When Cupid Strikes in the Workplace
Workplace romances are on the rise; learn to manage romantic sparks on your team.
Posted January 17, 2023 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- A third of U.S. workers are either currently involved or have been involved in a workplace romance.
- Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 6 percent rise in workplace romances.
- Managers and leaders are advised to consult HR about regulations on intimate workplace relationships and to establish their own team guidelines.
If you’re a manager or leader, you naturally want everyone on your team to get along and enjoy their time together. More often than you might expect, the intensity of the workplace not only cultivates strong friendships and great collaborations but also leads to intimate relationships.
Even if you’re excited for your team members and think it’s a great match, as a manager or leader, when Cupid strikes in the workplace, it is important to step back and carefully consider the implications. It is especially important to consider how the budding romance might impact your team dynamics and, worse yet, lead to a potential conflict of interest now or in the future.
Workplace Romances Are Common and Widely Accepted
While one might assume that workplace romances are relatively rare, they are actually extremely common and on the rise. A 2022 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey of 505 American adult workers found that 33 percent of workers are either currently involved or have been involved in a workplace romance. Pre-pandemic, only 27 percent of U.S. workers were or had been involved in a workplace romance. Fortunately, few people appear to care that workplace romances are on the rise. The SHRM survey also found 75 percent of U.S. workers are comfortable with people in their workplace getting involved.
How Managers and Leaders Can Prepare for the Inevitable
With workplace romance already common and on the rise, managers and leaders are well advised to anticipate and prepare before cupid strikes. The following are essential ways to preempt potential challenges if and when a romance sparks up on your team.
1. Consult HR
If you haven’t already done so, reach out to your HR specialists to find out if there are existing guidelines (e.g., which require employees to report interoffice relationships or which prohibit supervisors and subordinates from dating). Knowing these rules in advance will help you respond quickly and within your organization’s guidelines if and when a romance sparks up on your team.
2. Establish Clear Guidelines
Be prepared to lay down the law. Whether you approve of a match or not, budding romances in the workplace can shake up team dynamics, and not always in a good way. Have a clear sense of what boundaries need to be upheld to keep the workplace a neutral space (e.g., if you firmly believe that amorous displays in the lunch room are inappropriate, then lay down the law before you find team members getting overly excited next to the coffee machine). Better yet, share these guidelines with all team members before Cupid strikes.
3. Walk Your Talk
If you have a clear rule about not dating subordinates, then doing so yourself won’t serve you well. What you permit, you promote. Likewise, this holds true for any “special relationships” in the workplace. If you’re paying more attention to someone, even if it isn’t for romantic reasons, there is always a risk of creating turbulence on your team. The bottom line is that if you hold power in a workplace situation, your relationships will be shaped by this positional power on some level.
Romance Versus Harassment in the Workplace
From the stories we have now all heard about Harvey Weinstein luring women into his hotel room under the pretense of business meetings to the murky situations that arose during Ellen Pao’s time at the Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one thing is clear—mixing intimacy and work is frequently connected to abuses of power. And, as both of these high-profile legal cases revealed, one can’t count on everyone reading these situations the same way.
Weinstein, who is now serving an extended prison sentence, continues to plead his innocence, though many of his accusers and millions of supporters around the world maintain he not only harassed but raped dozens of women in supposed work meetings. There were also mixed interpretations of what actually happened at KPCB. As revealed during a closely watched 2015 court case, a junior partner at KPCB did initiate a sexual relationship with Pao shortly after she joined the firm and, when the relationship didn’t work out, she was excluded from important meetings and networking events. However, none of this was enough to persuade a jury that Pao had experienced discrimination in the workplace, and she ultimately lost the case.
For every high-profile case, there are many more cases that never make headlines. These cases range from seemingly harmless flirtations at after-work events to troubling and persistent forms of harassment and abuse. The problem is that, unlike a dating app where you can just swipe left and move on, in the workplace, rejecting someone is a lot more challenging, especially if they are someone to whom you report or even a team member who may be able to turn other team members against you out of revenge.
Managers and leaders have a responsibility to understand how power dynamics in the workplace invariably impact relationships in this context. After all, while work can be a great place to hook up, it is also a place structured by rank, status, and high stakes. When sparks fly, the result can be powerful or create a myriad of challenges for one’s team and the broader organization.
Shrm. (2022, February 8). New SHRM survey: The rise of workplace romance. SHRM. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.shrm.org/about-shrm/press-room/press-releases/pages/new-shr…