13.4: Romantic Relationships at Work (2023)

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    Learning Outcomes
    1. Define the term “romantic workplace relationship.”
    2. Reconstruct Charles Pierce, Donn Byrne, and Herman Aguinis’ model of romantic workplace relationships.
    3. Describe Renee Cowan and Sean Horan’s four reasons why romantic workplace relationships develop.

    In 2014 poll conducted by CareerBuilder.com and The Harris Poll, researchers found that 38% of U.S. workers had dated a coworker at least once, and 20% of office romances involved someone who is already married.47 According to the press release issued by the researchers, “Office romances most often start with coworkers running into each other outside of work (12 percent) or at a happy hour (11 percent). Some other situations that led to romance include late nights at work (10 percent), having lunch together (10 percent), and love at first sight (9 percent).” Furthermore, according to data collected by Stanford University’s “How Couples Meet and Stay Together” research project, around 12% of married couples meet at work.48 Meeting through friends is the number one way that people meet their marriage partners, but those who met at work were more likely to get married than those who met through friends.

    In essence, workplaces are still a place for romance, but this romance can often be a double-edged sword for organizations. In the modern organization, today’s office fling can easily turn into tomorrow’s sexual harassment lawsuit.

    Understanding Romantic Workplace Relationships

    According to Charles Pierce, Donn Byrne, and Herman Aguinis, a romantic workplace relationship occurs when “two employees have acknowledged their mutual attraction to one another and have physically acted upon their romantic feelings in the form of a dating or otherwise intimate association.” 49 From this perspective, the authors noted five distinct characteristics commonly associated with workplace romantic relationships:

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    1. Passionate desire to be with one’s romantic partner;
    2. Shared, intimate self-disclosures;
    3. Affection and mutual respect;
    4. Emotional fulfillment; and
    5. Sexual fulfillment/gratification.

    A Model of Romantic Workplace Relationships

    In their article examining romantic workplace relationships, Pierce, Byrne, and Aguinis propose a model for understanding workplace relationships. Figure 13.4.1 is a simplified version of that basic model. The basic model is pretty easy to follow. First, it starts with the issue of propinquity, or the physical closeness of two people in a given space. One of the main reasons romantic relationships develop in the workplace is because we are around people in our offices every day. It’s this physical proximity that ultimately leads people to develop interpersonal attractions for some people. However, just because we find someone interpersonally attractive doesn’t mean we’re going to jump into a romantic relationship with them. We will never develop romantic attractions for most (if not all) people that we find interpersonally attractive at work. However, romantic attraction does happen. At the same time, if you don’t desire a workplace relationship, then even a romantic attraction won’t lead you to start engaging in a workplace relationship. If, however, you decide or desire to workplace relationship, then you are likely to start participating in that romantic workplace relationship.

    13.4: Romantic Relationships at Work (2)

    Once you start engaging in a romantic workplace relationship, there will be consequences of that relationship. Now, some of these consequences are positive, and others could be negative. For our purposes, we broadly put these consequences into three different categories: personal, professional, and organizational.

    Personal Outcomes

    The first type of outcomes someone may face are personal outcomes or outcomes that affect an individual and not their romantic partner. Ultimately, romantic relationships can have a combination of both positive and negative outcomes for the individuals involved. For our purposes here, we will assume that both romantic partners are single and not in any other kind of romantic relationship. As long as that romantic relationship is functioning positively, individuals will be happy, which can positively impact their job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and employee motivation. Employees engaged in romantic workplace relationships will even work longer hours so they can be with their romantic partners.

    On the flip side, romantic relationships always have their ups and downs. If a relationship is not going well, the individuals in those romantic workplace relationships may experience adverse outcomes. In this case, we might see a decrease in job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and employee motivation. We might also see romantic partners trying to put more distance between themselves and their romantic partner at work. In these cases, people might avoid being placed on the same project or working longer hours to avoid spending extra time with their romantic partner.

    Overall, it’s important to remember that romantic workplace relationships can lead to personal outcomes in the workplace environment. People often think they can keep their romantic and professional selves apart, but these distinctions can often become blurry and hard to separate.

