Quotas, Women, and Breaking through the Glass Ceiling
Workplace Misconduct on the Decline

The Dangers of Workplace Dating

Survey Shows Millennials More Accepting of Workplace Romances

I have previously blogged about workplace dating.  I recently read about a national poll of young workers taken by Workplace Options that clearly indicates a change in attitude by millennials indicating that dating in the workplace has become a more accepted practice. This concerns me because such dating opens the door to sexual harassment claims and other workplace behaviors if the relationship breaks down, especially if one employee dates a superior – someone who has a say about the progress of the employee in the firm.

The poll results show that 71 percent of employed millennials (aged 18-29) see a workplace romance as having positive effects such as improved performance and morale. Not surprisingly to me, these youngsters focus on instant gratification rather than the potential long-term effects of workplace dating. One criticism I have of today’s youth is they focus on the pursuit of self-interest without considering how their actions might affect others. Dating relationships potentially threaten the culture of a firm. Imagine if everyone dated in the workplace. Clearly, some relationships would break down causing discomfort and stress. Ethics requires that we consider the consequences of our actions not only for ourselves but others as well.

The survey results indicate that while 40 percent of millennials report no negative effects whatsoever from an office romance, only 10 percent of older workers shared that sentiment, meaning the majority of employed Americans feel more harm could be done than good.

Is there a generational gap? I think so. Years ago there were clearer standards on dating in the workplace and the practice was rarely condoned. We knew instinctively that involvement in office romance created threats to our own performance evaluation and continued employment. We had a longer-term view of what is right and wrong.

The poll results show that:


  • 84 percent of millennials say they would engage in romance with a co-worker – compared to 36 percent of Generation X workers (age 30-45), and only 29 percent of Boomers (age 46-65)
  • Overall, 47 percent of respondents reported that they had observed romantic relationships in the workplace.
  • And 57 percent said that if they had a romantic relationship with a colleague, they would share information about it with others – either friends, co-workers or via social networks.

Sharing information about one’s workplace romances does not surprise me given the social media-driven culture we live in. It is fraught with danger because tweets beget more tweets; facts get twisted; and misleading and, perhaps, harmful comments become part of the workplace culture. It’s almost as if an environment develops that creates gossip about who dates whom and what is the status of their relationship. I can see the Facebook posts now.

One of the most interesting pieces of information that came from this survey was that 34 percent of workers said they didn’t know if their company had policies governing romantic relationships in the workplace, according to Dean Debnam, chief executive officer of Workplace Options. “Human beings are going to interact and these relationships are going to happen, but it is essential that companies have clear policies in place that outline what is acceptable and what is not so that there are no perceptions of inequality, favoritism or an imbalance of power.”

This is an important point. Just as a company should have clear policies on its ethical expectations for employees, sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and reporting wrongdoing, dating in the workplace must be dealt with at the time employees join the firm. Top management should make it clear whether such relationships are totally banned or allowed only when one party does not supervise or evaluate the other (of course, that may change in the future which is why an outright ban makes sense).   

The poll results are concerning in that, as a group, the millennial generation is more open to dating their supervisors than all other age groups combined. Forty percent of millennials said they would date their supervisor, compared to 12 percent of older respondents.

Relationships between co-workers of similar stature are one thing, but relationships between supervisors and direct reports can be dangerous,” added Debnam. “Regardless of the culture or industry of any given company, clear communication about personal relationships among co-workers is vital. Employees must be made aware of where the boundaries are so that things that occur on personal time don’t become a distraction or a source of conflict in the workplace.”

Employees are human beings and as such we look to connect with another person. It’s understandable that workplace relationships might develop over time. After all, for some employees they spend more time at the office than at home. They also get to know their co-workers on a level that might build respect and trust, key elements in a lasting relationship. In an ideal world if a serious romantic relationship develops and there are reporting responsibilities, then one of the two employees involved should seek work elsewhere. I know that is easier said than done, especially in today’s economy.

My purpose in this blog is to not sound like an old-timer out of touch with today’s workplace realities – although I probably am. My purpose is to get young workers to consider whether to even begin a workplace dating relationship. Because once you start done that road, it can be an ethical slippery slope with respect to how each party treats the other and fairness in the workplace may be compromised.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 20, 2014