small fish in a big pond. (Unless of course, you’re dating the CEO. We’ve given you five good reasons to not do that.)
But just remember, sometimes airing out all your dirty laundry to a relative stranger (yes they helped you onboard, and yes they check in every enrollment season) isn’t ideal when your relationship goes south.
So before you ever get far into the weeds, before you even consider asking Karen or Jim to join you for a glass of wine – ask HR for their dating policy.
Seriously, look into it. What are the rules? What is approved? Yes, this article was general advice, but your company will have an official dating policy in writing somewhere. (Probably in your Code of Conduct or in your Employee Handbook.)
And if you find out your company doesn’t have a Dating Policy, borrow ours!
Does Love Conquer All?
Well, we’ve given you six compelling reasons to refrain from engaging in a hierarchical workplace relationship. They come with risks and often aren’t worth the possible damage to the company or the individual costs to the employees who enter them.
All of that said, we know there are some romantic anarchists out there reading this who believe their relationship is different and that love will prevail. Some will still want to date the CEO. To you, we’ll say… be safe; be smart; understand the risks; and be sure both parties consent (enthusiastically!). We hope you’ll invite us to your wedding/vow exchange/expression of your everlasting love.
Remember, your friendly, neighborhood compliance training provider wants to remind you that without consent, unwelcome workplace advances can potentially fall into sexual harassment. We hope your workplace harassment prevention training is still effective, because if it isn’t, you might want to drop a hint to your HR or People team that they need to make updates with the times. Our Harassment Prevention was designed to change workplace behaviors, and it’s actually engaging to watch. Send a sample over to your HR team today, and see for yourself the world of difference.
This article has been updated to include our dating policy. It was originally published in February 2020.