Getting romantically involved with a coworker is not uncommon; it’s estimated that nearly 10 million workplace romances start each year, and about half of all white-collar workers have been involved in a workplace romance at some point during their careers.1 Among these workplace romances, nearly a third involve relationships between an employee and a coworker with higher status in the organization.1 Although these status differences may result in problematic power dynamics within the relationship, it’s also reasonable to assume dating one’s boss leads to more career opportunities (e.g., benefits of favoritism). At the same time, however, people with knowledge of the workplace tryst might think less favorably of those who become romantically involved with their bosses, resenting them for appearing to use that relationship to advance their careers.
Across two studies1 published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Suzanne Chan-Serafin and her colleagues investigated the effects of subordinate-boss workplace relationships on individuals’ career development. The researchers hypothesized that those who are romantically-involved with a superior at work would receive fewer opportunities for training and promotion by third-party evaluators.
In both studies, participants read a scenario describing a hypothetical employee at a law firm, including extensive information about that employee and a career opportunity for which that the employee was being considered. The scenarios were identical except in two key ways. First, half the participants were told that the employee was currently dating their superior; this information was absent in the other half of the scenarios. Second, the gender of the employee was manipulated such that the employ was female (e.g., “Cynthia”) in half of the scenarios and male (“Christopher”) in the other half. In other words, participants read one of four possible scenarios: (1) female employee/dating boss; (2) female employee/no mention of dating; (3) male employee/dating boss; or (4) male employee/no mention of dating.
After reading the scenarios, participants in the first study were asked how likely they were to recommend the employee for promotion. In the second study a different group of participants was asked whether they would recommend the employee for desirable career development opportunities (e.g., being sponsored by the employer for a 2-year MBA program). Across both studies, employees who were dating their bosses were less likely to be recommended for advancement opportunities. In addition, there was some evidence that this effect was exacerbated for male employees; participants were particularly harsh on men who dated their bosses.
In short, while getting romantically involved at work is quite common, the results of these two studies suggest that people who date their bosses might actually be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting opportunities for advancing their careers. If you are climbing the career ladder, think twice before getting involved with your boss, or at least keep it under wraps!
1Chan-Serafin, S., Teo, L., Minbashian, A., Cheng, D., & Wang, L. (2017). The perils of dating your boss: The role of hierarchical workplace romance and sex on evaluators’ career advancement decisions for lower status romance participants. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 309-333.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.