I learned about workplace romance at an early age, and quite traumatically. It began like any other Saturday morning, but much to my surprise, this Saturday would be different. This day, my pre-adolescent reality would be rocked as I witnessed Kelly cheat on Zack with her boss, Jeff, at the Max. This is my earliest workplace romance memory. As much as I was saddened by Kelly’s transgression, particularly with her markedly older boss, I would attempt to replicate this behavior by forming many crushes on coworkers (at the grocery store, as a new student orientation leader…you see the pattern). 

This early trauma, and my own failed attempts at workplace romance, likely explain why I became interested in researching such relationships. I began a series of studies with Dr. Rebecca Chory of West Virginia University. Our goal was to understand differences in communication with peers who dated at work. In other words, if your coworker is dating someone in the office, do you communicate with him/her differently based on a) their sex and b) whether they are dating a colleague or a superior? In short, the answer is yes.

Our results revealed that employees perceived coworkers dating superiors to be less credible than those dating peers. Moreover, employees indicated they would trust coworkers dating superiors less, feel less close to those coworkers, and lie to those coworkers more than colleagues dating peers. Compared to men, women were subject to harsher perceptions (e.g., diminished trust and credibility). As these results are limited to heterosexual relationships, we replicated our prior studies and examined perceptions of gay and lesbian employees. A similar pattern of findings emerged: gay and lesbian employees dating superiors were subject to more deception, less trust, and diminished levels of credibility compared to gay and lesbian employees dating workplace peers.

We interpreted our findings using Equity Theory. Essentially, if your colleague is dating another person in the office, you may feel a sense of inequity or imbalance. People may feel that individuals who date at work have an office ally or unfair access to resources/information. This may feel unfair, and you may view them as less credible because of this allegiance. If your colleague’s dating partner is a superior, you may act deceptively out of organizational survival. That is, you may take a longer lunch or not completely follow company policy—telling your colleague, who is dating a manager, may jeopardize your organizational status.

These results are particularly noteworthy given shifts in societal trends. Today, we are working more than ever, and according to Gauthier and Frustenberg, we spend less time engaged in leisure activities. Likewise, we are attracted to those we spend the most time with. So, if you’re going out less, and working more, you’re likely to form closer bonds and feelings of attraction toward your coworker(s). Supporting this, Shellenbarger reported that 47% of employees have engaged in a workplace romance. Still, almost 20% reported being receptive to forming such a relationship. Shellenbarger also reported that employees feel less of a need to hide workplace romances.

Research, combined with societal trends, suggests that workplace romances will continue to rise. For those who decide to date at work, the advice is clear: date at your own risk. Importantly, be mindful of how your colleagues learn of your workplace romance. A recent study I conducted with Dr. Renee Cowan, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, revealed that employees reacted more positively to the open disclosure of an office romance (compared to hearing rumors, or walking in on physical affection between colleagues).

Ultimately, people will communicate with you differently, and this is problematic given that you rely on coworkers for information and resources. Transparency may be the best policy, but be prepared for an interesting adventure. Given that the vast majority of relationships fail, it is unlikely that your workplace romance will last forever. You thought it was awkward seeing your ex at Chilis? Now imagine that you get to see him/her everyday, at the copier, where you first met. After all, as much as we have all tried, life can’t be like Saved By The Bell – your ex will not be written out of the show. (Speaking of, what happened to Stacey Carosi? She never did show up at Bayside that Fall).

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links as well as complaints about mass transit. 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.

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