How Can Workplace Romance Be Addressed? (2022)
Anand et al. (2022) compiled 150+ articles covering the topics of office romance, employee romance, and sexual relationships in the workplace between 1974 and 2022.
In other words, the authors covered substantial research to give readers an accurate overview of different perspectives on office romance and its negative and positive outcomes in the past 5 decades.
As workplace relationships are becoming increasingly common and difficult to address, Anand and colleagues (2022) designed the CUPID framework, a tool which could possibly help HR managers improve their approach to solving office romance-related issues.
The framework may also help HR managers and business owners design policies which can protect organizations from negative outcomes of office romance while respecting employees' personal freedom to engage in workplace relationships.
What is workplace romance?
Based on descriptions given by fellow researchers, Anand et al. (2022) describe workplace romance as a relationship whereby two co-workers have a mutual attraction and engage in romantic meetings, in the forms of intimate relationships and dating for example.
Most of us can agree on the primary function of an office: a place where teams, often led and structured through hierarchies work towards achieving a common goal set by the company they work for.
However, nowadays, in offices (whether SMEs or large corporations and regardless of the company type), co-workers interact on a daily basis and develop relationships, sometimes intimate.
The reality is, workplace romances are now relatively common in organisations, and have an impact on them, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. That being said, scholars in this field of research tend to have found more negative impacts than positive impacts on workplace romances.
Positive outcomes of workplace relationships
Beneficial effects on employee performance
As previously stated, researchers have found office romance to be beneficial to both employees and organisations, in some instances.
Previous literature has found office romances lead employees to be more satisfied, concentrated and productive in their work.
Among the other benefits of romantic relationships in the office:
How office romance can negatively impact employees
On the other hand, workplace romance can contribute to unfairness and increase conflicts of interest within work groups. This can especially apply in hierarchical workplace relationships where other employees are inclined to think decisions concerning the subordinate may get preferential treatment.
Further research has found that workplace relationships between individuals from different hierarchies may increase distrust, envy and suspicion levels. Criticism, jealousy, and hostility from coworkers are also cited as experienced by co-workers engaging in hierarchical relationships.
In sum, workplace relationships may lead to:
Decrease psychological well-being
Increased physical strain
Work turnover intentions
How office romance can negatively impact companies
Depending on whether workplace relationships are horizontal (between an employee and a boss) or lateral (between two co-workers), relationships ending badly may be difficult to manage.
Indeed, in addition to these affecting professional relationships and employee morale, some workplace relationships may lead to scandals, and sexual harassment claims and damage the company’s image, leading shareholders to take action, stock values to plunge and legal action to be taken by employees.
Perceptions of workplace romance by gender
Women appear to find office romances disadvantageous compared to men
Men are more likely to engage in workplace romance to fulfil their ego-related needs
Women are more likely to engage in romantic relationships in the workplace to advance their careers compared to men
Men display a more favourable attitude and more incentive toward engaging in office relationships compared to women
Colleague attitudes and conduct towards co-workers in workplace romances are more harmful than previously believed, particularly for women
Workplace romance statistics
One-third of workplace relationships result in at least one terminated individual (Chan-Serafin et al., 2017)
17 % of managers are likely to transfer one employee to another department in the case of a workplace romance (Chan-Serafin et al., 2017)
5% of workplace romances led to lawsuits (Passy, 2018).
21 % of documented office romance instances resulted in organizational gains and performance benefits (Dillard’s, 1987)
Surveyed couples in workplace relationships and observe that 94 % of respondents indicated working in the same facility as their partner, while 68 % reported working in the immediate vicinity (Anderson and Hunsaker, 1985)
The service sector is notorious for workplace romance: 47 % of employees in the hospitality sector have dated a coworker or manager (CareerBuilder, 2011)
18 % of partnered adults say they met through work (Brown, 2020).
Most modern employees are involved in workplace romance solely for sexual purposes (e.g., Khan et al., 2022)
24 % of office romances have been spontaneous hook-ups and 16 % have been ongoing informal relationships (Vault Careers, 2018)
How does HR manage workplace romance?
While antecedents and positive and negative outcomes are now well documented, workplace romance remains difficult to manage. Creating workplace romance policies can still be a headache for HR managers.
While some organisations simply have non-existent office romance policies, others have policies in place which are perceived as unclear, unfair and confusing for employees (e.g.: rules on public displays of affection, conflict of interest, love contracts).
This holds especially true when it comes to drawing a line between workplace romance and sexual harassment for instance.
