Love at work: When relationships go from platonic to romantic

When flirting at the copier turns into something more, are your fellow employees going to cheer, turn you into the target of office gossip, or simply decide you’re unprofessional?

Research suggests that there are three things that will probably impact their reaction — but only one of those is really under your control.
The science of workplace romance

“I was interested in studying workplace romances because they are incredibly common, yet, across social science, there is little research in the area,” says Sean Horan, assistant professor of relational communication in DePaul University’s College of Communication, who co-authored a study that explored the effect of workplace romances on coworkers.

workplace - romanceHe found that there are three key factors that contribute to how coworkers respond to a workplace romance: how they learn about the romance, their personal views of those participating in the relationship, and the overall company culture.

Horan, along with coauthor Renee Cowan, assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, discovered that if coworkers found out from the couple personally, there tended to be a more positive reaction than if they found out via office gossip or catching them “in the act.”

“Individuals had much different reactions based on how they learned of the romance,” explained Horan. “Being honest and upfront was better received than, let’s say, walking in your coworkers kissing in the parking garage or hearing it via office gossip.”

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How people personally perceived individuals in the relationship also plays a key role in their reaction, as did the titles of those in the workplace romance, Horan says.

For example, in Horan’s previous research in this area, he found that when a coworker dates a superior, they are likely to be lied to more, trusted less, and viewed as less credible. One participant in the current study noted, “I was just taken aback because I knew he was pretty high up with the company, and she not so much.”

Additionally, the study found that company culture contributes to how coworkers view workplace romances. The authors propose that, often, more relaxed office environments don’t have official policies on interoffice relationships, making them more acceptable, while more formal offices have strict policies in place which distinguish them as inappropriate and unprofessional.

“It [the organization environment] kind of seemed like a college, so it didn’t seem too unprofessional,” said another participant.



This is the fourth study in an ongoing series by Horan on workplace romance.

“I’ve concluded a couple of my studies the same way, by saying ‘date at your own risk,’” he says. “Employees need to be aware that their peers will communicate with them differently if they have a workplace romance. Importantly, such differences can influence productivity and performance,” says Horan.

“It’s always awkward seeing your ex. Now imagine having to see them all day, every day at work.”

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