Here's What People Really Think About Workplace Romances

Written by Georgina Berbari

Image by Javier Díez / Stocksy

With all the time spent together, it seems almost inevitable that romantic sparks will at times appear among co-workers. The problem is that workplace romances can stir up issues of gendered discrimination and questions of power. To fully understand these nuances, a recent study published in the Journal of Psychology examined how millennial employees respond to and perceive romance in the workplace and, in tandem, the positive and negative effects of these relationships. 

The researchers surveyed 171 organizational members between ages 18 and 29 who had either participated in a workplace romance or who had observed these romances come to fruition around them. They were asked what work-related implications or effects the romance may have had, both positive and negative, including thoughts on who was actually involved in the relationships in question.

The pros and cons of dating co-workers.

According to the study authors, workplace romances can be a positive in that they instill permeability and flexibility within work-life borders, could even create higher morale and teamwork, and might just lead to healthier, more satisfied employees. On the other hand, these romances could hurt productivity, lead to lower levels of psychological well-being, and exacerbate gendered dynamics in the workplace. As the #MeToo movement has shown us, there's also the potential of power imbalances (i.e., inappropriate dominance between supervisor and employee) or potential incidents of harassment (i.e., when your co-worker won't stop making moves on you, and now the work environment feels like an uncomfortable or even hostile space).

Here's what the findings showed: People who'd themselves been involved in a workplace romance cited an improved relationship, spending more time together, and practical advantages as benefits of the situation. People who weren't involved in the romances cited positive benefits like the improved moods of their co-workers, decreased stress in the work environment, and enhanced performances.

As for the negatives, respondents who were involved in workplace romances included damaged co-worker relationships, awkwardness, scrutinization, and co-workers' negative perceptions of them based on their involvement with another employee or superior. Observers who weren't involved in the romance also noted that the relationships damaged or prevented interpersonal relationships in the workplace and instigated negative feelings between people in the workplace holistically: This included loss of boundaries, issues of unfair treatment (i.e., if your boss is dating your peer, who do you think is gonna get all the cool projects and promotions?), and communication-related problems. People also noted consequences for the company as a whole, including quicker turnover, poorer performance, and scheduling issues.

Who benefits?

Unsurprisingly, people who were themselves involved in the romantic relationship were more likely to cite benefits and positive effects, while the uninvolved co-workers didn't recognize any positive effects and often mentioned unfair treatment due to these romances. Hierarchically it was perceived that people in workplace romances gained work advantages due to their relationship. Even when the relationship was between two peer co-workers, boundaries and conflict spillover was more of a concern. (If your two co-workers start dating and then get into a huge fight, team meetings become a lot more complicated.)

Interestingly, men were almost twice as likely as women to report that there were no negative effects due to a workplace romance. Women, on the other hand, were much more likely than men to experience negative consequences from their romantic involvement at work. 

According to both past research and evidence in the media, women are often viewed through a biased lens as purposefully trying to use these relationships and their sexuality to their advantage in order to advance in the workplace. Also, women are historically much more likely to pay a higher price for engaging in a workplace romance, yet at the same time, they're often painted as "displeasing" when they reject advances from male co-workers. Talk about a double standard.

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Considering #MeToo.

#MeToo revelations caused a myriad of organizations to review their sexual harassment policies. While many organizations don't think banning workplace romances is the answer, many employers are now becoming more aware that it's imperative to address anything improper before it transpires, such as a romantic relationship in the workplace where power dynamics could be at play. (If you're dating your boss, it might be a lot harder to stand your ground in relationship conflicts—after all, they control your professional success.)

So, while the potential positives of workplace romances are indeed worth identifying and discussing, negative gender-based and interpersonal consequences will always be significant and must be monitored so that harassment and unfair treatment doesn't surface. Perhaps this study can serve as a reminder that workplace policies are present for a reason, as are the personal boundaries we all set to make sure we feel comfortable and safe at work.

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