- Office romance has continued in the era of COVID-19 despite remote work and lockdowns, according to a recent Society for Human Resource Management poll.
- SHRM found 33% of the 550 U.S. workers surveyed were either currently or had previously been involved in a romantic relationship with a co-worker, with 26% of that contingent either starting their relationship during the pandemic or maintaining an existing relationship throughout the pandemic.
- Most respondents said their employers did not require them to disclose workplace romances, and 77% of those that had participated in such relationships said they had disclosed them. "But if workers are finding romance in the workplace, it's key that employers have a workplace romance policy in place to prevent harmful situations should relationships go awry," SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. said in a statement.
Office relationships were a thorny issue for workplaces in the past, but the pandemic has added new dimensions. For one thing, the separation of work from physical spaces such as offices eroded some cultural norms.
HR compliance training and analytics firm Emtrain's mid-2020 report found that employee sentiments about workplace health indicators such as harassment prevention had worsened since the shift to remote work. In 2021, a survey of workers by training firm VitalSmarts found that respondents were twice as likely to avoid speaking up about poor performance, behavior problems and other concerns while working remotely than while working in person.
Despite having time to adjust to new flexibility paradigms, employees still report other negative impacts brought on by remote work. Sources previously spoke to HR Dive about the onset of both isolation and loneliness in remote workforces, and one survey found that one-third of worker respondents had considered quitting over such arrangements.
And while office romance may not be directly related to these sentiments in every case, HR teams have in recent years opted to strengthen policies around relationship disclosure. In many cases, the primary motivation is to prevent harassment, favoritism and other issues.
Recent high-profile cases have shed light on this movement within big name organizations. In 2017, McDonald's ousted CEO Steve Easterbrook after it found he had participated in a relationship with an employee, violating company policy. The incident led to broader controversy when the company later sued Easterbrook, alleging that he had lied during its internal probe into the relationship and had additional relationships prior to his termination, Restaurant Dive reported.
More recently, CNN announced the firing of its former president, Jeff Zucker, after an investigation revealed that the executive had a consensual relationship with an employee under his supervision, CNN Business reported.
In SHRM's survey, respondents who had been romantically involved with co-workers mainly dated their peers, while 12% dated subordinates and 19% dated their superiors.
Not all office relationships are clear-cut romances, however. SHRM also found that more than 1 in 4 of respondents said they had someone they considered to be a "work spouse," though only 26% of such workers said they had romantic feelings for their work spouses. Previous studies show work spouse relationships may be even more common; a 2017 Captivate Office Pulse survey found that 70% of employees had a work spouse.
Generally, compliance experts have advised employers to draft careful policies around workplace relationships that include no-tolerance policies with respect to harassment as well as clear restrictions on the types of relationships that are prohibited.