Working Americans spend a significant amount of time at work; in many cases, workers spend more time with their co-workers than with family and friends. It should be no surprise, then, that among millions of workers spending billions of hours a year with their co-workers, workplace romances are not uncommon. Numerous studies bear this out: A study released in 2006 by the Society for Human Resources Management and CareerJournal.com found that forty percent of employees had reported being in an office romance; in a highly publicized 2012 study by CareerBuilder.com, thirty-nine percent of employees surveyed said they had dated a co-worker at least once and (of those thirty-nine percent, nearly a third went on to marry a co-worker); and in a more recent study by Vault.com, half of the respondents had engaged in office romance. The research makes clear that office romances exist throughout the country, though they are more prevalent in some sectors than others. The Vault.com survey found that employees in hospitality and tourism were the most likely to have engaged in an office relationship (sixty-one percent), while biotech and pharmaceutical workers were the least likely (twenty-four percent).
Deborah Keary, director of human resources at the Society for Human Resources Management, says, “The workplace is the new neighborhood. People spend an enormous amount of time in the office, and if romance is going to happen, it will happen there.” As the average age of marriage is increasing, young employees are more likely to be single. As women continue to join the workforce and rise through the ranks, they are more likely than ever to be working shoulder to shoulder with men. Longer work hours and popular culture celebrating office dating add to the phenomenon.
Despite the ubiquity of interoffice dating, a 2009 study published in the Western Journal of Communication found that most employees have negative perceptions of workplace romance, even though so many of them have taken part in it themselves. Further, the study found that most employees largely direct their annoyance or anger at the female partner in a workplace relationship. So, what should employers do about interoffice dating and what guidance does the law provide?
Office romances can cause a number of personal and professional pitfalls. These become exacerbated when the romance is used to further one’s career, or vice versa. For example, when one party in the romance uses it to advance their career, or if one party uses a position of power to impose a relationship on a subordinate.