Workplace Romance

The subject of workplace romance is hardly a new one; Robert E. Quinn published his groundbreaking article on the formation, impact, and management of workplace romances in 1977. In 2004 it was estimated that nearly 10 million workplace romances develop annually in organizations throughout the United States. Highly publicized examples include the illicit relationship between Boeing’s CEO Harry Stonecipher and executive Debra Peabody and the genuine relationship between Microsoft’s Chairman Bill Gates and manager Melinda French.

A workplace romance is a dating or marital relationship that involves mutually desired sexual attraction between two members of the same organization. Workplace romances are classified as one of the following five types:

  1. Companionate: Both employees are genuinely in love with one another and seeking a long-term companion or spouse.
  2. Passionate: Both employees are genuinely in love with one another and seeking adventure, ego satisfaction, excitement, or sexual gratification.
  3. Fling: Both employees are seeking adventure, ego satisfaction, excitement, or sexual gratification.
  4. Mutual User: Both employees are seeking advancement, financial rewards, increased vacation time, lighter workloads, power, security, or other job-related benefits and resources.
  5. Utilitarian: One employee( e.g., a subordinate) is seeking advancement, financial rewards, increased vacation time, lighter workloads, power, security, or other job-related benefits and resources, whereas the other employee (e.g., a supervisor) is seeking adventure, ego satisfaction, excitement, or sexual gratification.

One study revealed that 36% of workplace romances are passionate, 23% are companionate, 22% are utilitarian, and 19% are flings. Workplace romances are also described in terms of each participant’s organizational rank. Lateral romances occur between employees who have equal rank such as two peers, whereas hierarchical romances occur between employees who have unequal rank, for example, a supervisor and a subordinate.

Workplace romances can affect vital organizational variables such as participants’ job performance and motivation to work. In addition, dissolved workplace romances can foster sexually harassing behavior between former relational participants. Accordingly, scholars in fields such as industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology, organizational behavior, and human resource management have conducted research aimed at providing an understanding of the formation, impact, and management of workplace romances.

Formation of Workplace Romances

Explanations for how workplace romances develop are based on social psychological theories of repeated exposure, interpersonal attraction, love, emotion, attitudes, social exchange, group dynamics, and impression management. The main antecedent factors proposed to explain the formation of romances between two employees include their degree of physical and functional proximity to one another, repeated social interactions with one another, similarity of work- and nonwork-related attitudes, physiological arousal in one another’s presence, physical attraction to one another, favorability of attitudes toward workplace romance, and job autonomy. Another antecedent factor proposed to explain whether employees decide to partake in workplace romances is the nature of their organization’s culture with respect to workplace romance. An organization’s culture is determined in part by whether or not it has a formal workplace romance policy and, if so, whether the policy prohibits workplace romances altogether or instead stipulates conditions under which workplace romances are acceptable versus unacceptable. The culture is also determined in part by whether it has workgroup norms that disapprove versus approve of workplace romances.

With respect to formation factors, recent studies have shown that employees who have more favorable attitudes toward workplace romance are more likely to participate in workplace romances than are employees who have less favorable attitudes toward workplace romance. Recent studies have also shown that employees who have the opportunity to make decisions about their own and others’ work, and who have the freedom to move around physically and interact with others at work, are more likely to participate in workplace romances than are employees who do not have this degree of autonomy in their jobs.

Impact of Workplace Romances

Workplace romances can affect, both positively and negatively, participants’ work-related attitudes and behavior. Examples of proposed impact factors include romance participants’ levels of job performance, work motivation, job satisfaction, job involvement, and organizational commitment. Coworkers can also be affected by observing workplace romances. For example, a workgroup’s morale may be lowered by observing a hierarchical romance wherein the higher-rank participant exhibits job-related favoritism toward the lower-rank participant.

With respect to impact factors, recent studies have produced mixed results such that participating in a workplace romance has been shown to be both positively associated with and not associated with participants’ levels of job performance. One study also showed that employees’ participation in a workplace romance is positively associated with their levels of job satisfaction and, to a lesser degree, their levels of commitment to the organization.

Finally, dissolved workplace romances can foster sexually harassing behavior between former relational participants. Indeed, federal cases have dealt with dissolved workplace romances that led to sexual harassment claims supported by the courts. A prior history of workplace romance between a plaintiff and defendant may, however, sway investigators’ decisions about the plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim. Studies have shown that investigators’ knowledge of a prior history of workplace romance, and knowledge of specific features of the dissolved romance, affects how they respond to an ensuing harassment claim.

Management of Workplace Romances

Considering the impact of workplace romances, organizations typically must manage these liaisons. For example, depending on the level of work disruption caused by a romance, managerial interventions may entail either no action; positive action such as counseling; or punitive action such as a reprimand, suspension, transfer, or termination for one or both participants. Recent studies conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management indicate that about 70% of organizations do not have a formal workplace romance policy. However, those that do (e.g., IBM, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, Xerox) typically permit but discourage lateral romances and prohibit hierarchical romances. Finally, some organizations advise workplace romance participants to sign a consensual relationship agreement. Also known as love contracts, these written agreements are used to stipulate terms and conditions of the romance and to prevent costly sexual harassment lawsuits. Unfortunately, the advantages and disadvantages of using consensual relationship agreements have not been studied empirically.

References:

  1. Foley, S., & Powell, G. N. (1999). Not all is fair in love and work: Coworkers’ preferences for and responses to managerial interventions regarding workplace romances. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20, 1043-1056.
  2. Pierce, C. A., & Aguinis, H. (2003). Romantic relationships in organizations: A test of a model of formation and impact factors. Management Research, 1, 161-169.
  3. Pierce, C. A., Broberg, B. J., McClure, J. R., & Aguinis, H. (2004). Responding to sexual harassment complaints: Effects of a dissolved workplace romance on decision-making standards. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 95, 66-82.
  4. Powell, G. N. (2001). Workplace romances between senior-level executives and lower-level employees: An issue of work disruption and gender. Human Relations, 54, 1519-1544.
  5. Quinn, R. E. (1977). Coping with cupid: The formation, impact, and management of romantic relationships in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 22, 30-45.