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Reality television shows are infamous for their relationship dramas — both romantic and platonic. And when it comes to real estate reality TV, the personal frequently gets blurred with the professional.
In shows like Selling Sunset — which rolls out its new season Friday — and its spin-off Selling the OC, Buying Beverly Hills, viewers see agent-to-agent and broker-to-agent dating or romantic advances within the same brokerage.
Workplace romances — and couples working together in real estate specifically — are nothing new, of course. But where should brokerages draw the line? In particular, when differing power dynamics are involved, workplace flings can get hairy, if not legally precarious. In other words, the real-life risks that come with office romances are often shined and polished on television, eliminating the messy reality that most of us know to avoid.
Inman gathered a few of the situations that would cause human resource headaches for most Realtors, but hardly registers more than a sigh on reality TV shows about real estate.
When there’s a power differential
Perhaps one of the most visible real estate personalities to have engaged in relationships with his agents is Jason Oppenheim, president and founder of The Oppenheim Group.
It’s public knowledge that Oppenheim dated Mary Fitzgerald, who became the brokerage’s vice president in spring 2022, on and off before Selling Sunset debuted in 2019. Then in the show’s fifth season, Oppenheim and Chrishell Stause, a Realtor at the brokerage, developed a romantic relationship that came to an end by the season’s close.
As head of The Oppenheim Group (Brett Oppenheim left the firm in 2020 to start his own brokerage, Oppenheim Real Estate), Jason Oppenheim is in a clear position of power. As such, it puts anyone else at the firm who engages in a relationship with him in a position to potentially either benefit or suffer professionally because of their relationship.
The Oppenheim Group and The Agency did not respond to requests for comment on how inter-brokerage romantic relationships are on display in their respective reality TV shows or explain whether or not each brokerage has policies in place to address such issues.
Amanda Rue, creator of human resource consultancy The Shift Work Shop — who is also a real estate reality TV fan — says watching those relationships with unequal power dynamics on screen makes her cringe.
“My perspective is really looking at the power dynamics and having awareness and a consciousness around those power dynamics that are at play and how that can make it more difficult for people to actually freely consent to more intimate types of behavior,” Rue told Inman.
“So when you know that you are connecting and maybe building a more intimate relationship with somebody who’s in a position of power that has the ability to control your opportunities, your finances, what access you have for opportunities, then the way [you] can be viewed within that relationship is as both the one that may potentially benefit from the dynamic or be harmed from that dynamic.”
It’s during these types of relationships that observers in an office might begin to whisper about so-and-so receiving preferential treatment or getting more opportunities because they’re dating the boss, which can lead to a more generally negative company culture. Later on, if things go awry in the relationship, it can also leave each party vulnerable to retaliation.
“The best way to protect yourself is to not date or have a relationship in that context,” Rue told Inman.
If avoiding the relationship altogether is impossible, she added that it’s important to at least be transparent about the relationship with others in the company, especially HR, and create an agreement surrounding it noting that both parties are consenting.
“But at the end of the day, there’s so much that can potentially go wrong with an office romance that it’s really not going to provide that much protection,” Rue continued. “Because people are still going to do what they’re going to do, and it can still have the negative emotional impact within the workplace for a lot of different parties.”
Since women still make up fewer C-level positions in the real estate industry than men, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), they’re more often going to be in a vulnerable position when unequal power dynamics are at play.
“Most often we see a male-identifying person in a position of power, the woman subordinate, and then so much of the company negatively reflecting on the woman, who is taking so much of the brunt, versus the man, who is actually in a position of power and should be preventing and creating a culture that is more conscious and more careful around intimate types of relationships in the workplace,” Rue said.
Between colleagues of the same standing
One major source of conflict during the first season of The Oppenheim Group’s Selling the OC occurs when, during a night out with a group of the brokerage’s agents, Kayla Cardona tries to kiss her colleague Tyler Stanaland twice over the course of the night.
At the time, Stanaland was married to actor Brittany Snow of Pitch Perfect fame. And when the brokerage’s other female agents found out about Cardona’s unwanted advances, they were livid.
“I am so f—ing offended by Kayla’s behavior last night,” Polly Brindle said in episode 5. “It knocks me sick, to be honest,” she later said, adding that her marriage ended when her husband cheated on her.
One of the main narratives during Season 1 of Buying Beverly Hills is a will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Alexia Umansky, Mauricio Umansky’s daughter and an agent at The Agency, and Joey Ben-Zvi, another agent at the firm. The two talk about their fling of days gone by — while Alexia wonders if Ben-Zvi might still have some lingering feelings for her.
Navigating mutual attraction between coworkers can be tricky enough, but unwanted advances — verbal or physical — could land the pursuer with a Title IX complaint. However, outright banning workplace relationships is typically ineffective too, real estate HR policy enforcers told Inman.
“The most effective workplace romance policies work to reduce harm, not forbid relationships,” John Li, co-founder of Fig Loans, who has designed and put into practice workplace and romance policies. “Though entering into a relationship with a coworker is never a great idea, a blanket policy that outlaws romance doesn’t work — employees ignore them. Instead, employers must outline their expectations around relationship behaviors and be proactive in dealing with issues.”
Ensuring that things remain professional while at work — and that work tasks and client relationships are not negatively impacted by an office romance — can be enforced with policies and contracts, Li said.
“Even when employees choose to enter a relationship, they should behave professionally at work,” Li continued. “Policies should make it mandatory to disclose relationships and ban manager-employee relationships. In addition, both parties need to sign a ‘love contract,’ acknowledging sexual harassment policies and agreeing to behavioral expectations at work — PDA is outlawed at work, as are relationship disputes.”
Real estate professionals are human too
Separating the personal from the professional is much easier said than done, however. When people work long hours together and have similar interests, a spark of attraction is bound to come up here and there. With real estate professionals, who are known for working long hours, often without a true weekend or vacation, it may also simply be difficult to meet other people outside of their own industry.
Therefore, it’s important for brokers and management to anticipate these romantic situations arising and put plans in place to address them when they do.
“Networking is absolutely vital to careers in the real estate industry, which is why I view workplace romances as something inevitable,” said Kris Lippi, a broker and CEO of Isoldmyhouse.com who manages a large cohort of agents at his brokerage across eight East Coast states.
“This type of relationship is only okay as long as agents or brokers keep their personal life out of the business. In terms of policies, there should be a prohibition of romantic relationships that can create conflicts of interest, as this may invite lawsuits.
“Another important rule that should be in place is the anti-sexual harassment or discrimination policy that applies to workplace couples, in case the relationship ends badly. We all know how apparent harassment and discrimination are in this industry, so there should be rules that protect both the individuals and the brokerage.”
Rue maintained that with the inevitable workplace attractions that come up, it’s important that everyone maintain open communication about it — and not let those late-night happy hours overwhelm the senses.
“People that we work with are the people that we have like interests with, we have similar socioeconomic backgrounds, similar education, so it’s actually a really great potential dating pool for you to meet people if that’s something that you’re looking to do,” she said. “The most important thing is creating transparency and language and consciousness around it.
“So often what happens in the workplace is there’s this underlying sexual tension or intimate desire, but we have no space to actually talk about it in a healthy way. So what happens is, we see happy hours, we see people getting drunk on the job, going out for drinks after dinner, and then once that comes out, that’s where people start to make mistakes or cross boundaries.”
“It’s all about being open about it, having clear language, and just having really open, honest, vulnerable conversations,” Rue continued. “I know it’s not easy, but it’s so much healthier than how it happens today, where it’s just a lot of impulsivity and things happening under the influence and then having to confront what happens after that, for many people.”
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