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Workplace Romance Report: Cupid's Arrows Are Flying

Red and pink foam cutout hearts scattered on a laptop keyboard.

​It seems the workplace can be better than a dating app for making a love connection. Over a third of employed Americans report they are currently involved or had previously been involved in a workplace romance, an increase from 27 percent last year, according to a new survey conducted Jan. 28-Feb. 1 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

"During a period where we're spending more time isolated than together, workers are looking for meaningful connections. If employees find romance in the workplace, be it remotely or at the worksite, they should try to be transparent—especially if the relationship poses a conflict of interest," said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP.

In a survey of employed Americans, 34 percent are—or have been—in a workplace romance. Among that number, 69 percent said they had dated their peers at some point in their careers, 21 percent had dated their subordinates and 18 percent had dated their superiors, SHRM found. Although the numbers were small, about a quarter of those who said they had been in a workplace romance said that they'd started or continued that romance during COVID-19.

"For many parts of the country, work has been the only place where people can still go," observed Liz Supinski, director of research products for SHRM. "For remote workers, among Millennials who were already meeting and socializing online, Zoom dating has been a trend anyway and might even make a 'workplace romance' feel less risky if you're not actually conducting it in the workplace," Supinski said.

It's important for employees to understand their company's policy regarding workplace relationships and that working remotely does not mean the policies are not in effect, said Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and HR director at Engage PEO, based in Hollywood, Fla.

"Employees must be mindful that using company virtual platforms like Slack, Zoom or Teams is not a tool for private communication, as the software is company property," she said. "Employees should also be mindful not to misuse such company property or make statements, share images, or the like that could be against company policy."

Other key findings from the SHRM survey:

  • 50 percent of respondents have had a crush on someone they worked with.
  • 39 percent have been asked out on a date by someone they worked with, and 25 percent said they did the asking. 
  • 25 percent began a new workplace romance during COVID-19 or have continued a workplace romance that began prior to the pandemic.
  • 23 percent have or have had someone that they consider their "work spouse," and 45 percent felt romantic feelings toward these individuals. 

[SHRM members-only resource: Employee Dating Policy]

It can be difficult to keep Cupid at bay when people spend so much time together.

"The average person will spend about 90,000 hours at work throughout their lifetime. With that number in mind, workplace romances are bound to happen," said Alex Alonso, SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer. "However, HR professionals have a responsibility to protect employees from favoritism, retaliation and incidents of sexual harassment. Ultimately, HR should encourage both honesty and professionalism to keep working relationships—and workplaces—running smoothly."

Some organizations have policies that address employee dating, but a majority of respondents (78 percent) said they are not required to disclose those relationships. Even if such a policy exists, it doesn't mean it is followed; 75 percent have not clued in their supervisor or HR about such involvements, according to SHRM's survey.

"The disclosure of such relationships is a difficult issue," noted Andrew S. Berns, a partner and chair of Einhorn Barbarito Commercial Litigation and Employment practices based in Denville, N.J. "An employer can mandate disclosure, but people are naturally reluctant to comply, and the existence of the relationship is difficult to prove. The disclosure should be to an HR representative and not one's supervisor."

A signed document—sometimes known as a "love contract"—that reiterates the employer's anti-harassment and retaliation policies and in which employees state their romantic relationship is voluntary and consensual is one method organizations have used to protect workers and the employer. But some organizations opt not to use them.

"A love contract may or may not be a thing of the past," Berns said. "Its lack of popularity is more an issue of the fact that such contracts are generally unenforceable and not legally binding." 

When they are used, employees should be aware that the policy prohibiting relationships or requiring disclosure of relationships applies whether or not the employees are physically in an office, Matsis-McCready pointed out. But there is no guarantee such agreements prevent sexual harassment claims, she added.

"While these agreements offer some evidence that the origination of the relationship was consensual, it is still possible that a once-consensual relationship could evolve into a concerning situation," Matsis-McCready said. "For example, if one member wants to the end the relationship and the scorned individual makes inappropriate or harassing comments about their former partner, it would be problematic."

An employer can publish its policy in an employee handbook or separate document, but that doesn't necessarily prevent such relationships from occurring.

"I have seen circumstances where the policy is clear on prohibiting such relationships, particularly in a supervisor/subordinate situation and as a result, one of the employees is forced to leave … usually accomplished voluntarily and goes unchallenged," Berns said.  

It's important, though, that employers address the issue, SHRM's CEO said.

"As the culture of our workplaces continually grows and evolves," Taylor said, "it's in the best interest of employers and HR professionals to consider implementing guidance or updating existing workplace romance policies." 

Other SHRM resources:
Workplace Romances: Getting to the Heart of the Matter, SHRM Online, February 2020


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