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    Professional Outcomes

    The second type of outcomes someone in a romantic workplace relationship may face are professional. According to Robert Quinn, there is a range of professional outcomes that can occur when someone is involved in a romantic relationship.50 Quinn listed six basic outcomes someone people achieve professionally as a result of engaging in a romantic workplace relationship: advancement, job security, increased power, financial rewards, easier work, and job efficiency. Each of these professional outcomes is not guaranteed, and depends on the nature of the romantic relationship and who the partner is. If someone’s partner has more power within the organization, they can show more favoritism towards their romantic power. In contrast, individuals on the same rung of the hierarchy, may not have the ability to create professional advancement.

    There is also the flipside to these professional outcomes. If a relationship starts to sour, someone could see their career advancement slowed, less job security, less power in the workplace, etc. It’s in cases where romantic relationships sour (especially between individuals at different rungs of an organization’s hierarchy) when we start to see the real problems associated with romantic workplace relationships.

    Organizational Outcomes

    The final type of outcomes happens not directly to the individuals within a romantic workplace relationship, but rather to the organization itself. Organizations face a wide range of possible outcomes that stem from romantic workplace relationships. When romantic workplace relationships are going well, organizations have members who are more satisfied, motivated, and committed. Of course, this all trickles over into higher levels of productivity.

    On the other hand, there are also negative outcomes that stem from romantic workplace relationships. First, people who are in an intimate relationship with each other in the workplace are often the subjects of extensive office gossip.51 And this gossiping is time-consuming and can become a problem for a wide range of organizational members. Second, individuals who are “dating their boss” can provoke resentment by their peers if their peers perceive the boss as providing any kind of preferential treatment for their significant other in the workplace. Furthermore, not all romantic workplace relationships are going to turn out well. Many romantic workplace relationships will simply dissolve. Sometimes this dissolution of the relationship is amicable, or both parties are satisfied with the breakup and can maintain professionalism after the fact. Unfortunately, there are times when romantic workplace relationships dissolve, and things can get a bit messy and unprofessional in the workplace. Although happy romantic workplace relationships have many positive side-effects, negative romantic workplace relationships can have the negative outcomes for an organization leading to a decrease in job satisfaction, employee motivation, organizational commitment, and decreased productivity.

    Many dissolutions of romantic workplace relationships could lead to formerly happy and productive organizational members looking for new jobs away from the person they were dating. In other cases (especially those involving people on different rungs of the organizational hierarchy), the organization could face legal claims of sexual harassment. Many organizations know that this last outcome is a real possibility, so they require any couple engaged in a romantic workplace relationship to enter into a consensual relationship agreement or “love contract” (see Side Bar for a sample love contract). Other organizations ban romantic workplace relationships completely, and people found violating the policy can be terminated.

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    Why Romantic Workplace Relationships Develop

    Robert Quinn was the first researcher to examine why individuals decide to engage in romantic workplace relationships.52 Renee Cowan and Sean Horan have more recently updated the list of motives Quinn created.53 Cowan and Horan found that the modern worker engages in romantic workplace relationships for one of four reasons: ease of opportunity, similarity, time, and the hookup. The first three of these motives are very similar to other motives one generally sees in interpersonal relationships in general. Furthermore, these categories are not mutually exclusive categories. Let’s examine these motives in more detail.

    Ease of Opportunity

    The first reason people engage in romantic workplace relationships; ease of opportunity happens because work fosters an environment where people are close to one another. We interact with a broad range of people in the workplace, so finding someone that one is romantically attracted to is not that surprising. This is similar to the idea of propinquity examined by Pierce, Byrne, and Aguinis in their romantic workplace relationship development model discussed earlier in this chapter.54


    The second motive discussed by Cowan and Horan is similarity, or finding that others in the workplace may have identical personalities, interests, backgrounds, desires, needs, goals, etc. As discussed earlier in this book, we know that when people perceive others as having the same attitude, background, or demographic similarities (homophily), we perceive them as more like us and are more likely to enter into relationships with those people. The longer we get to know those people, the greater that probability that we may decide to turn this into a special peer relationship or a romantic workplace relationship.


