Study finds one-third of workers who dated a fellow employee married them

Articles, Medill Reports

Published by the Northwest Indiana Times and Medill Reports

By Christina Maria Paschyn
Feb. 13, 2007

Did Cupid’s arrow shoot past you on Valentine’s Day?  Don’t drown your sorrow in chocolates just yet; love may be waiting in a cubicle near you.

Forty-three percent of U.S. workers said they have dated a co-worker, according to an annual survey on office romance conducted by online job site  Thirty-four percent of those who did court a fellow employee said they ended up marrying their co-worker.  And one-in-ten respondents said they currently have their eye on someone at their workplace.

“It makes work more fun,” said Kent Mathewson, an attorney who met his wife while they were working at Baker & McKenzie LLC in Chicago.  “We were spending a lot of time together working on a litigation case.  We were professional about it, and I don’t think it affected our work.”

The survey was conducted between Nov. 17 and Dec. 11, 2006 and included more than 6,000 workers.

Twelve percent of workers said they felt the spark when they ran into a colleague outside of work.  Others said they knew love was in the air when they met up at lunch, at happy hour after work or while working the late-night shift.

This may be good news for lovelorn office rats, but Dr. Victoria McGrath of McGrath Consulting Group Inc, an Illinois-based human resources management group, cautioned that office romances sometimes prove problematic.

“As an employer it’s not a good idea,” McGrath said.  “If the romance goes bad then you have two folks who are still working together, which can cause tense relations and affect productivity.”

“It could affect the rest of their co-workers depending on how overt their relationship is,” she added.  “If you got folks who continue to make innuendos and gestures in the department then it makes everyone uncomfortable.”

Not surprisingly, 34 percent of employees surveyed said they had to keep their relationship with a colleague a secret.  Another recent survey conducted by staffing and recruiting company Spherion Atlantic Enterprises LLC found that 41 percent of women versus 31 percent of men kept it private.  It polled about 1,600 U.S. workers.

Women were more likely to believe that an office romance would jeopardize their career advancement or job security.  And with the proliferation of blogs and online networking sites, office gossip can reach more ears than ever before.

“Becoming a target of gossip on the Internet does have the potential to affect career advancement and job security, especially when the relationship is clearly not appropriate,” said John Heins, Spherion’s senior vice president and chief human resources officer.  “Workers today should be realistic about whether they can keep a workplace romance secret and should also be aware of the inherent risks.”

But McGrath acknowledges that employers can do little to prevent their workers from dating.

“You can discourage it and have policies in place,” she said.  “But it’s hard to monitor and stop it. What employees do on their free time is what they do on their free time.”

It seems employers have accepted this fact, too. A study by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that in 2005 more than 70 percent of organizations polled said they did not have a formal written or verbal policy addressing workplace romance.  Of those that did, only nine percent actually prohibited dating.

SHRM also found that 77 percent of employers said they felt the need to discourage office dating because of possible sexual harassment claims.

“When one of the parties is upset with the other and claims the attention was unwelcome or if one person doesn’t want to stop the romance, it can create a hostile work environment for the two of them,” said McGrath, who said she has been consulted on only five to six office romances problems over the past seven years.  “Legal issues can arise and it becomes very difficult to investigate the harassment claim because at one point the relationship was consensual.”

She suggests that workers inform their boss immediately if they start to date.  That way he or she can monitor the situation and possibly mitigate any legal action taken down the road.

Proper supervision is particularly crucial when an employee is dating up the company ladder.

According to, 27 percent of those surveyed said they dated someone who held a higher position than they did in their organization.  And 14 percent said they dated their own boss.  Among men and women who dated a superior, women were 62 percent more likely than men to do so.

“If one person reports to their love interest, peers can be suspicious and resentful of any perceived influence on the boss and his/her decisions,” said Murat Philippe, principal consultant for HR Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based employee survey and HR consulting firm.  ”Most employees that we surveyed were tolerant, as long as each member of the couple worked in different departments.”

Mathewson said he and his wife faced a similar experience:

“While we were dating I became partner and I know there was some concern about a partner dating another lawyer.”  He said his wife left the firm a couple of years later for unrelated reasons.  Today they work at separate law firms.

Still, it might become necessary for one or both members of the couple to leave the office if the situation becomes awkward, as McGrath can affirm.

“There was one situation where a school board superintendent was having an affair with a school board member, a married woman,” she said.’s survey found that 22 percent of workers admitted they have dated a colleague who was married.

“Well, one day her spouse came in and announced that they were having an affair at a school board meeting – and it was being televised. They didn’t break company policy, but we were very relieved when they both decided to move on.”

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