We spend so much time in the workplace that relationships are bound to develop — friendly, romantic and problematic. I recently asked Emily Bennington about what professionals should know about office relationships and how to navigate them. Bennington is author of “Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination” and the founder of AWAKE EXEC mindful leadership coaching for women. Bennington has led training programs for numerous Fortune 500 companies and has been featured in such outlets as CNN, ABC, Fox, the Wall Street Journal, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. She is also a contributing writer for Monster.com and a featured blogger for Huffington Post and Forbes Woman. You can find her digital sandbox online at EmilyBennington.com.
You’ve written about your experience with the dangers of relationships that can cross lines. Meanwhile, a CareerBuilder survey reports that more than 1 in 3 office romances result in marriage, and another study suggests that the hiring process resembles how people assess potential relationships. Is there anything, in your view, that connects these findings, other than that Americans like to work and also to date — sometimes at the same time?
Ha! Well, there’s certainly truth to that. In fact, when I launched the survey that became “Who Says It’s a Man’s World,” I asked more than 700 women whether they had been hit on at work. And guess what? A whopping 68% said yes. Sometimes it was true love resulting in happy marriages, but most of the time, the advances were unwelcome. It’s easy to understand the chemistry that can happen in the workplace, but if it’s not a mutual attraction or, worse, if one or both parties are already in a relationship, it’s just an office fault line. And, believe me, it will erupt eventually.
Your article I cited above makes it clear that you’re discussing close working relationships that can spill over into romantic relationships, and not situations of harassment. Still, that danger is real for many people in the workplace. How best should individuals communicate these boundaries?
I tell women all the time that beautiful is what you ARE and sexy is how you ACT. In other words, you don’t have to walk up to your colleagues and say, “Look, I just want to know that these are my boundaries.” You communicate that message in how you behave on the job. You communicate it in what you wear, how you act, whether you laugh at the innuendos – or whether you don’t. There’s no doubt you can get attention if you play off your sexuality, but it’s a short-term game so you better have something to back it up when the crutch is gone.
Relationships in and out of work are largely about trust. Not everyone bounces back easily from a betrayal of trust, though. When this betrayal is at work, how can people overcome that feeling of being burned without being hopelessly naive?
The first step is to forgive. I believe very strongly that when you hold a grudge it holds you back, so if you want peace in your own mind, you have to let it go. If someone betrays your trust outside the office and it’s clear the relationship is no longer healthy for you, you have a choice to walk away. Obviously, things are different at work. Most of the time we don’t have a say in who our coworkers are, which is even more reason to forgive, because any negative energy you carry will eventually come through and impact the team. If someone offends you in the office, deal with it face to face and then simply release it. You’re not letting the other person off the hook; you’re just not giving them control over your attitude.
Sexual tension is, as you note, among the potential issues of a mentor-mentee relationship, particularly but not limited to those between opposite genders. What are some of the other potential pitfalls you see for mentors and mentees?
I’ve seen lopsided relationships in the sense that one party was more invested in the partnership than the other, but overall, I don’t use the word “mentor” lightly. So if two people make it to that status, they should both be on the same page. I think the bigger problem isn’t so much the pitfalls of having a mentor but the fact that mentors are becoming endangered species in the first place.
As you note, the “long game” is about focusing on “what you want most.” But short-term distractions or threats are always appearing. How have you kept your focus, and what counsel do you offer in your coaching and mentoring?
The core principle of my work is that you must be a magnificent person first to have a magnificent career. I advise all of my mentees to focus on creating a list of personal virtues so they always know what matters most in their lives and are equipped to respond to the world around them from that place. When you can truly put WHO you want to be over WHAT you want to do, the long-game tends to take care of itself.