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Work, Love, Gossip, Power: The Thrill and Toll of Office Romance

We all know that office romances happen. But on what scale do they happen, and how exactly do they affect those involved on a professional and personal level?

A recent workplace study by Viking surveyed 2,000 office workers in the UK to uncover the true experience of dating a coworker. Those surveyed were professionals aged from 18 up to 65+, including temporary trainees, executives, middle management, senior management and board members. Participants were from a range of industries spanning from marketing, advertising and PR through to energy and utilities, banking and finance, and leisure and tourism.  

The study found that office romances are extremely common. Almost three-quarters (74%) of office workers aged between 25 and 34 said they had been involved in a romantic relationship of some level at work. Further, 59% of workers surveyed who had been involved with a colleague had made efforts to hide their relationship from others in the workplace, including management and HR. 

Some of the most fascinating facts, however, came when looking into the differences between men and women. There are marked differences in how the genders handle office romance, and how the impact it has on workplace productivity and wellbeing. 

Women Are More Worried About Office Gossip

In any office environment, people talk, and an office romance can quickly become the hottest new water cooler gossip. Understandably, this was found to be a real issue for those who had been involved in an office romance.

The study found that more women than men are worried about gossip in the workplace – when asked about the biggest downfall of an office romance, 46% of women said being the subject of office gossip, compared to 36% of men. You can understand why this number is so high; office gossip does not only bring worries about a loss of reputation in the workplace, but also makes it highly likely that managers or HR will catch wind of the romance. With many workplaces viewing office relationships negatively, people are worried that office gossip could ultimately lead to more serious consequences, including reprisals or even the fear of losing their jobs over their workplace romance. 

However, interestingly and despite the fact women are more concerned about gossip, men are far more likely to keep their office romance a complete secret. 22% of men said they would tell nobody in their office about their relationship, while only 5% of women reported the same.

Women Are More Likely to be Romantically Involved with Their Manager

An interesting angle to consider, especially from an HR perspective, is power disparities when it comes to office romances. It was only two months ago that McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired following a romantic relationship with an employee that violated the company policy. So, on a wider basis across the UK workforce, how common are relationships between management and those they employ? 

Overall, across the study, 15% of workers said they had been romantically involved with their direct manager. Looking at the gender split, this statistic is broken down into 17% of women, as opposed to just 11% of men. The study also looked specifically at upper management, finding that 7% of women and 6% of men reported being involved on a romantic basis with a company director or CEO. 

This brings about a whole host of further issues. While any office romance can be complicated, the disparities of power between managers and their staff mean we need to address the need for psychological safety should these relationships occur. If a lower-ranking member of staff finds themselves in a tricky relationship with an upper-ranking manager, they may be understandably worried of the repercussions or retributions this could bring. HR staff need to ensure there is a safe space and a sense of security when it comes to these difficult conversations, so staff feel like they can come forward and discuss their issues without fear of backlash on their career and professional standing within the company. Further still, with the study finding that only 33.6% of employees knew of and understood their company’s policy on office romances, it is clear that organisations need to be doing more to ensure there are fair, clear, communicated policies in place.

Women Are More Likely to be Negatively Affected 

As well as analyzing the who and the when of office romances, the study also looked a little closer at the psychological effects on those involved. We understand that office romances happen, but do we understand exactly how they are making the workforce feel? 

Again, the study highlighted a number of interesting differences when it comes to gender – it is clear women and men are affected differently by romance in the workplace and women, on the whole, are having a much harder time dealing with the consequences of their workplace relationships. 

According to the study, women find it more difficult to keep their personal and professional relationships separate. One question put to those who had been involved in office romances was whether they found it difficult to avoid letting personal feelings affect professional decisions. Almost double the number of women (31%) said they did, compared to just 16% of men who reported the same. The study also found the quality of work of those involved in office romances was reduced; almost half (47%) of women believed their office romance decreased their productivity and creativity throughout the working day, as opposed to only a quarter (25%) of men. 

An important topic for both HR and business professionals is employee wellbeing at work. How are office romances contributing to stress levels and the overall workplace wellbeing of those involved? Interestingly, 23% of men who had been romantically involved with someone at work reported that the relationship had actually reduced their stress levels in the workplace, compared to just 13% of women. At further look into overall wellbeing in the workplace uncovered that almost a quarter of women (24%) said that their office romance had a negative effect, with just 15% of men saying the same. 

While this study shows us that office romances are as prevalent as ever, it also highlights huge disparities in gender, and how men and women both approach and are affected by relationships at work. Overall, women in a workplace romance are more worried about the consequences and more affected by the negatives of the relationship – whether that be office gossip causing stress, or the relationship itself leading to a decrease in performance and a loss of reputation at work. Men, on the other hand, don’t seem to share these concerns, or at least not on the same scale. This gives us an insight into gender issues, and a hint at a double standard within the workplace, suggesting what is acceptable for men isn’t always acceptable for women. It is clear that there is still much to be done when it comes to workplace cultures: companies need to encourage an environment where men and women both feel equally safe and secure in their jobs.  

As with any personal issues at work, it is important for businesses to be aware of the problems that may arise with an office romance, and to create a safe space where those affected can talk through their issues without fear of repercussions. This will allow the company and HR department to adapt their approach to workplace relationships in the best interest of the business and encourage a safe, comfortable, productive working environment for everyone.