For years, workplace dating appeared to be off limits, or at least something people kept quiet. Still, I know at least five happily married couples that met at work. (I even officiated one of their weddings.) They’re five of the strongest marriages I know and one couple recently welcomed a beautiful baby boy. It would have been quite a shame for these relationships to have ended because of an anti-dating HR policy.
But even with these anecdotal successes, it’s impossible to ignore the potential treachery surrounding office romance.
Public opinion on dating coworkers has shifted dramatically in the past few years. The Vault Office Romance Survey 2015 found that just 5 percent of respondents believe office romances are never appropriate, down from 9 percent in 2011. And more respondents than ever (29%) said all romantic connections in the workplace are appropriate—including those between managers and their direct reports.
Then came the #MeToo movement which has rightly brought sexual harassment to the forefront of the American conversation. But it’s also had a major effect on public opinion about workplace dating overall. The Vault Office Romance Survey 2018—a mere three years later—found that 27 percent of respondents say #MeToo and sexual harassment allegations against prominent men make them less likely to find a workplace romance acceptable. Meanwhile, CareerBuilder’s Annual Valentine’s Day survey in 2018 found that office romances are at a 10-year low, with 36 percent of workers reporting dating a coworker, down from 41 percent a year earlier.
“People spend so much time at work, and it’s one of their primary outlets for dating but I do think it’s important for employees to be aware of the risks associated,” said Mirande Valbrune an employment lawyer and author of #MeToo: A Practical Guide. “I think in light of the #MeToo movement there is that awareness.”
Can Workplace Dating Lead to Happier Workers?
There is plenty of data showing that consensual dating between coworkers has positive results for both employers and employees. A January 2018 study by Insurance Quotes found that people in workplace relationships were happier, more productive and more likely to be comfortable with their pay rates than those not dating a coworker. Even workers who’d previously been romantically linked to a coworker saw themselves as happier and more productive.
A study of dating American workers by researchers at the University of Gothenburg found benefits too. “Many participants expressed their pleasure in going to work when they were in a workplace romance. One participant said the relationship energized him to work even harder and another said this euphoria motivated her to work more,” the authors wrote in the International Journal of Psychological Studies. For employers thinking of implementing a no-dating policy, consider this: participants in the study kept their relationships secret not only to avoid negative consequences but “to enjoy feelings associated with a secret love affair.”
But Amy Nicole Baker, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven said the evidence regarding job satisfaction and productivity is “mixed.” Baker conducted two studies on workplace flirting, finding that it’s associated with less job satisfaction, more thoughts of quitting, and greater stress.
“As a general rule, businesses should not go out of their way to encourage dating coworkers,” said Baker. “Prohibiting is also problematic, as this tends to drive the relationships underground.” And we know from the University of Gothenburg study, that can only fuel the fire.
Simple Ways Employers Can Handle Dating at Work
So what’s an employer to do? Obviously, outlawing any and all workplace sexual harassment is a no-brainer. But what about consensual workplace dating?
A good first step is to avoid power imbalances. Manager/subordinate relationships, for example, can be particularly troublesome. Valbrune recommends that if people must date coworkers, they be at the same job level, preferably not on the same team and have little interaction in the workplace.
“Does an individual have any authority or power over the other—either actual, perceived or indirect?” said Valbrune. “If so, that’s a problem.”
Baker agrees. “If the couple is a boss/subordinate, that might actually hurt job satisfaction among employees,” she said. “They may perceive that the subordinate is getting special treatment or access. This is seen as unfair.”
Should employers have formal policies around dating at work? Depends on the circumstance.
“Most employers that have dating policies, at the very least, say managers and direct reports should not date because of actual conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest,” says Valbrune. If that happens, many policies ask dating coworkers to disclose the relationships. They may even ask one of the parties to transfer to a different role or leave the company entirely. It’s far more rare for companies to ask dating employees at the same job level to disclose their relationships, she said.
Regardless of how they handle the situation, employers should be fostering an environment where everybody is respected.
“The goal should be to promote a climate where all employees are respected for their work contributions,” she said “not their interpersonal relationships.”