Employers Are Clamping Down on the Office Romance in the #MeToo Era, But It Will Never Truly Die

July 18, 2018, 2:58 PM UTC

When Intel CEO Brian Krzanich stepped down from his role in late June after his past relationship with another Intel employee came to light, it seemed to signal a new era for the office romance.

The relationship, by Intel’s account, was consensual. Yet the consequences were swift and decisive.

It reportedly took less than a week for the company to launch an investigation by internal and external counsel and deem the affair a violation of Intel’s non-fraternization policy between managers and direct or indirect reports that had been in place since 2011.

Krzanich’s resignation, of course, occurred against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and former Intel employees have suggested in press reports that it played a role in the matter’s speedy reconciliation.

Beyond the Krzanich episode, the #MeToo movement that’s triggered a reexamination of inappropriate behavior and women’s marginalization in the workplace has indeed cast workplace relationships in a new light. Whereas they may have been considered harmless in the past, the movement has revealed how damaging romantic or sexual intent in the workplace—especially between a boss and a subordinate—can be. Power dynamics can muddy the idea of consent, and the line between well-intentioned flirting and sexual harassment can be awfully thin.

So against this more enlightened landscape, there’s the question of whether the movement has the potential to kill the office romance for good.

“Oh no, I don’t think it’s ever going to die,” says Amy Baker, an associate professor who studies workplace romance at the University of New Haven. “Emotions are what they are at work.”

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Ex-Intel CEO Brian Krzanich stepped down in June after the revelation of a workplace relationship. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan Getty Images

But there is some evidence that companies have tightened their rules for workplace relationships in the last few months.

Research published last week by outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that companies with office dating policies have been clamping down on romance in the workplace.

Some 78% of HR executives who responded to the June survey said that they do not allow relationships between a manager and a direct report. When Challenger asked that same question in January, 70% of respondents agreed.

Likewise, 51% of respondents to the June survey said they “discourage” relationships between managers and subordinates or employees of the same department, while not interfering with other kinds of romances. In January, that stance applied to 47% of respondents.

At the same time, a smaller share of HR execs were dealing with office relationships on a case-by-case basis in June—27%—than in January—33%. More companies were also requiring that all relationships be disclosed to management—24% versus 17%.

Andy Challenger, vice president of the firm, says the findings reflect a desire among employers to “get ahead of potential problems.” Managers’ romantic relationships with employees who are subordinate to them are being “looked at in a new light,” he told Fortune. “One of the best parts of the #MeToo movement is that it makes everyone more aware of power dynamics.”

It should be noted that the same Challenger survey of 150 executives found that fewer respondents said they had formal, written policies in June—51%—than in January—57%. Yet the share of those who said they were working on a formal policy had ticked up from none to 5%.

Even years before the #MeToo movement launched in earnest in October 2017, more companies were adding policies about workplace romance: 42% of organizations had a written or verbal policy in 2013 compared to 25% in 2005, according to a study by the Society for Human Resources Management in 2013, the last time it researched the topic. Among companies that did have workplace romance policies, almost all—99%—indicated that a relationship between a supervisor and a direct report wasn’t allowed. Forty-five percent had policies that banned romance between employees of a significant rank difference, and 35% prohibited relationships between workers under the same supervisor.

As employers tighten their rules, employees are reporting fewer instances of workplace romance on their end, at least by one measure. A CareerBuilder survey in February found office romance at a 10-year low, with 36% of workers saying that they’ve dated a co-worker, down from 41% last year.

Rosemary Haefner, chief HR officer at CareerBuilder, said the decline may be due to the “current environment around sexual harassment” or workers simply “not wanting to admit the truth.”

Whatever the reason, employees may be better off avoiding workplace trysts.

Research on the topic by Professor Baker at New Haven suggests that observing non-harassing sexual behavior in the workplace is positively associated with stress and turnover intention at the time it occurs, as well as four months later. Likewise, she found that employees who observe more sexual behavior at work have lower job satisfaction.

What’s more, there’s the distinct possibility that office romances will end badly. Challenger’s survey in January found that 62% of HR executives had dealt with a failed or inappropriate relationship between employees. One-third of those instances ended in at least one person’s separation from the company, 17% resulted in one party being moved to a different department, and 5% led to litigation.

It’s also worth noting that the workplace is becoming a less reliable place to meet a spouse. A Stanford study reports that heterosexual couples meeting through or as coworkers rose steadily from 1940, peaked around 1990 with about 20% of couples meeting that way, and saw a steep decline thereafter. In 2009, it was 10%. (Meanwhile, the share of couples who first connected online has soared.)

Even with that research and the new light #MeToo has shed on the matter, Baker doesn’t advise employers impose a blanket ban on romantic relationships among colleagues. Neither does Chai Feldblum, a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions, who co-wrote the agency’s 2016 report on workplace harassment. “There is no way we are going to stop office romances, and that should not be what we are setting out to do,” she told NPR last year.

After all, there are workplace romance success stories. In addition to every day examples (you probably know of at least one yourself) there are high-profile ones. Bill and Melinda Gates, for instance, met when they both worked at Microsoft. “It was complicated,” Melinda Gates said of the start of their courtship when she talked to Fortune about it in 2015, but ultimately it resulted in one of the business world’s best-known and most-charitable power couples.

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Melinda Gates and Bill Gates met when they both worked at Microsoft. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Robin Hood)
Kevin Mazur Getty Images for Robin Hood

There may be a tendency to think there was a time when office romance didn’t exist, says Moira Weigel, a junior fellow at Harvard and author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, but for as long as people of all genders have worked outside the home, there’s been romantic interest among colleagues. “It’s inevitable that people develop attraction at work,” she says. And, in her view, efforts to prohibit all such behavior in the office would end up penalizing women or individuals with non-normative sexuality.

So what’s the right solution in the #MeToo era, when allowing some workplace romance seems like a dubious prospect, yet an out-and-out ban is not practical?

The underlying message of top management must be that their workplace is one of civility where employees get by on merits, says Baker. “Office romance in an environment that’s unfair, highly stressed, or political is toxic,” she says. “Look at the climate and culture that you’re building. Is it where employees feel respected?” That circumstance safeguards against office romance being seen as favoritism or someone getting an unfair deal, she says.

Feldblum has said that the #MeToo movement shouldn’t signal the end of office romances. Rather, “[i]t needs to be a catalyst for employers to think about what they don’t want happening in their workplaces that will cause people to feel uncomfortable and not wanting to show up at work.”

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