What’s the difference between the office and a singles bar? Well, nothing for some millennials.
According to a study by employee benefits provider Workplace Options, 84% of employees aged 18 to 29 say they would date a co-worker, and 71% say they think workplace romance is a positive thing that improves performance and morale. Their older colleagues disagree, as only 29% of those aged 46 to 65 say they’d consider dating someone they worked with, and 90% say it could do more harm than good.
“The first thing that pops up is the difference in attitude between the generations,” says Dean Debnam, president and CEO of Workplace Options. “The millennials are looking at this through rose-colored glasses. Workplace relationships can have a negative effect if they aren’t managed well.”
Debnam also notes how the different age groups view social networking and what is appropriate to post online. “What we found to be the most horrifying is that 40% of millennials said it was OK to date a supervisor and then use social media to advertise that,” says Debnam. “Corporations have to make sure they have a clear policy in place and that their new hires are put through sexual harassment and standards training.”
Millennials may be more willing to date a co-worker because they are early in their career, says Jean Baur, career coach and author of Job Interview Answers that Work.
“Older workers grew up in a time where dating a co-worker was considered really dangerous if not downright stupid, and they know that once you have a good job, you don’t want to lose it,” she says. “Millennials are less committed to staying with a company because they are early in their career. They think, ‘If something happens, oh well, I can find another job.’”
Although younger people may be more willing to get to know co-workers outside the office, Baur says the concept of dating in the workplace is nothing new.
“It’s just human nature,” she says. “But inevitably, people fail to think about what will happen when the relationship ends. I hear far more stories about people getting romantically involved where it doesn’t work out. Everyone fails to ask the question as to whether the person is important enough to risk your job for.”
As far as the risks of having an office affair, Baur says it depends a lot on the size of the company. At smaller offices where everyone knows one another, it would be incredibly difficult to hide a relationship. At larger corporations with multiple departments or floors, it could be easier to hide a romantic entanglement. But sometimes “hiding” the relationship isn’t enough.
Many corporations have strict no-dating policies in place, according Alan Lesnewich, partner and employment attorney at the New Jersey office of Fisher & Phillips.
“Some companies have strict non-fraternization policies in place, and dating a co-worker can be a firing offense,” says Lesnewich. “The trick is enforcing these policies. It’s almost impossible to police, and if you have two people dating who are critical to the success of the company, then exceptions get made.”
Younger people may be more likely to date in the workplace today because more companies are now owned and run by a younger generation, says Lesnewich.
“Look at the Facebooks of the world. They are primarily staffed by younger people new to the work force, and I wonder if they’ve even considered having a non-fraternization policy,” he says. “Now that we are seeing younger CEOs, CFOs and executives, you’re going to see more relaxed policies with things like this.”
Yet even at companies where dating a colleague is considered acceptable, it can still mean big trouble in the form of lawsuits and settlements if the relationships don’t work out.
“It’s not like the fairy tales where people live happily ever after. Everything that was consensual and blissful turns into sexual harassment and worse. I have not heard of a lot of long-term relationships coming out of an office environment,” he says. “What I do hear of are lawsuits that lead to an employee getting paid a significant amount to settle the matter and leave the workplace.”
But as long as there are no specific office policies that enforce a strict "no dating" policy, a low-profile, no-drama relationship is usually fair game, says Suki Shah, co-founder and CEO at GetHired.com, a hiring consultancy for small- and medium-sized businesses.
“The most important thing to remember when dating a co-worker is to keep your relationship strictly professional inside of the office,” says Shah. “No holding hands, kissing, inappropriate touching, footsie under the conference room table, etc. Basically, if you couldn't do it in front of your grandmother, don't do it in the office.” With the increased popularity of online dating, it’s not difficult for workers to find and access personal information about each other online, including who they may be looking to date, says Shah. Today, more people are working longer hours than ever, and the stigma of dating a co-worker is quickly subsiding.
According to the survey, 47% of people report having observed workplace romances, and 57% say that if they did engage in a relationship with a colleague, they wouldn’t bother keeping it quiet—sharing it with friends and colleagues alike.
“It’s possible to find your future husband and wife at the office,” says Baur. “Of course it’s also possible to spend a few years sleeping your way to the top. There are risks involved with both.”