Are work romances still taboo if you’re working remotely?

Forbidden love. Think Romeo and Juliet, Edward and Wallis Simpson, Harold and Maude — and Cathy and Jim.

Every Monday morning during her team’s virtual stand-up meeting, Cathy commits what she calls, “a sin of omission.” While everyone else talks about their weekend dates or what they did with their partners or children, she makes it sound as if she spent the weekend at home, alone, reading, cleaning and catching up on her sleep.

“That’s only part of the truth,” the 31-year-old program manager said. “Jim’s there with me.”
Jim is the 32-year-old software engineer who attends the same Monday morning meeting as Cathy and with whom she is romantically involved.

“I’m supposed to inform human resources if I’m in a relationship with someone I manage,” said the Brooklyn resident. “But that could cause one of us to be moved off the project we’ve been working on for the past three years. Neither of us wants that, so we’re keeping it quiet.”

Jim and Cathy have their own apartments, but you’re more likely to find them both in one or the other, living and working together.

“Even if I were going to talk to management about us, wouldn’t it be really weird to set up a Teams meeting specifically for that?” said Cathy. “Am I supposed to ask if Jim’s allowed to spend the night? It all seems so stupid. Besides, what I do in my apartment and who I spend my personal time with isn’t anyone else’s business. Don’t you think?”

According to Johnny Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Managementa 2021 survey conducted by his organization found that 25 percent of US workers either initiated a workplace romance during the pandemic or continued one they were in.

With people still working from home, “that number is probably higher now,” said Taylor. “Think about it. There are fewer constraints and monitoring behavior is harder to do when everyone is so widely dispersed.”

Every dating coach we consulted thought initiating a relationship with a co-worker was a bad idea.
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Through virtual meetings, employees are also learning more about one another, seeing broader strokes of each other’s lives — the interiors of their homes, their pets, their family members and more.

Taylor also pointed out that workers can look at each other more closely on video chats and check them out. “You can literally stare right at them the way you would never have the nerve to do if you were in the same room,” he said.

Taylor suspects, at least anecdotally, that the number of co-worker relationships may be greater than we know — the SHRM study also found that 50 percent of US workers admitted to having a crush on a colleague and that 34 percent of workers have been, or are currently, in a workplace romance.

Statistics like these worry employers who fear the consequences of nonreciprocal love or love gone wrong. At Meta (formerly Facebook), for example, dating a co-worker isn’t a problem† however there are rules against offering multiple “unwanted invitations or unwelcome flirting.”

“If you ask a co-worker out and that invitation does not result in a date, do not ask again,” says Meta’s employee manual.

CNN’s work policy has been in the headlines recently due to revelations about the relationship between chief Jeff Zucker, 56, and Executive Vice President Allison Gollust, 49. Zucker was forced to resign after violating CNN rules that the company must be informed when a personal relationship develops between business colleagues. Some commented that it’s what used to be called discretion, but it’s intended to safeguard employers if the relationship goes sour.

“Employees then cannot later say that they were coerced into the relationship and thus may have a claim for sexual harassment,” said attorney Cindy Salvo of the Salvo Law Firm.

In addition, “It can be dangerous when there’s a power imbalance,” said attorney Peter Glennon, a New York attorney who works on employment law cases. “Subordinates can feel pressured.”

Some companies, like Home Depot, advise employees not to date co-workers with whom they have direct contact while on the job. The thinking is that if a relationship ends, there’s the fallout to deal with — productivity can be lost, employees may try to sabotage each other, behave unprofessionally or quit.

This can be costly for employers when you consider that, according to Zety.com, 51 percent of office relationships result in a breakup. That being said, 14 percent of couples who do start a relationship at work get married, outpacing the number of marriages resulting from introductions by friends (11 percent).

Regardless, every dating coach we consulted thought initiating a relationship with a co-worker was a bad idea.

“There are so many other people out there, why take the risk?” said EZ Dating Coach Mike Goldstein.

But, if you’ve met or seen a co-worker who is making your heart skip a beat, this pandemic era may be a better time than most to give it a try.

“Employers have so many other issues to worry about,” Taylor said. “Almost no one is looking for reasons to show workers the door.”

So, for those who insist approaching a co-worker with the aim of starting a romantic relationship, we’ve gathered some tips:

Think ahead

“Before you do anything, ask yourself what would be the ideal outcome,” said Connell Barrett, founder of Dating Transformation and author of “Dating Sucks, But You Don’t: The Modern Guy’s Guide to Total Confidence, Romantic Connection and Finding the Perfect Partner” (S&S/Simon Element). “Do you want a video date, a real-life date, to meet for coffee or a drink?”

do your homework

Before you reach out, “find out if they are single or if they are dating anyone,” said Amy Nobile, founder of dating coaching service Love, Amy. If not, text them. Then, being completely upfront, after some small talk, Nobile advised offering a line like, “I would like to chat a little more, over coffee, but not about work.”

Be low key

“Explain why you wanted to see them in person,” Goldstein said. “Start with a line like, ‘I think you’re great,’ and then tell them why you’d like to consider a relationship outside of work. And remember — no means no.”

Don’t be superficial

Barrett cautions against commenting on looks early on. “’I think you’re really funny’ is better than ‘I think you’re pretty,’ ” he said.

From there, experts suggest seeing where that takes you, but whatever your workplace, once it turns to serious dating, a call to human resources is probably in order.

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