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Workplace Romances Can Be Tricky, but Friendships Boost Retention

A woman's hands holding a red heart on a laptop.

​We spend on average about one-third of our lives at work. Based on a traditional 40-hour workweek, that's 2,080 hours a year with co-workers, direct reports or supervisors. Given the amount of time spent together, it's only natural that relationships take root.

While many people strike up friendships in the workplace, others find romance. In fact, 27 percent of U.S. workers are currently in a workplace romance or have been in one before, and over two in five U.S. workers (41 percent) know someone who is currently involved in a workplace romance or has been in one before, according to the 2023 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Romance & Relationships Survey.View the Infographic

"Dating, love, marriage happens in almost all workplaces," said Deb Best, SHRM-SCP, founder of Deb Best Practices, an HR consultancy based in Tech Valley, N.Y. It's best for employees to follow their employers' workplace romance policies and let managers know about the relationship. "Bottom line, good boundaries and transparency with the organization's leadership, including, but not limited to the HR leader, are critical."

Most U.S. workers say they are comfortable with workplace romances and would respect co-workers involved in one. Still, the majority are not open to having a workplace romance themselves, with only a quarter of U.S. workers saying they are currently open to being involved in a workplace romance.

However, the perceptions vary by generation. Younger Millennial and Generation Z workers (33 percent) are significantly more likely to say they'd be open to being in a workplace romance than older Millennial workers (15 percent), Generation X workers (27 percent), and Baby Boomer and Traditionalist workers (23 percent).

While comfort and respect levels are relatively high, many workers (40 percent) still think workplace romances are unprofessional, and over half of workers who haven't been in a workplace romance (52 percent) believe if they became involved in one, it would negatively impact their career.

Whether workplace romances are embraced or scorned by colleagues, employers must be clear about their company's policy regarding workplace relationships, especially following the boom in remote work. A recent survey from online compliance training company Traliant highlights employee uncertainty around romance policies, with over one-quarter (27 percent) of respondents saying their employer had not defined its misconduct policies for hybrid/remote work settings. 

"It's important to take a fresh look at policies and codes of conduct through the lens of a remote/hybrid workplace," said Maggie Smith, Traliant's senior vice president of HR.

Regardless of the working arrangement, an organization's rules and standards of behavior apply. However, employees may not be aware that sending an inappropriate e-mail or image over messaging apps isn't acceptable, she added.

Traliant's survey also asked U.S. workers what they view as workplace misconduct in a virtual setting. Here's what they shared:

  • A colleague asking them out over e-mail, video call or chat platform (57 percent).
  • Sending a flirty GIF (e.g., kiss, heart, hug, etc.) (56 percent).
  • Responding to written communications with a flirty emoji (e.g., kiss emoji, heart emoji, etc.) (55 percent).
  • Inappropriate background/setting during a video call (55 percent).

"These examples show inappropriate behaviors and that the potential for sexual harassment doesn't go away in a remote work environment," Smith said.

Best cautions that if individuals are using company resources—e-mail, text messaging on company phones, or even via Zoom or other video meeting platforms—they should realize they're leaving an electronic paper trail that could be used later to investigate their conduct.

Finding Friends at Work

While romantic relationships take center stage, friendships may deserve greater attention. More than convenience, close companionships at work have a significant positive impact on a person's career, job satisfaction, sense of belonging and more:

The SHRM study found:
  • 85 percent of U.S. workers who have close friends at work say it has positively impacted their careers.
  • U.S. workers who have close friends at work (80 percent) are significantly more likely to say they feel a strong sense of belonging to their organization than those without close friends at work (63 percent).
  • U.S. workers who have close friends at work (86 percent) are significantly more likely to say they are satisfied with their job than those without close friends at work (74 percent).

Organizations that allow space or encourage friendships to develop may also have a competitive edge—increased retention rates. According to the SHRM survey, 76 percent of U.S. workers who have close friends at work say it makes them more likely to remain with their employer. And a quarter of U.S. workers who have close friends at work (25 percent) say if their friend left their job, they would consider leaving too.

"We spend so much of our time working that having positive, human connections is important for us to thrive," said Hope DeRocha, SHRM-CP, a leader and mindset coach in Albany, N.Y. "Friendships allow us to support and encourage each other. In turn, that promotes teamwork and satisfaction. Sharing a break with a friend is often all we need to add some humor to our day or lighten a mood; this mental break can increase our energy or positively shift our point of view."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.


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