Is Romance Dead at Work?

Firms are becoming more accepting of work relationships, but workers may just not be into them.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, romance may be in the air—except, experts say, for people on the job.

Even though firms appear to be discouraging work relationships less, workers seemed to be turning away from them even before the pandemic made them a lot harder. Indeed, the percentage of heterosexual couples who met at work had fallen by nearly half, from 19% in 1995 to 11% in 2017, according to one Stanford University study. Experts believe the numbers are even lower now and will continue to fall even after the pandemic, thanks mainly to changing attitudes among younger workers.

To be sure, millennials and Gen-Zers tend to seek their partners on social media and dating apps nowadays. Still, experts say the rise of online dating alone isn’t responsible for the decline of the workplace romance. Younger workers report more conservative attitudes toward workplace courtships, says Frostburg State University business professor Rebecca Chory. A 2020 survey by the performance-management platform Reflektive shows that Gen-Zers, who have come of age during the #metoo movement, are the generation least comfortable touching a coworker, fist bumps excepted.

The loss of office romances is something of a key cultural shift. For 50 years, researchers said a powerful predictor of attraction was proximity. “We start to like what and who we see every day,” says Amy Nicole Baker, a psychology professor at the University of New Haven. Equally interesting: the waning interest comes while firms have become more tolerant of worker courtships, at least ones that don’t involve a manager and a subordinate. “It used to be that if you had a relationship with a coworker, one of the two of you should leave,” says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise. Today, however, he says, “I would say it’s probably true that there has been an easing.”

For his part, Dan Kaplan, senior partner in the Chief Human Resources Officers practice at Korn Ferry, says beyond tolerating work relationships, some organizations seemed to be embracing them before COVID—supporting common areas, team building, and happy hours. He says he believes the pendulum toward work relationships could swing back as younger workers become more experienced in the workplace. “It would take a little time” once people return to the office, he says, “but I think people are craving human interaction.”