As an advice columnist for Salary.com, I answer letters related to balancing work and a personal life for better overall living. As a single divorced woman and mom of three, I respond to a lot of questions from soul-searching friends and acquaintances struggling to include themselves in the lives that they’ve built.
We all do it, piling on responsibilities like salad bar toppings until the underlying fresh greens are no longer visible. Suddenly, middle age looms and a full plate can feel like “too much.” My advice is always to stabilize first. While discontent is often a call for change, start with the one who will be with you , start to finish: You. Making life-changing decisions with a stressed and unfocused brain is similar to steering on ice. Seek traction before turning the wheel.
Here’s how I responded to a Salary.com reader pondering a workplace relationship in the midst of personal crisis:
Over the past three years I’ve developed a friendship with a co-worker. We’ve weathered a lot, both at work and in our personal lives. I respect him tremendously and appreciate how easily we’ve been able to relate to one another through administrative upheavals, divorces and the like. There has always been an underlying spark in our relationship, but we’ve been careful not to ignite it, as I am technically his superior (he’s an adjunct teacher in a separate department and could probably teach elsewhere). I’m also recently separated and still in the process of sorting through the end of my marriage. We’ve both agreed that dating would not be smart but our conversations have recently elevated a bit. He asks about my marriage (my husband just moved out) and has told me that things are pretty rocky with his current girlfriend.
Should I follow my heart? I think I could really fall for this guy, but I can’t, can I?
Well, you could. And you may already have. But I would encourage you to make choices instead of “falling” into anything, because this could impact your career in a significant way.
It isn’t clear from your letter whether your school has a strict “no dating” policy or if dating a co-worker requires interaction with the human resources department. That’s an important piece of information. In the first situation, dating could be a fire-able offense. In the second case — while vetting a potential relationship with HR might take the spontaneity out of things — it would make your situation navigable should you both decide to board that boat.
Regardless, I would advise you to focus on making some sequential choices. You’ve made one on your marriage, hopefully independent of this co-worker. Try to follow that through before you make any further relationship decisions. Your friend also has his own decision to make regarding his girlfriend. Ethics and morals aside, stress can cloud judgment. It’s difficult to evaluate a new relationship while extricating one’s self from another, and offering yourselves as finish line prizes will put inordinate pressure on any future relationship. At present, dating doesn’t appear to be a practical option. My advice would be to simply save that decision for later.
If and when you find yourselves unencumbered and yet enamored, make the decision on whether to explore your mutual attraction without jeopardizing your positions (because there’s nothing like an office scandal to take the sheen off an office romance). Following your heart might feel “romantic,” but any negative outcome such as losing a job or tainting careers at your present school would become part of your history together. Sparks can be wonderful, but entangling your personal life with your job could create a general instability with no “safe place” should the relationship fail. It’s a huge risk and worthy of some serious thought.
Make this a mindful choice. No whims in the workplace!