Guess Who’s Returned to the Office? Cupid

Office romances appear to be back in vogue as workers return. But are people rusty on conduct rules?

Back in the office, employees are enjoying free coffee, face-to-face interaction, intelligent companionship, and environments free of dust bunnies, pets, and kids. But is there another, unexpected perk available to them now—namely, romantic possibilities?

A new survey from the Society of Human Research Management suggests that, with office occupancy now over 50%, office romances are returning in full flirting force. Indeed, the survey found that 40% of US workers say they have flirted with a coworker, while nearly a quarter (24%) have gone on a date with one. Seventeen percent say they've been in an official relationship with someone from their workplace.

Without a doubt, one group is particularly keen on workplace romance: Generation Z, which the survey found is twice as open as boomers are to meeting their honey at work.

The news leaves some HR officials divided. Some welcome the trend, because surveys have found that friendships at work are down since the pandemic. But many fret about the pitfalls of love at work, especially for workers who are rusty on in-office conduct rules and Generation Z employees who may lack critical professional experience. “It’s awesome when it’s going well, but when a breakup or fight happens, the claws come out,” says Dennis Deans, vice president for human resources at Korn Ferry. “Those usually do not end well.” (That said, it did end well for Dean: he met his wife at work and has been married to her for over twenty years.)

Since the pandemic, experts say, the positioning of romance has shifted in workers’ lives, along with their priorities and schedules. Rather than seeking work-life balance, employees today aspire to work-life integration, especially for those putting in long hours in intense jobs. Office romance may be more popular these days because it dovetails perfectly with work-life integration, at least in theory: Why not make life easy—and happy hour a breeze—by dating someone who shares your commute?

Many smaller companies don’t, in fact, have formal romance policies. SHRM’s data found that more than two-thirds of workers’ companies overall do not have a disclosure policy. Experts say that individual managers and employees should not be left to feel this out. “At the least you want to give guidance,” says Maria Amato, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. Typical guidelines include banning romantic relationships among people in the same reporting line and, much less commonly, requirements to inform employers of relationships.

Amato has found that employees are generally very thoughtful about launching after-hours relationships with coworkers, largely because they want to avoid threats to their jobs or reputations. They are less good at envisioning the future. “What people don’t always think through is that reporting structures can change, and where you sit in them can change,” says Amato. That’s when things get complicated: for example, one partner may need to leave the team, or even the company.

Experts encourage managers to review their relationship policies and remind employees of them as part of an annual conduct briefing. New employees should also be explicitly briefed, since guidelines differ from firm to firm. And as a rule of thumb, employees under Cupid’s spell should aim for discretion and avoid obvious romantic interactions at work. “The office is just not the place for romance,” says HR expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. He also suggests that lovebirds think in advance about how they might handle changes in workplace arrangements: “Things go south. Anticipate that before the fact.” Otherwise, as long as work isn’t influenced by the relationship, and team discomfort or discord does not emerge, managers can happily look the other way.


For more information, please contact Korn Ferry’s Human Resources practice