Office romance: The good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly

While 79% of Americans who've dated a coworker have tried to keep it on the down-low, in 83% of cases, colleagues have found out, a new report from Zety found.

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Image: iStock/coffeekai

Let's harken back a moment to the pre-pandemic office experience: Most people are at work for approximately eight hours daily. The two most common sizes of US businesses feature 100 to 499 employees (5,339,918 companies), and 1,000 to 1,499 employees (5,976,761 companies). 

There are lunch and watercooler breaks, and, of course, grabbing a drink at the end of the day. In other words, for someone single and ready to mingle, not only is there the potential to meet an appropriate like-minded person, there are opportunities within the construct of a day in which the suggestion of meeting up is perfectly organic.

Sure, a glass-half-empty type might say "the odds are good, but the goods are odd," but work has provided many a person with good friends, and for some, romance. The career website Zety recently conducted a study looking at the state and successes of mixing work with romance, and have dubbed it a "tricky business."

For 50 years, researchers have concluded, consistently, that one of the most powerful predictors of attraction is … proximity. Love may be miraculous and mysterious, but most often happens to people who are physically close.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Is work the best dating source?

The Zety report begins with a surprising outcome: More couples (18%) said they met through work than the dating app Tinder and social media, combined. Zety surveyed 1,000 Americans, who admitted some conversely unsurprising facts: 89% of those polled admitted they have felt attracted to a coworker, and 58% said they've dated a coworker. 

Apparently, secrets are, indeed meant to be broken, because 75% of respondents tried to keep their relationship a secret from colleagues, only to have them discover the romance 82% of the time.

Ethical matters

And like dating at university, there's the issue of balance of power, a matter of ethics. While some couples can overcome it, dating anyone but a peer can have ugly results that include termination, and, at the very least, a hostile work environment. The study found:

  • 57% dated a peer
  • 24% dated a subordinate
  • 11% dated their boss
  • 8% dated a high-up, but not a direct manager

Both men and women are reluctant to date their direct managers, men (11%), women (12%), and men are more likely (28%) to date a subordinate than women (18%), but 14% of women and only 5% of men said they'd date people in more senior positions. 

Zety's report also revealed that for those who had sexual relationships with their bosses were "motivated by very universal passions, not at all specific to the manager-report relationship" as 66% admitted being sexually attracted to their boss, 52% wanted to have fun, and 12% slept with a supervisor in the hope of a pay rise or larger bonus.

Gender dynamics

Women are more likely than men to grow serious about an office romance; 72% of women said they dated their office crush long term, but only 59% of men did so. More women (25%) than men (13%) said their office romance had a negative effect on their work relationship with their crush. For 25% of women versus 13% of men, office romance worsened their work relationships with their partners. For 34% of Gen Z and millennials combined and 20% of Gen X and baby boomers, office romance improved their work relationship.

Romance results

So what happened in these romance-in-the-office situations?

  • 33% formed a regular relationship
  • 31% dated for awhile
  • 21% hooked up a few times
  • 14% slept together once, and that was it

Saying an office romance has a 50-50 chance of working isn't just a flip comment: The Zety survey revealed that 51% of office relationships end in a break up (according to the American Psychological Association, 40% to 50% of US marriages end in divorce, with that rate rising with each subsequent marriage). 

With age comes wisdom, and apparently, office heartbreak. Zety found that the older someone is, the more likely they were to have had their hearts broken, here's a generational look at who eventually broke up with their crush:

  • 69% of baby boomers
  • 56% of Gen Xers
  • 44% of millennials

A glimpse into real-life office romance

Office romance "really depends on several factors" said A Very Good Agency owner Polly Beale, who met her business partner and husband, Len Dickter, 18 years ago, while working at an advertising agency in London, where she's from. 

"It worked for us because we met as [equal] creative partners." The job required consultant Beale to work many hours daily with Dickter, who was "a very senior permanent employee." A year into the job, Beale asked Dickter out. "We told maybe one of two people in the office who were trusted friends, but otherwise we kept it quiet," Beale explained. "At the time I was in my late-30s and was a single mum." 

Focused on her infant daughter Lola, now 19, as well as the master's degree she was finishing, Beale said she and the few-years-younger Dickter took their time, "because we both knew it was special."

"I think it worked, because after a few months of dating, we went our separate ways professionally," she said. "My contract had run its course, and I accepted a better job offer." After dating two years, they married and had another daughter, Ava, in 2007." 

The couple eventually moved to Los Angeles (Dickter is American). "We now run a very successful advertising and film production company with other partners [in Los Angeles]."

Their initial work experience informed how they work together today. "We manage different clients and hold different roles within the company and it's important that we respect our partners and ensure that our marriage doesn't affect any aspect of our business," she said, work relationships "can be very hard for colleagues. There can be tension, favoritism and stress if anything goes wrong."

"Our relationship is very mature and settled. We have worked together for longer than we have been together," Beale said. "We have to be very open with our colleagues and each develop separate professional relationships with them. We're together a lot. We never bring any marital strife into work. That's just how it is for us. It just works."

Work vs. personal relationships

Whether they end up together or not, Zety's report reminds there's still a work relationship to consider: 54% said nothing changed, 28% said their work relationship improved, and 18% said their work relationship suffered.

In a situation where one partner is another's direct report, changing departments or leaving the company may be the only recourse, but the Zety survey showed 57% of couples did not quit, 18% said their partner quit, 15% said they quit and 10% said they both quit.

Despite the draw and allure of dating a coworker, for women: 23% said it was a good idea, 35% said they didn't know, and 42% said it was a bad idea; for men, 33% said it was a good idea, 39% said they didn't know and 28% said it was a bad idea.

Just a hook-up

Respondents also addressed the idea of "simply" hooking up with coworkers, and 35% did so outside of work, 26% did in the actual office, 21% did at a work party, 13% on a business trip and 5% during a company off-site event.

"Men reported fooling around more eagerly than women on business trips (15% versus 9%, respectively), while women were more likely to hook up outside of any working space (42% of women versus 31% of men)."

Extracurricular activities

More men (46%) than women (37%) cheated on their then partners with co-workers. Interestingly, there was no difference whatsoever in the ratio of "cheaters" across generations.

Gossip guys and girls

Coworkers dating is too tempting of gossip not to spill the tea among the other coworkers, as 36% of respondents said they'd spill to other colleagues, and 21% said they'd report it to HR or higher management.

Younger generations are more loose-lipped, as 36% of Gen X and 31% of baby boomers would drop the knowledge of an office affair. While only 14% of the "older generation" would share the info with higher-ups or HR, 24% of the younger people would do so.

And here's a stereotype broken: 23% of men are more gossipy, and would tattle by telling management or human resources about an office couple than 16% of women.

Zety asked respondents how they'd react to a coworker approaching and asking what they should about a crush they have on someone at work. Respondents replied: 42% would refrain from giving advice, 36% would encourage them, 22% would discourage them. People 39 or older would keep their opinions to themselves (47%) much more than people 38 or younger (37%).

Methodology

Zety used Amazon's Mechanical Turk to survey 966 American respondents who were:

  • 59% male
  • 41% female
  • 9% were 24 or younger 
  • 52% were 25 to 38
  • 27% were 39 to 58
  • 12% 59 or older

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By N.F. Mendoza

N.F. Mendoza is a writer at TechRepublic and based in Los Angeles. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Critical Studies and a Master's of Professional Writing, both from USC. Nadine has more than 20 years experience as a journalist coveri...