The Hill Life: Matters of the Heart

Mar 30, 2011

Dear Belle,

What are the rules about an intern dating a staffer?  Is it illegal or just looked down upon?

Anonymous Intern

Oh boy. Deep breath.

Dear Anonymous,

As long as the intern is over 18, I don’t believe there is any law that would make it illegal.  However, Congress has its own set of ethics rules that function like laws in that they are enforceable by the committees who oversee the conduct of Members and staff.

I searched the 2008 House Ethics Manual, and I did not find contain any specific prohibitions against a paid staffer dating an intern.  However, this does not mean that the Ethics committee would find such a relationship permissible.  Only a counsel in the Ethics office can tell you for sure, and all calls to the Ethics office are confidential.

Also, you need to consider that many offices ask their staffers to sign a separate code of conduct that probably includes guidelines on interacting with interns, fellows and volunteers.  So before you even consider pursuing a relationship with a paid staffer, you should make sure that he didn’t sign anything that would prohibit him from dating you.  But even if he didn’t, I cannot caution you enough about how seriously you need to consider the personal and professional implications of dating a staffer, especially if you work in the same office.

I would not take kindly to the idea of a staffer in my office engaging in a romantic relationship with an intern during her or his internship.  Even if I  knew that their feelings for each other were genuine, there is a perception issue that I would not be able to overcome because he is essentially your boss.

This perception issue also extends beyond the Hill.  Consider how the Member’s constituents would feel about such a relationship.  Ask yourself, how would the voters who elected my Congressman feel about a (probably older) male staffer engaging in a relationship with a (probably younger) female intern? 

Additionally, you need to remember that the Hill is a small, claustrophobic place and if you develop a reputation as that intern or that staffer, you may not be able to escape the fallout.  Do you really want your name, the staffer’s name and your Member’s name bandied about as the juicy gossip of the day?  Because odds are that they will be to some extent.

Remember, an internship is a temporary condition.  If you like this person, wait until your internship is over to pursue a relationship.  It’s simply not worth the possible damage to your professional reputation and his.  And from a purely romantic perspective, why would you want to add an unnecessary source of stress to a new relationship?

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  1. AG says:

    I'm inclined to agree with Belle. I met my current boyfriend at the organization I interned with for 18 months during my junior/senior year of college and the summer after I graduated college. We didn't begin dating until after he had quit for a new job that summer and did not tell anyone from our former office until I had started a job elsewhere. Our former colleagues still gossip about us though neither of us work there. I cannot imagine the type of strain our relationship would have sustained, particularly in the early stages, if we'd begun dating when we worked together (though he was never my direct supervisor).

  2. A says:

    I wouldn't say I recommend it, but I dated a staffer as an intern, he was four years older than me, I was in my 20s, and he was not my superviser. It never went anywhere and didn't have some horrific effect on my career (or any really), but the truth is that it will hurt the woman's reputation more than the mans if it does affect one of you. That's just how people are, expecially women, we are quick to judge eachother. He and I kept it quiet, it was fun, sometimes we aren't puritans, the world won't end. Just think about it before you do it, don't make it some drunk mistake.

  3. ME says:

    I absolutely agree with Belle, as well. I met my current s/o almost 3 years ago when I interned with his organization, and while the attraction/feelings were NEVER discussed during that time (for real–I had no idea he also was crushin'!), we started shortly after my internship ended. To be fair, the gossip happened regardless, but the relationship was in no way inappropriate or unprofessional during my internship.

    I promise, it's not too tough to hold out for those few months before pursuing a romantic relationship. The tension and anticipation is actually kind of fun.

  4. Norwegianette says:

    I'm assuming the email you got has a reason to assume the staffer is male and the intern female…? Because otherwise the focus on that in the response would be really weird – it obviously doesn't change anything if the staffer is female and the intern is male, right guys?

  5. RMS says:

    I think that the whole idea of a female intern dating a male staffer has become completely cliche. I just can't get the term sleeping her way to the top out of my head whenever I think of the idea of a younger female dating an older male in the workplace. That is not politically correct or fair in any way, but it is reality. People are judgmental, and it is unwise to open yourself up to that sort of judgment at the start of your career. If the feelings are legitimate, nothing will be lost by waiting until the end of your internship to pursue a relationship.

