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Are workplace romances worth the risk?

The Christmas party is the backdrop to many budding romances

Mistletoe encounters at the staff party are rarely encouraged – but they might pay off.

As beginnings go, it was not promising. The intern was late for his first meeting with his mentor at the Chicago law firm. And yet things worked out okay. More than three decades later, the mentee, Barack Obama, and his mentor and later wife, Michelle, are still together after eight years in the White House.

That the Obamas’ relationship started in the workplace is hardly unique. A survey this year from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 27 per cent of US workers have had an office romance.

Younger workers are sometimes characterised as puritanical, but research suggests they may be more open to the idea of workplace romance than older peers because the divide between private and work life is more porous.


The Christmas party is the backdrop to many budding romances. I know two people who met their future spouses this way. In the SHRM survey, more than a quarter of those who had an office relationship got together at work socials.

Over the next few weeks office workers will have the opportunity to requite the unrequited, as with Dawn and Tim in the television cringe-comedy The Office, who finally kissed after years of shared glances and in-jokes, as Yazoo’s “Only You” played in the background.

Well, that’s the romantic ideal. The Christmas party provides an arena for some pretty shocking alcohol-fuelled behaviour too. One fast-food restaurant worker is suing her employer after alleging that drunken partygoers vomited on the potluck buffet and engaged in sexual acts. Harassment, insubordination and sexual misconduct are other risks.

In the wake of #MeToo, employers have become vigilant over personal and work matters colliding over a free bar, says Siân Keall, employment partner at Travers Smith. Christmas is a busy time for employment lawyers, helping companies to mitigate the risks. “Organisations [try] to ensure that employees understand in advance that company Christmas parties are work events,” Keall says.

Some clients, she adds, choose a so-called “designated driver” – a senior person who stays sober and vigilant, responsible for any issues at the event.

A new working paper presented to the US’s National Bureau of Economic Research found that workplace relationships last longer than those between people who do not work together. That could be due to the couple sharing interests and being sympathetic to each other’s stresses – they don’t have to map out a Byzantine organisational chart to get their partner to understand who their boss’s boss is. Alternatively, such longevity might be because extricating yourself from a work relationship comes with added complications.

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The real focus of the NBER research is on calculating the financial and career costs of an employee’s relationship with their boss. It’s common to hear about senior leaders such as BP’s Bernard Looney, or Jeff Zucker at CNN, who were ousted for failing to declare a relationship with a subordinate. But less so, the consequences for the other half.

First, the good news. When an employee gets together with their boss it provides a boost to their salary, according to the report. It concludes “a 9 per cent income bump” for women.

The researchers tell me this might be even more (14 per cent) for male subordinates dating their bosses, though the numbers are far smaller. (They did not have the data for same-sex relationships.)

Emily Nix, one of the authors of the report, has three explanations. The most obvious is outright nepotism, she tells me. The others are more subtle. Perhaps the subordinate was “super-talented and wasn’t recognised before” or their partner’s mentorship helped “to improve their networks”. If dating your boss is the best way to get your talents noticed, then there is something wrong with the organisation, she notes.

The cost of break-up can be harsh. According to the paper, women who break up with their managers “experience a 4.2 percentage point increase in unemployment”. The repercussions for men were harder to calculate because the numbers who date their female bosses are smaller.

Love in the office impacts more people than just the couple. It can be demotivating to watch the boss’s crush receive opportunities not open to others. “There is a significant decline in retention of other workers with firms where a manager dates a subordinate, retaining six percentage points fewer workers,” the paper concludes.

As you put on your sequins and sparkle for the office party, remember this: romance might blossom, and so too your salary – but when the flush of love declines, prepare for a financial hit too. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023