Workplace Romances

By:  Kim Adamson

Valentine’s Day 2024 is here, and love and romance are in the air – not only in our personal lives but often in the workplace since we spend most of our time with colleagues in the office. According to a recent study reported by Forbes Advisor, over 60% of adults have participated in at least one short or long-term workplace romance with a coworker, manager, or others in hierarchical positions. Significantly, these relationships are described as consensual and distinct from cases of sexual abuse or harassment. Surveys indicate that most employees do not see a problem with workplace relationships.

A recent SHRM survey conducted in January 2022 indicated:

  • 33% of U.S. employees are currently in, or have been involved in, a romantic relationship with a co-worker, and of those, 12% dated their subordinates, and 19% dated their superiors. Other data indicates the number of executives dating their subordinates is down due to more scrutiny following the #MeToo movement.
  • 50% have had an office crush with someone at work.
  • 35% have gone on a date with a work colleague.
  • 84% respect, or would respect, colleagues involved in a workplace romance.
  • 77% of employees in a workplace romance did not disclose it to their employer.

While workplace romances can foster connection and shared interests, they also come with risks. Despite the risks, workplace romances continue to thrive. The Forbes survey found that 43% of workplace relationships lead to marriage.  When a workplace romance becomes public knowledge, other employees react and often perceive the couple as a unit, raising questions such as:

  • Can one partner be trusted with information the other does not need to know?
  • Is it appropriate to invite one person to a work-related event without the other?
  • Does the relationship grant unfair access to information or benefits?
  • What happens if they break up?

These issues highlight concerns about workplace romances. Coworkers may adjust their perceptions and behavior based on their assumptions about the couple’s intimacy, loyalty, and stability. Ironically, those involved in workplace romances often underestimate the effect on their colleagues. They may not fully appreciate how their relationship influences outsiders’ trust and perceptions. As a result, some workplace couples initially keep their romance a secret.

Managing workplace romances is a challenging task for HR professionals that involves consideration for employees’ right to privacy and confidentiality and the potential legal liability for the organization, particularly if it involves a manager or leader. Often, workplace romances can lead to favoritism, sexual harassment, abuse of power, retaliation, workplace violence, and a toxic work environment, particularly if a coworker’s romantic relationship sours.

In conclusion, workplace romances are a delicate dance, affecting not only the couple but also their colleagues, the organization, and the workplace culture. HR professionals, managers, and leaders must carefully and tactfully implement policies to manage these situations appropriately. The goal is not to interfere with relationships but to establish policies that protect the organization and its employees.

If your organization does not have a workplace romance policy in place, employers should consider implementing a policy that fits your culture and promotes positive working relationships, and protects employees and the organization from situations related to favoritism, retaliation, or sexual harassment. There are various approaches to the issue, and creating certain expectations and ground rules is worth considering. Some businesses get incredibly detailed about what employees can and cannot do when pursuing romantic relationships in the workplace. At a minimum, policies that require employees to disclose romantic relationships and prohibit romantic relationships between a manager and someone over whom they have authority or influence are common and prudent.

Companies and HR professionals must educate employees and help them feel comfortable about reporting their workplace relationship to ensure they understand that the relationship will be handled as discreetly and confidentially as possible.  Employees also need to know that policies are in place to protect both employees’ privacy and treatment equally. This is particularly important if someone is LGBTQ and does not want coworkers to know.

Check with SHRM or your local employer’s council to find useful options for such policies that can be tailored to your specific workplace and culture. If you have questions about creating workplace romance policies and procedures to mitigate risk, contact ILG Strategic Services or work with your counsel for assistance.