Remote work hasn’t killed the office romance, but colleagues tempted to fall into each other’s arms might want to think twice about the consequences.
One in three employees say they’ve started an office romance while working remotely over the past three years, according to a survey of workers in the United States by ResumeBuilder.com. Of those, 23 per cent say the relationship was with a co-worker. People also admit to sparking romances with clients, suppliers and investors.
Men are the lead instigators of such workplace pairings, with 45 per cent saying they’ve initiated a relationship compared to 25 per cent of women. What’s more, it’s the boss who’s most likely to make the first move. In relationships between co-workers, almost half are between managers and their direct reports, the survey found.
“Those in leadership positions often feel freer to engage in romantic relationships,” Stacie Haller, chief career adviser at ResumeBuilder.com, says in a blog posting accompanying the results. “The reason being, they have more control over their position within the organization opposed to lower level employees who could suffer repercussions.”
Of course, a manager who pursues a relationship with a subordinate risks career shocks of their own. Just last week, John Tory resigned as the mayor of Toronto after his affair with a former staffer made headlines. The consensual relationship, which began in 2020 and continued after the woman found another job outside the mayor’s office, ended early this year. But that wasn’t enough to save Tory from losing his job.
“I recognize that permitting this relationship to develop was a serious error in judgment on my part,” Tory said at a press conference on Feb. 10, when he announced his decision to step down.
Workplace relationships aren’t illegal in Canada, but they are still risky for all involved, especially in the case of managers and subordinates, say employment lawyers Howard Levitt and Muneeza Sheikh. Such pairings risk poisoning the work environment, and give the impression that a co-worker involved in a relationship with the boss will get preferential treatment. More seriously, people and companies risk getting sued. “It is those relationships that could potentially lead to lawsuits around harassment, sexual harassment and potential violations of human rights legislation,” the lawyers say.
Indeed, just as remote work hasn’t done away with office romances, it also hasn’t eliminated sexual harassment complaints. Almost a quarter of women say they’ve been sexually harassed while working from home, leading half of victims to quit, according to ResumeBuilder.com’s survey. That comes even in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which shone a light on sexual harassment in the workplace, and led some men to reconsider their interactions with women in the office.
Companies might want to think about banning workplace romances altogether to avoid trouble, says Kiljon Shukullari, an HR advisory manager at Peninsula Canada, a human resources consulting company. Shukullari advises drafting a strong co-worker relationship policy that all employees must sign off on. That helps protect a company from lawsuits if a romance “turns sour,” and benefits workers, too. “A clear policy will help your employees avoid or cope with any unwanted sexual advances,” he says in a posting on HR.com.
Still, in spite of such policies and the potential risks of office romances, it’s unlikely co-workers will stop pairing up completely. Time spent at work rivals that spent with family and friends, adding up to about 90,000 hours in a lifetime, according to some estimates. No wonder people develop feelings for each other at work.
Relationships between bosses and staffers are a lot more problematic, however. They might be consensual — or as consensual as a relationship between a person in a position of power and a subordinate can be — and even legal, but they come across as entirely inappropriate and unprofessional, not to mention embarrassing.
The career consequences are no joke, as the Tory affair shows. The former mayor spent eight years leading Canada’s biggest city, offering Toronto respite from the personal controversies that dogged his predecessor, Rob Ford, and made headlines around the world. But instead of being remembered for what good he might have done, Tory will now likely be remembered for his workplace affair and subsequent resignation. Surely, that isn’t the legacy he had hoped to leave behind.