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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Boardroom Breakups: How to Deal When You're Working With an Ex

Meeting a significant other at the office is, well, not really that uncommon. And, while it’d be nice if all relationships worked out perfectly—as the saying goes, you have to kiss a few frogs.

So, what happens when you and your cube mate date, then decide to go your separate ways?

Dealing with the fallout—10 hours a day, five days a week in front of an office full of direct-reports, bosses, and peers—might feel just too horrific to survive. But, if you’ve just broken up with someone you work with, it doesn’t mean you have to start dusting off your resume.

With a bit of perspective, some honest (albeit cringe-worthy) discussion, and a little cleverness, you’ll ease the pain and potential awkwardness of the situation—and you don’t have to risk sacrificing your reputation or performance at work, either. These steps will help get you through.

Get a Pre-nup

I know it’s not marriage, but the principal is the same. If you’re starting to share more than paper clips and copy machines with your colleague, you need to have the talk. You don’t need to draw up a legal agreement or anything, but talking through how you both might react post-breakup will help you both prepare—just in case.

For example, I tend to get a little—shall we say—sarcastic after a pint or two with colleagues at the end of a bad day. The last time I was dating a co-worker, we had a heart-to-heart before we officially became a couple, and agreed we’d avoid one another at office happy hours if we broke up. It was a good thing too—because we did eventually break up, and avoiding each other at those post-breakup outings helped ensure that neither one of us ever said something we regretted or made a scene in front of our colleagues.

I know, it’s not romantic, and it may feel a bit pessimistic at the beginning of a relationship. But an honest assessment of the worse-case scenario can help you both agree on how to handle a difficult situation with a little less stomach-churning confrontation—and help you avoid the feeling of “I have to get a new job now” if the relationship does end.

Plot Your Course

Before I started dating my co-worker, we worked together for nearly a year. Before that, I doubt if I could remember if he was at work on a given day, let alone the color of his shirt. But after we started dating? Suddenly we both had this superpower where we always seemed tuned in to where the other was.

This is great when you’re dating and excited to see your significant other. But after the breakup? Not so much.

After an unfortunate run-in with my ex in the office kitchen during “our” coffee break, I decided crying in front of my direct-reports probably wasn’t doing much for establishing my credibility. So, I gathered my courage, bit my tongue, and proceeded through my day, doing everything exactly as I always had, noting where I was each time I ran into him, and when.

Armed with this information, I plotted out my potential danger zones and adjusted my schedule accordingly. Instead of stepping out for lunch at 12:15 every day, I started going at 11:50. My route to the ladies room—which was not only the shortest path, but had previously served as a great flirting strategy—got changed, too.

By the end of the first week after our breakup, I had nearly eliminated my exposure to him completely. Of course, changing the time of my morning coffee run didn’t erase him from my memory—but a few simple changes went a long way to help minimize how often I saw him at work, and significantly reduced my potential for an embarrassing office meltdown.

Call For Reinforcements

Even so, while I became pretty good at traffic planning, it was impossible to avoid him completely. We were both managers, and were required to attend weekly management meetings. Our first meeting post-breakup was a gut-wrenching disaster. We were both busy and ended up being the last two to arrive, with only two chairs left—right next to each other. We were both so uncomfortable and distracted; I don’t think either of us heard a word that was said for the entire hour.

Vowing to never let that happen again, I took two simple steps to avoid future close encounters: I arrived early, and I brought reinforcements.

A few minutes before our meeting, I’d round up one or two of my fellow managers to grab coffee before we headed to the conference room. When I arrived, I had at least one other person pre-selected to sit next to, and someone to focus my attention on so I wasn’t staring at the door while he walked in.

The lesson is this: With just a couple subtle, tactics, you can manage to be in the same room together, while still coming across as your usual, professional, composed self.

Pretend Your Boss is Watching

I don’t know about you, but when I know the big wigs are watching, I make sure I’m on my best behavior. And after breaking up with the guy in the cube around the corner, I wanted to be sure I didn’t let my emotions get the best of me in the office. So, I pretended my boss was watching my every move.

By imagining my manager was observing me—which was easy to do since she totally could be—it was easy for me to maintain my composure, and keep things civil. As a result, I never lost my cool, whether anyone was watching or not.

There’s no sugar-coating it—breaking up sucks. But if you have to do it, and it happens to be with a colleague, it doesn’t have to turn into a soap opera. With some honest conversation and clever planning, you can make it through an office breakup without missing a beat—or, at least make it look that way to everyone else.

Photo courtesy of Richard Moross.

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