  6. Marie-Christine says:

    Good advice Belle. An intern is a temporary enough position that everyone (not) involved should be able to hold off till there is no possible taint of power imbalance to the relationship.
    I'd further add that you should never date a supervisor, just because you have no idea where this is going. And you should never date a supervisee, for the same reason but also because you have absolutely no way to know whether they're not just feeling too intimidated to refuse. And you should never date a coworker unless you're ready to hand in your notice tomorrow, because you really can't tell where a relationship is going till you're in it.
    That said, I've had long happy relationships with coworkers, but we never remained coworkers for long. And I have several people dear to me whose careers have been absolutely destroyed by work relationships. So be careful, just be very careful And that goes double if you're a girl, and double that if you're a lesbian.

  7. Exhillstaffer says:

    I would agree with Belle about waiting, but even then I would be careful. I don't think the genders really matter, but the imbalance in the power relationship certainly does, especially in the same office. Consenting adults can do anything they like, but as Belle points out, the Hill is a small town and you can bet everyone knows when the COS is dating the staff assistant or LC.

  8. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    I agree with the other commenters. HOLD OFF. But, if there are opportunities to mix and mingle with other co-workers, like happy hours and other work events, that can be a great time to learn more about the person you are interested in. Be friends. Wait until you are done with the internship to become anything else.

  9. Hello Pot, meet Kettle says:

    Do be careful, especially if you are a woman. However, I started dating a staffer near the end of my internship, and we are now happily married with a baby girl. Definitely kept it under wraps for the first few months, though, until long after I had left the office. There are no hard and fast rules, sometimes taking the risk is worth it, and sometimes it crashes in flames. The only certainty is that people in your office will judge you, so be discreet and hope you have thick skin!

  10. Anna Della says:

    This strikes me as over dramatic. The Member's reputation is at stake! Dear god! And the constituents! Who will think of the constituents?!?! Sarcasm aside, I have known a certain Senator to brag (to constituents at town halls) about staffers who've met, dated, and married while in his employ–It hasn't affected his approval numbers. A majority of people meet their sig. others at work these days–I think most Beltway outsiders are hip to that fact. There's certainly a right way (discreet, no drama) and wrong way (making out by the water cooler, Dramatic) to conduct yourself in these situations and the rules are pretty universal. I guess for Capitol Hill, I would just add: Don't talk to reporters about your sex life (see THAT Vanity Fair article if your intern coordinator hasn't sent it to you already) and avoid guys who only date during summer intern season.

  11. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    The point about the member's reputation is a good one. Everyone in your office will resent you are the reason their workplace becomes known as a place where guys are permitted to creep on interns. I've heard it more times than I can count. “Did you hear about the intern from so-and-so's office? She's doing X, Y, and Z.” Interns don't have names. They only have offices they work for.

  12. R says:

    I think it depends on a few different factors. First, if you’re working in the same office, I’d wait until your internship is completed. Most Hill offices (especially on the House side) are very small, and a romance would be tough to hide. Second, if there’s a significant difference in either age or title, wait until your internship is completed. Meaning, if you’re a 21 year old intern dating a 23 year old Staff Assistant or House-LC, very few people will care. If you’re much younger—or trying to date an LD or Chief of Staff—wait until your internship is over. Also, regardless of what you decide, keep things quiet and mature. The Hill is a very small place and good (and bad) gossip travels fast.

  13. Belle says:

    Anna Della- We're not talking about staffers of the same level here. We're talking about a college age, unpaid intern and a twentysomething man who is technically her boss. If she were a staffer, I would tell her to be careful, but date away.

    And it isn't ridiculous to assume that this could be a blackmark on a Member's rep. It's not career ending, but anything can be spun to look really ugly.

  14. ~M says:

    I don't work on the hill, but my interest has been piqued. What Vanity Fair article is this?

  15. Adrienne says:

    The Vanity Fair article is here.

    It happened right after 9/11 when a group of young staffers and interns agreed to be interviewed for Vanity Fair at Tortilla Coast. Someone I know was actually interviewed for it (as a new intern) and mentioned the interview to the Press Secretary in his/her office. The Press Secretary went ballistic and chewed out the reporter and got my friend out of it. This person went on to have a successful career on the HIll. Not so sure about the other people.

    Since then it's become one of those warnings passed down to people new to DC.

  16. Belle says:

    Adrienne thanks for this.

    I have no idea how I've never seen it before, but everything about it makes me mad.

    You'll also notice, if you check legistorm, that the main character didn't stay on the Hill after she finished being a Staff Asst. Wonder why? Maybe I'll vent my frustrations next week.

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