Breakroom Confidential: Which Office Romances Are Acceptable?

Breakroom Confidential: Which Office Romances Are Acceptable?

One in four people say they've had a romantic relationship with someone in their office. Is that a good idea?

Workplace romances can have consequences, especially if you’re in the C-suite. Consider McDonald’s. In 2019, the fast-food chain fired its CEO for having a relationship with a subordinate. There have been a number of similar cases over the years.

Is there room for acceptable romantic relationships in the office?

It’s estimated that about one in four people have had a romantic relationship with someone in their workplace, according to a 2020 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management. And among those who’ve dated within their company, 20 percent said they dated a subordinate. Such relationships can create a conflict of interest or raise concerns about favoritism, says Colleen Stuart, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Then there’s the issue of consent. If a boss asks you on a date, would you feel pressure to say yes? “What’s considered consent is very tricky when there’s a disparity in power,” Stuart says.

Amber Clayton, knowledge center director at the Society for Human Resources Management, encourages companies to craft clear guidelines on romantic relationships in the workplace. That doesn’t necessarily mean prohibiting all supervisor-subordinate relationships. Instead, an employer could have a policy stating that workers may be moved to different departments to avoid conflicts of interest.

The gray area is even murkier when the couple are colleagues on a peer level. Even before the dawn of #MeToo, companies started to roll out clearer policies on workplace dating, which tended to vary based on the culture of an organization, Clayton says. Some mandate full disclosure of a romance, even requiring employees to sign a “consensual relationship agreement” stating that both parties have freely consented to the relationship. Whatever the rules, transparency is key, Clayton says.

“To forbid romantic relationships is probably unreasonable, because we know they’re going to happen,” she says. “It’s a matter of communication.”

It’s not unusual that people in the same company or same field end up dating or married, Stuart says. And in some cases, it may actually be a good thing, according to some preliminary research she’s working on.

Read more from this issue

“We’ve found evidence that women’s careers benefit from being married to someone in the same occupation,” Stuart says. “The idea that this intersection between work and intimate relationships is entirely bad is not actually true.”

This story appears in print with the headline: Breakroom Confidential.

Related Stories