Workplace romances aren't uncommon, but what are the consequences for dating colleagues or even your boss?

 Rachele Davis remembers the first time she developed feelings for someone at work.

The then-15-year-old was working at a Sydney fast food restaurant, a common rite of passage for many teenagers, and she caught sight of her colleague, Nick, through the chip-packing area.

"I thought, 'Damn, he's cute'," Rachele laughs.

But she was quick to discount her attraction because she was in a relationship with someone else at the time, and Nick was the store manager.

And over the next few weeks, those feelings turned into resentment after she witnessed him flirting with others at the store.

"It really rubbed me the wrong way. I thought he wasn't doing his job very well, and I thought I could do his job better than he could," she says.

"At one point, he was in a sauce fight with another employee, and I thought that was completely unprofessional … I had all sorts of negative feelings about that. But it was more about the fact that his attention was positively focused on other people.

"It was not a friendship to start. It was a professional relationship where there was some tension."

This changed after he moved stores, but then they crossed paths via mutual friends a few years later, when she was 18.

Photo of an 18 year old Rachele and a Nick at a party posing and smiling for the camera.
Rachele and Nick began dating in 2010 after they met at work.(Supplied)

"From there, we started courting, and it started to become more apparent that he was [interested in] me," she says.

They've now been together for more than a decade.

How Rachele and Nick met isn't all that unusual. More than 60 per cent of adults in the United States have had a relationship with someone in their workplace, and in the United Kingdom, this has been reported to be as high as 70 per cent. 

In contrast, according to a Seek survey, only 30 per cent of Australians have been in a relationship at work.

Why are we attracted to our colleagues?

Amy Nicole Baker, a psychology professor at New Haven University in the US, says we are often attracted to others in our workplaces because humans are "attracted to things that are familiar".

"There's good evidence and research that people with certain personality types are attracted to certain professions. So the people that you work with are probably more similar to you personality-wise than between you and a random stranger," she tells ABC RN's This Working Life

"So we have a lot in common with the people that we work with, and that is a breeding ground for attraction."

two people hold hands discreetly at a printer in an office.
Different companies can have varying rules around dating in the workplace. (Getty: Tony Studio )

That doesn't mean that it's not sometimes frowned upon.

According to lawyer Mia Pantechis, there are no laws in Australia that prohibit consensual workplace romances, but some companies regulate workplace relationships through their policies.

This is because conflicts can arise when there's a workplace relationship between employees on the same team or between a senior employee and a subordinate.

"If decisions are being made around promotion, performance or salary setting, those are the types of issues that could give rise to either a perceived or actual conflict," Ms Pantechis says.

"And they're the types of issues that an employer may need to step in and manage if a workplace relationship is disclosed."

Ms Pantechis is quick to reiterate that she's referring to consensual relationships in the workplace.

"Sexual harassment is a completely different concept. It deals with unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature at work," she says.

"One key concern is that workplace romances can ultimately turn sour. And when relationships do break down, there might be tension between those parties in the workplace. And in that context, unwelcome or unwanted behaviours can manifest."

And if those behaviours are of a sexual nature, she says they could amount to sexual harassment or lead to a complaint.

Workplace gossip and motives

There is also concern about rumours, which can emerge when new relationships form at work.

Rachele remembers the rumours and gossip at work when her relationship with Nick was in the early stages and was kept a secret.

"[Colleagues] might see a hickey on my neck and say, 'Where did that come from, huh?'" she says.

"So there's complications to the relationship becoming workplace gossip."

Wedding day
Rachele and Nick were married a couple of years ago.(Supplied)

Dr Baker says it's best not to keep workplace relationships secret for too long.

"One thing we know about secrets is that they're corrosive. They're corrosive in the workplace, and they're actually bad for the relationship as well.

"People may think that secrets are good for relationships, and it adds to the spice or the excitement. But we actually have research [and] evidence that says the longer the relationship is a secret, the less satisfied the couple are, and the less likely the relationship is to persist," she says.

Also, it's not uncommon for co-workers to make assumptions about why they got together, adds Dr Baker.

"Sometimes the attribution is that we could tell they really liked each other, we could tell they were good friends, we could tell that they were really interested in each other. This is a true love match for these two people. … It's the other motives that people react to less favourably," she says.

For example, people might perceive that one person is pursuing the other to gain a workplace advantage.

"Those kinds of perceptions lead to really negative reactions, especially for the person who seems to be pursuing an advantage," she says.

"The worst reactions ... are [to extramarital affairs] or when someone has violated a monogamous or committed relationship and there's a workplace relationship that's now interfering."

Third-party observers who witness this kind of behaviour are less willing to recommend them for promotions. They're also less willing to recommend them for other benefits, like extra training or other perks.

"So the perceptions of the person who is lower status usually really hurt them," she says.

Rachele and Nick were able to shake off the odd office joke, and they've been together since 2010.

They also now work in very different industries: Rachele is a developmental psychologist and Nick is an electrician.

"We would never attempt to work together again. I think it's one of those things where home and work are nicely separated places for us," she says.

"I think you can meet at work ... but the platform where you grow and expand might [change] later, and I think that's what it was for Nick and me."

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