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Romance in the Workplace
by Michael H. Smith, Ph.D.


As we go further into the second millennium, more and more people are dating, and falling in love with partners they’ve met at work. Yet, coping with Cupid in the workplace can be a rather tricky affair because these romances have both positive and negative effects on work performance.

A growing body of research has explored this phenomenon. One study conducted by Robert E. Quinn reported that over 60% of the people surveyed were either aware of an office romance or had been involved in one themselves. A more recent study by Lisa Mainiero, found in her book, Office Romance: Love, Power & Sex in the Workplace, puts the figure at 76%.

These romances seem to be on the rise because people are spending more and more time at the office and they don’t have the time to socialize outside of work the way they used to do. They are also attracted to those people who share the same daily successes and stresses as they do.

The bottom line is that you’re spending a lot of time around someone that you’re physically and emotionally attracted to, these things happen, whether they’re planned or not. There are many different reasons why people have office romances. Some just want a simple fling with no emotional attachments; others are looking for more serious romances; and some, to be blunt, are just looking for a promotion or a raise.

These kinds of affairs can have both positive and negative consequences for not only the work performance of the two people involved, but they also impact the attitudes and performance of the people who are working with or around the couple.

Quinn’s study found that, in a little over 10% of cases, the romances seemed to result in increased coordination, improved teamwork and improved productivity. Almost one-third of his respondents reported negative effects such as slower decision making, lower morale and lower productivity.

Given these kinds of potential risks and benefits, if you are thinking about the possibility of having an office romance, you should carefully weigh the pros and cons. Imagine what the best and worst case scenarios might be. Could you live with the worst case? If your job were on the line because of your romance, would you be willing to end the relationship or be transferred? Would you have no regrets about it? Don’t forget to examine how the relationship will affect your partner’s career as well.

You also need to ask yourself how the relationship at its peak would affect your ability to get the job done. How would it affect your co-workers? Would they be positive and support the relationship or would they try to undermine it?

Of course, one’s heart tends to lead in these kinds of affairs, but you, at least, need to be aware of the potential consequences. These things should not be entered into lightly.

If you are already in a relationship at work, the following steps in managing the relationship are recommended. The first thing to consider is whether or not you are willing to go public about the relationship. In Quinn’s study, two-thirds of the people involved in an office romance tried to keep them secret. Yet, most of the people surveyed were well aware that a romance was, in fact, happening. In other words, they’ll probably find out anyway. By being up front about it, you can more effectively deal with the feelings that your manager(s) and coworkers will probably have anyway.

Mainiero suggests that you might consider writing a contingency plan with your partner about how the relationship will be handled by each of you and how it will be resolved if it ends. It should deal in a straightforward manner with the potential emotional fallout of the relationship.

It is also recommended that you be particularly careful in the way that you relate to your partner when you’re at work together. Don’t express intimate feelings or use “pet” names at work. Avoid touching your partner in a suggestive manner. Don’t schedule long lunches together or after-hour meetings at the office with just the two of you. Keep your office door open when you’re together. Make sure that your manager and coworkers see that your work is getting done and that the relationship is not having a negative effect on your productivity.

If you’re a manager who has become aware of an office relationship, you should not shy away from the issue. Quinn’s survey found that over half of the managers who knew about an office romance did nothing about it.

The best thing to do in this situation is to openly discuss it with the two people involved. However, you must approach the participants with sensitivity and empathy. Interview each person separately. Ask open-ended questions and allow them to talk. Quite often one or both partners are glad to get it out in the open because they realize they’ve entered into a difficult situation.

If they decide they want to continue the romance, you must focus solely on their work performance. Make sure they are aware of the potential consequences of their relationship; i.e., if their work performance begins to suffer, they could be reprimanded, transferred or terminated. Explore with them the ways in which they should exercise caution. Finally, don’t forget to review the situation periodically with them.

Quinn’s study acknowledges that where termination occurs, the woman is twice as likely to be fired as the man. Be particularly careful that you are not making the woman the scapegoat or you may be faced with a wrongful termination suit.

Love in the office can be very difficult for all concerned. You can’t really prohibit it. All you can do is attempt to be honest and open about it. That can go a long way toward resolving the problems that arise when you’re coping with Cupid in the office.


The Author

Michael Smith

Michael H. Smith, Ph.D., is an Oakland, California-based organization consultant who resolves difficult workplace conflicts such as romance. He can be reached at (510) 832-8500 or

Visit his Web site and blog site:;

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Copyright 2010 by Michael H. Smith. All rights reserved.

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