    As we discussed at the very beginning of this chapter, we spend a lot of our life at work. In a typical year, we spend around 92.71 days at work (50-weeks a year x 5 days a week x 8.9 hours per day). You ultimately spend more time with your coworkers than you do with almost any other group of people outside your immediate family. When you spend this much time with people, we learn about them and develop a sense of who they are and what they’re like. We also know that time is a strong factor when predicting sexual attraction.55

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    The Hook Up

    Speaking of sexual attraction, the final motive people have for engaging in romantic workplace relationships is called “the hook up” by Cowan and Horan. The purpose of “the hook up” is casual sex without any romantic entanglements. Unlike the other three motives, this one is less about creating a romantic workplace relationship, and more about achieving mutual sexual satisfaction with one’s coworker. In Cowan and Horan’s study, they do note, “What we found interesting about this theme was that it was only attributed to coworker’s WRs [workplace relationships]. Although several participants described WRs they had engaged in, this motive was never attributed to those pursuits.” 56

    How Coworkers View Romantic Workplace Relationships

    The final part of this section is going to examine the research related to how coworkers view these romantic workplace relationships. The overwhelming majority of us will never engage in a romantic workplace relationship, but most (if not all) of us will watch others who do. Sometimes these relationships work out, but they don’t. Some researchers have examined how coworkers view their peers who are engaging in romantic workplace relationships.

    • Coworkers trust peers less when they were involved in a romantic workplace relationship with a supervisor than with a different organizational member.57
    • Coworkers reported less honest and accurate self-disclosures to peers when they were involved in a romantic workplace relationship with a supervisor than with a different organizational member.58
    • “Coworkers perceived a peer dating a superior to be more driven by job motives and less by love motives than they perceived peer dating individuals of any other status type.”59
    • Coworkers reported that they felt their peers were more likely to get an unfair advantage when dating their leader rather a coworker at a different level of the hierarchy. 60
    • Peers dating subordinates were also felt to get an unfair advantage compared with peers dating people outside the organization. 61
    • Gay or lesbian peers who dated a leader were trusted less, deceived more, and perceived as less credible than a peer dating a peer.62
    • “Organizational peers are less likely to deceive gay and lesbian peers involved in WRs and to perceive gay and lesbian peers in WRs as more caring and of higher character than heterosexual peers who date at work.” 63
    • Women who saw higher levels of sexual behavior in the workplace have lower levels of job satisfaction, but there was no relationship between observing sexual behaviors at work and job satisfaction for men.64
    • When taking someone’s level of job satisfaction out of the picture, people who saw higher levels of sexual behavior in the workplace were more likely to look for another job. 65

    As you can see, dating in the workplace and open displays of sexuality in the workplace have some interesting outcomes for both the individuals involved in the relationship, their peers, and the organization.

    Key Takeaways
    • According to Charles Pierce, Donn Byrne, and Herman Aguinis, a romantic workplace relationship occurs when “two employees have acknowledged their mutual attraction to one another and have physically acted upon their romantic feelings in the form of a dating or otherwise intimate association.”
    • Charles Pierce, Donn Byrne, and Herman Aguinis’ model of romantic workplace relationships (Seen in Figure 13.4.1) have six basic stages: propinquity, interpersonal attraction, romantic attraction, desire for romantic relationship, engagement in workplace relationship, and outcomes of workplace relationship (personal, professional, and organizational).
    • Renee Cowan and Sean Horan found four basic reasons why romantic workplace relationships occur: ease of opportunity, similarity, time, and the hookup. First, relationships develop because we are around people a lot, and we are naturally drawn to some people around us. Second, we perceive ourselves as similar to coworkers having identical personalities, interests, backgrounds, desires, needs, goals, etc. Third, we spend a lot of time at work and the more we spend time with people the closer relationships become and can turn into romantic ones. Lastly, some people engage in romantic workplace relationships for casual sex without any kind of romantic entanglements, known as the hookup.
    • As a whole, the research on coworkers and their perceptions of romantic workplace relationships are generally more in favor of individuals (both gay/lesbian and straight) who engage in relationships with coworkers at the same level. Coworkers do not perceive their peers positively when they are dating someone at a more senior level (especially one’s direct supervisor). Furthermore, observing coworkers engaging in sexual behaviors tends to lead to decreases in job satisfaction, which can lead to an increase in one’s desire to find another job.
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    • Where do you think the difference lies between romantic workplace relationships and sexual harassment?
    • When you evaluate the reasons people engage in romantic workplace relationships described by Renee Cowan and Sean Horan, do you think their list is complete? Do you believe there are other reasons people engage in romantic workplace relationships?
    • If you decided to engage in a romantic workplace relationship, would you be comfortable signing a “love contract” with your human resources department? Does your opinion differ if the target of your romantic affection is a follower, peer, or leader?


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