The workplace has become a common and natural place for romantic relationships to evolve. It is where most employees spend the majority of their waking hours, and those who work closely together often have a lot in common—they are likely to have similar interests, values, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and job pressures. In addition, today’s high interaction, team-based organizational structures are particularly conducive to the formation of romantic relationships in the workplace. Thus researchers have become increasingly interested in workplace romances, or mutually desired romantic relationships between two members of the same organization. To date, researchers have explored (a) the antecedents of workplace romance, (b) how romances evolve, as well as the different types of romantic relationships in organizational settings, (c) the consequences of workplace romances, and (d) managerial responses to such relationships.
Antecedents to the formation of romantic relationships in the workplace include proximity, the intensity of the working relationship, organizational culture, work group norms, and autonomy. For example, employees who interact with each other more frequently, due to either the closeness of their work areas or longer work hours, are more likely to form romantic relationships. The development of workplace romances is also more likely when working relationships are intense or involve feelings of excitement that come from the pursuit of similar work goals or from completing tasks successfully. Conservative organizational cultures, which endorse traditional values, are less conducive to the formation of workplace romances, whereas organizational cultures characterized by creativity and innovation have more flexible norms regarding appropriate employee behavior and thus are more supportive of workplace romances. The level of independence or autonomy employees have in their work could also influence the development of romantic relationships. For example, those in tightly knit work groups could experience peer pressure as to the appropriateness of such behavior, possibly limiting their involvement in such relationships. However, those who hold jobs that are more autonomous may be more likely to participate in a workplace romance because they have more freedom with regard to making decisions about their work and interacting with others at work.
Research suggests that the three most common types of workplace romances are true love, a fling, and a utilitarian romance, each occurring with approximately equal frequency. True love is when each partner has a sincere love motive, whereas a fling is when each partner has an ego motive (e.g., excitement, ego satisfaction, sexual experience). A utilitarian romance is when a lower-rank employee has a job-related motive (e.g., advancement, security, power, financial rewards) and a higher-rank employee has an ego motive. It should also be noted that participants’ motives for being involved in a workplace romance may change over time, with each partner feeling more or less satisfied with or committed to the relationship than he or she was in earlier phases.
The consequences of a workplace romance can be positive, negative, or neutral (i.e., no impact). For instance, theorists have suggested that positive feelings experienced from a workplace romance can spill over into other aspects of work, increasing the romantic couple’s level of job satisfaction. Other examples of positive changes include improvements in productivity, work motivation, and job involvement. However, research suggests that the consequences of a workplace romance are more often negative than positive. Examples of negative consequences include one or both participants having increases in absenteeism and tardiness, being more preoccupied, making more mistakes, missing meetings or other commitments, and having decreases in productivity. If one participant continues to pursue a romantic relationship that the other participant no longer desires, there may be complaints of sexual harassment, stalking, or physical violence.
Additional negative consequences are possible in hierarchical romances (those involving a superior and subordinate) such as ignoring complaints about the subordinate’s performance or showing favoritism toward the subordinate in task assignments, pay raises, and promotions. If the romance sours, the subordinate may retaliate by claiming sexual harassment, or the supervisor may discriminate against the subordinate by blocking further rewards. Either situation could lead to litigation against the employer.
Since most couples who work together are unsuccessful at keeping their romance hidden, workplace romances also tend to have consequences for the work environment. Coworkers’ reactions may vary from approval or tolerance to outright objection, complaints of favoritism or hostile work environment (especially if the participants involved in the romance exhibit public displays of affection), blackmail (e.g., threatening to tell a participant’s spouse about the romance), ostracism of participants, decreases in work group morale and productivity, and turnover (coworkers leave what they feel is an intolerable work environment). At a minimum, workplace romances stimulate gossip among coworkers. Overall, romances that are hierarchical, extramarital, more visible, and job motivated (e.g., exploitation is perceived to have occurred) are likely to elicit the most negative gossip from coworkers and have the most negative effect on group morale and productivity.
While it is legal in most states for a company to establish and enforce polices that prohibit dating (as long as the employees are forewarned and the policy is applied consistently), survey research suggests that few organizations have written or unwritten policies about workplace romances and that managerial inaction is the most common response. Most companies have realized that it is impossible to prevent people from being attracted to one another and that strict rules merely force employees to go underground with their relationship. Thus a common recommendation in the literature is that workplace romances should be managed or discouraged but not prohibited, and that management should intervene only when exploitation of one romantic partner has occurred or when there has been, or there is potential for, a workplace disruption.
The workplace romance literature has focused on three kinds of management interventions: no action, punitive action (e.g., reprimand, warning, transfer, demotion, termination), and positive action (e.g., open discussion, counseling). Another more recent intervention known as a “love contract” is being used as an alternative to the forced resignation or transfer of one or both employees involved in a supervisor-subordinate romance. These contracts state the voluntary nature of the relationship, affirm the existence of sexual harassment policies and procedures, and may also ask the parties to agree to resolve any differences that might occur using alternative dispute resolution rather than resorting to the courts.
Because of the sensitive nature of workplace romances, conducting rigorous empirical research has not been easy. Even though these relationships have become increasingly common and their potential for causing negative outcomes is great, there is still much that is unknown. Studies investigating the typical duration of workplace romances, the effects of a dissolved workplace romance on all parties, and the relative effectiveness of various managerial interventions would not only add to the academic literature but also help organizations in their efforts to better manage the impact of workplace romances.
- Mainiero, L. A. 1989. Office Romance: Love, Power, and Sex in the Workplace. New York: Rawson.
- Pierce, C. A., Byrne, D. and Aguinis, H. 1996. “Attraction in Organizations: A Model of Workplace Romance.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 17:5-32.
- Powell, G. N. and Foley, S. 1998. “Something to Talk About: Romantic Relationships in Organizational Settings.” Journal of Management 24:421-448.
- Powers, D. M. 1999. The Office Romance: Playing with Fire without Getting Burned. New York: AMACOM.