Adventures in Dating

A savvy guide to courtship and communication.

Workplace Romance Motives

Why do people date at work? New research identifies four reasons.

A workplace romance is considered a relationship that occurs “between two members of an organization where sexual attraction is present, affection is communicated, and both members recognize the relationship to be something more than just professional and platonic” (Horan & Chory, 2011, p. 565). Workplace romances are commonplace. Statistics indicate that anywhere from 40-47% of employees surveyed had been involved in a workplace romance. Beyond the 47% involved, about 20% indicated they were receptive to an office romance. Considering their popularity and vast amount of organizational and relational implications, they warrant study. Yet, they remain an under-studied topic.

My initial studies of workplace romance examined the implications of dating at work: namely, do individuals treat you differently based on the status and sex of who you are dating at work? As you might expect, they do in terms of honesty, credibility, closeness, trust, and disclosure. You can read a summary of those studies here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/adventures-in-dating/201206/d...

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Despite the above findings, a lingering question that remained was why do people date at work? Quinn presented an early typology of motives in 1977 detailing that individuals date for love (e.g., authentic love and caring for a person), ego (e.g., the romance is fun and exciting), or job (e.g., the romance is driven by the opportunity to obtain professional benefits) motives.

Given the amount of workplace and societal changes that have occurred in the 30+ years since Quinn’s work, we decided to update the workplace romance typology. Along with my colleague, Dr. Renee Cowan (@DrReneeCowan) of the University of Texas at San Antonio (http://communication.utsa.edu/faculty/cowan), we conducted interviews of working adults about their experiences with office romances.  We identified four motives that appear to drive workplace romances:

1. Time: As individuals spend a lot of time together at work, it is only natural that relationships develop. Here, the time spent together was cited as the reason the romance developed. A participant explained: “You’re spending from 6:30-7 a.m. until at least 5-6 p.m.; 12 hours a day with these people learning [about] their lives.” Another person described: “That’s who you spend your time with [so] that’s the person you’re going to share the more intimate details of your life.”

2. Ease of opportunity: This motive is defined by individuals’ views that “the workplace allows and even promotes close proximity of coworkers.” One person detailed: “You travel a lot and you’re away a lot… you’re covering war stories and then there’s a colleague there that can share your same experiences.” Another reported: “I think cause it’s convenient, honestly. You meet people and if you’re working in the same environment, you have common interests in terms of what you believe in.”

3. Similarity: Within this motive, participants “believed people engage in workplace romances because of the similarities they uncover by being with coworkers in a comfortable environment.” As one person recounted: “I think it’s the similarity rather than initial physical attraction.” Another participant explained: “If you find that there are similarities or an attraction of some sort and you’re around them a lot, I think it’s very understandable that those things can eventually evolve into something romantic.” 

4. The Hook-Up: As the name indicates, some workplace romances are driven by the desire to have a physical relationship. A participant described: “One three letter word: sex.”  Another explained: “It is purely physical and it could go on forever as both people are willing participants.”

Throughout the years researchers speculated the individuals likely engaged in workplace romances for more than one motive; our findings support this early speculation. Interestingly, our interviews asked participants about their own workplace romances as well as those romances of their colleagues. When discussing the hook-up motive, individuals regularly attributed others’ romances to that motive but never their own workplace romance.

All romantic relationships are complicated, but office romances present unique challenges in that you spend more time with your coworker/romantic partner and need to, simultaneously, manage the perceptions of other coworkers. Those who enter into workplace romances should be aware of the workplace implications and challenges that such relationships present. These challenges can, and should be, managed – and it is my opinion that most HR professionals and organizations should work harder at better equipping their offices to manage and understand workplace romance. 

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.   

Selected references:

Cowan, R. L., & Horan, S. M. (forthcoming). Why are you dating him?       Contemporary motives for workplace romance. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication.

 Horan, S. M., & Chory, R. M. (2013). Relational implications of gay and lesbian workplace romances: Implications for trust, deception, and credibility. Journal of Business Communication, 50,170-189. doi: 10.1177/0021943612474993.

Horan, S. M., & Chory, R. M. (2011). Understanding work-life blending: Credibility implications for those who date at work. Communication Studies, 62, 563-580. doi: 10.1080/10510974.2011.582663

Horan, S. M., & Chory, R. M. (2009). When work and love mix: Perceptions of peers in workplace romances. Western Journal of Communication, 73, 349-369. doi: 10.1080/10570310903279042

Sean M. Horan, Ph.D. is a faculty member at Texas State University who researches the communication that occurs in dating relationships.

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