The issue can become even more complicated when a co-worker engages in a romantic relationship with an employer, a superior or subordinate for instance.
The authors thus developed a framework based on the antecedents and positive and negative outcomes of office romances.
The researchers stress this framework is not a "one size fits all" framework, given the large variety of organisational sizes, types and cultures across the globe.
However, they suggest this CUPID network may be interesting strategic tool HR managers could use to better manage and address romantic relationships in the workplace.
Here is what CUPID stands for:
Let us dive into each of these dimensions in the next sections.
The 5 dimensions of the CUPID framework
Nowadays, workplace romances pay a hefty price for all the negative outcomes associated with them (e.g.: cases of favouritism, reduced employee engagement, and ethical violations).
In addition, HR managers attempting to address workplace romance run the risk of being accused of mistreating employees, by implementing rules which are too rigid and ambiguous for instance. In other words, a slippery ground to operate on.
The authors thus suggest managers interfere with workplace romance only in cases where office romance is indeed negatively affecting employee job performance.
Researchers highlight three solutions to helping individuals balance connotations with office romances. This doesn't mean the negative outcomes should be ignored (they are a reality!), it means the positive outcomes of workplace romance should also be acknowledged and taken into account.
A considerate approach thus consists is leveraging the following:
Counselling for employees engaged in office relationships (perceived as most fair by employees)
Prohibiting certain behaviours in the workplace (e.g.: public displays of affection in the workplace)
Using additional managerial actions
Determining the motives behind workplace romances can be challenging for managers. While challenging, it is important, as "relationships for the wrong reasons" may hide conflicts of interest for example.
Mainiero (2020) describes two “uncharacteristic” constructs which should help draw a line which cannot be crossed in workplace relationships:
1) Sexual Hubris
Misusing hierarchical and influential positions to obtain sexual favours
Less influential and lower-level employees use intimate relationships and sexual favours to obtain benefits, power and favours
Workplace romances presenting these uncharacteristic elements should be seen as red flags and more actively regulated by HR managers.
HR managers should demonstrate pragmatism by taking the overall organisational context (e.g.: culture, risk tolerance, industry) into account when establishing office romance policies.
In addition, as opposed to being built around the misconception that office relationships always result in reduced productivity, these policies should aim to reduce the odds of office romance resulting in negative outcomes.
What is a pragmatic office romance policy?
As explained by the authors, "A pragmatic policy should explicitly state what romantic relationships are allowed within the organization, what behaviours the organization deems unacceptable, the ramifications for engaging in inappropriate behaviour (Lickey et al., 2009), and at what point individuals are responsible for revealing romantic relationships to the organization." (Anand et al., 2022)
It is vital to inform employees of the complexities, potential negative outcomes, and consequences that may come with relationships in the workplace.
Human resource managers should also provide advice to employees for different scenarios, should conflicts arise for instance, and how these conflicts (e.g., heated disputes, negative emotional displays, and demonstrations of aggression at work) should be settled and in which environments.
Finally, employees and managers should be informed of the impact and risks associated with hierarchical relationships, both for the participants and the organisation.
As previously explained, drawing a line between sexual harassment and romantic behaviour can be challenging. Practically speaking, it is difficult to assess whether the relationship at hand is a mutually agreed romantic one or a case of sexual exploitation.
This highlights the importance of HR managers' duties in effectively communicating the differences between workplace relationships and forms of sexual harassment. In practice, in cases where an issue in this grey area may occur, researchers suggest human resource managers focus on highlighting and addressing the inappropriate behaviour at hand, as opposed to focusing on the why, where, and when of the actual office romance.
This diligence may help HR managers make better decisions proactively and de-escalate conflicts arising from office relationships.
Is it HR departments' responsibility to deal with workplace romances?
While some scholars don't consider human resources departments to be the ones having to address workplace romance-related issues, others maintain that human resource managers should be both concerned with and actively involved in drafting and enforcing workplace romance policies.
The CUPID model created by Antad et al. (2022) constitutes a tool human resource managers could consider to evaluate and design policy options in their respective companies.
To summarize, the CUPID framework may constitute an important tool for managers to:
Reduce the risk of negative company outcomes resulting from office relationships
Mitigate the risks of negative impact on employee relationships
Develop clear, comprehensive, unambiguous policies helping differentiate sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace sexual behaviours from office romance
Reference: Anand, A., Doll, J. L., Centobelli, P., Singh, S. K., & Cerchione, R. (2023). Struck by a cupid’s arrow: The conjuring bliss and sinister shades of employee workplace romance. Journal of Business Research, 154, 113304.