Updated: Apr 11
Attitudes around office romance are beginning to thaw to the influx of more younger workers and waves of retirements, experts say.
Both Generation Z workers and younger millennials are more likely to say they’d be open to a workplace romance than other generations, according to fresh data from the Society for Human Resource Management. A third of younger Millennial and Generation Z workers were okay with it, compared to 15 percent of older Millennial workers, 27 percent of Generation X workers and just 23 percent of baby boomers and older workers.
On top of that, three-quarters of all workers said they were comfortable with others dating someone else from work.
“There’s been a change over the last few years, with an exodus of some of the older workers and increase in younger workers, who tend to be a little more up front and honest about what they think,” said Phyllis Hartman, president of PGHR Consulting and a career human resources expert. “But the reality is there has always been workplace romance.”
Given that the average person spends 90,000 hours at work in their lifetime, it’s to be expected that some will develop personal or even romantic attachments, according to Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM’s chief executive.
“It is no surprise that employees find connection,” Taylor said. “But if workers are finding romance in their workplace setting, whether hybrid, remote or in person, it’s key that employers have a workplace romance policy in place to protect employees in these situations.”
In the survey, workplace romance included anything from flirting to dating to developing committed relationships.
Attitudes about workplace relationships have come a long way. There was a time when workplace romances were often formally forbidden by many employers, or else saddled with layers of company policy. Some required so-called “love contracts,” which historically required employees to disclose if they were in a relationship and set guidelines for how they should behave at work. Some strict policies reserved the right to transfer employees if they were found to be romantically involved with a co-worker.
But companies have moved away from these arrangements in recent years. Seventy-one percent of workers surveyed by SHRM said their employer did not require disclosure of office romances. And few workers do so voluntarily; if employees do open up about workplace relationships, it’s more likely to their colleagues, the survey found.
Still, workplace romances could still be a source of co-worker judgment, as the same survey found that 40 percent of workers said they think workplace romances are unprofessional. Eighteen percent of workers who have been in an office romance said it negatively impacted their career, the survey found.
The pandemic years saw a notable bump in workplace romances even as offices were shuttered. People found more ways to connect and get closer over Zoom and Slack. In some ways, it might have been easier for these relationships to flourish away from the eagle eyes of co-workers, when everyone was isolated and the barrier between work and personal life seemed more porous than ever.
“The hybrid world will have enhanced office romances,” said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Manchester. “It’s easier to form a relationship when you’re not in the office five days a week. You don’t have everybody looking at you.”
More recently, workplace romance has edged back down to levels more commonly seen before the pandemic, around 27 percent of workers, the survey found. But attitudes are becoming more open about it.
At this point, companies have become more realistic about how common workplace romance is, said Di Ann Sanchez, founder of DAS HR Consulting. But some still have policies designed to protect the company if the relationship gets complicated.
“Companies are more open to the relationships, they’re more aware of them,” Sanchez said. “They do not want to lose good employees so policies that had used to be something that we did 30 years ago are being minimized.”
Most workplaces have policies prohibiting managers from relationships with people who report to them, because of how messy things can get when one partner has more power than the other at work. That could manifest as favoritism or public displays of affection when things are going well, according to Vanessa Matsis-McCready, vice president of human resources and associate general counsel for Engage PEO, a professional employer organization. Or it could lead to tension, sexual harassment or retaliation if the relationship sours.
“If you’re a manager, there’s more risk for the company, Matsis-McCready said. “They’re taking action when people are not [disclosing relationships] because they understand the exposure and concerns.”
Celebrity and big-name corporate romances continue to make headlines each year. Late last year, T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach, former hosts of Good Morning America, were forced to leave ABC News after their affair became public in November. Jeff Zucker resigned from CNN last February after failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague
Last month, ex-McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook paid $400,000 to settle charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission for lying about the extent of his inappropriate workplace dalliances which led to his firing in 2019.
At the time, Easterbrook said he had one nonphysical, consensual relationship with an employee via text and video. But in 2020, McDonald’s sued Easterbrook, saying the company had uncovered evidence of more relationships. Easterbrook ended up giving back $105 million in cash and stock he was awarded at the time of his ouster, in one of corporate America’s biggest clawbacks.
It is important to note that while most U.S. workers who have been in a workplace romance say that work-related issues didn’t contribute much or at all to their breakup (87 percent), 13 percent said that work-related issues contributed somewhat or a great deal.
Even when things don’t blow up in public or dramatic fashion, the risk of everyday awkwardness after a workplace relationship ends can be tough to deal with, said Hartman of PGHR Consulting. She recalled friends of hers who were married and taught at the same school. They shared an office where their desks faced each other. After they divorced, they struggled with confronting each other so often, Hartman said.
For workers considering embarking on a workplace romance, it’s better to be open about it with bosses and human resources, Hartman said.
“Anybody who thinks that you can hide things from everyone is kind of delusional,” Hartman said. “The grapevine at work is much more efficient than official communication.”