Sleeping Your Way to the Top (Or Bottom)

What's going on with office romances these days? How prevalent are they? And just how dangerous can they be for your career?

You often spend more time at the office with co-workers than you spend at home with your spouse. So, what can happen? You know the answer; having an office affair.

We hear a lot of buzz about this, but how often does it really happen?

The Other ‘Me Too’

Important Note: I’m not writing about sexual harassment in this article. I’m writing about consensual office romances. Sexual harassment is a legal matter covered under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act, as well as state laws. The law deals with unwelcome sexual advances and sexual favors and also applies to retaliation if a person files a compliant.

Romance in the workplace is common, with about 40% of workers reporting that they’ve been in an office relationship at one point or another, according to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study. Who’s dating whom? Job search engine SimplyHired surveyed 482 people who have been in an office relationship to find out. Results showed that women (21%) had a tendency to “date up” on the corporate ladder, vs. only 8% of men who date up. (That’s not surprising, the researchers noted, considering women hold fewer positions of power at corporations.) Conversely, men (18%) are more likely to engage with someone in a lower position than their own, vs. only 6% of women. But they did note that, “The grand majority of office romancers (78% of men and 70% of women) dated a co-worker at the same level as their own.”

While the majority of the romances did not involve cheating, a much greater proportion of women (31%) than men (23%) involved in office relationships reported that they were cheating on their significant others.

Before you start shaking your fingers at these philandering women, according to the Women in the Workplace 2018 study conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org, women remain underrepresented in the workplace, especially in senior management levels. So, with a lower base, the statistical percentages increase.

The other interesting finding from SimplyHired was that the most likely person to have an affair was the higher-level employee, “to the tune of 23%.”

Get Behind the Stats

Who knows the real results? Are most people who are having an affair likely to really answer a survey? I think, not. According career expert Vault’s 2019 Office Romance Survey, those polled indicated that only “19% of people have engaged in an affair with a colleague beyond their committed relationship.” However, “More than half of respondents have engaged in an office romance (that was consensual).” This would include unmarried folks.

What was interesting is that the proportion of those having office relationships appears to grow with age. While 30% of respondents ages 18-21 reported having participated in an office romance, Vault found that number “jumps to 72% of respondents over 50.”

Which Profession Cheats the Most?

This was a surprise to me. I was counting on the notorious world of banking and finance to lead the way. I had been in that industry for almost two decades and had started my book, Boardroom/Bedroom, but was afraid to get it published! Nope, according to the SimplyHired survey, the “winner” in office affairs is the field of education, leading the pack at 33%. Finance and insurance came in at No. 2 with 30%.

Pink Roses or Pink Slips?

Office romances are not just for the regular worker. There have been lots of famous work affairs. Some end with proposals, but many end in disaster. Some of the most famous are: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (resulted in impeachment proceedings in 1998); Barack and Michelle Obama (dating while at the same law firm later resulted in marriage in 1992); Bill and Melinda Gates (resulted in marriage in 1994); Gov. Jim McGreevey and male aide Golan Cipel (resulted in McGreevey stepping down as governor of New Jersey in 2004); Harry Stonecipher, CEO of Boeing, and Debra Peabody, VP of Operations (resulted in Stonecipher resigning in 2005); John Edwards and campaign videographer Rielle Hunter (resulting in him stepping out of a presidential campaign in 2008); and the most recent work relationship between Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez (the verdict is still out). By the way, he and his wife, MacKenzie, started as a work relationship (resulted in her quitting and them getting married.)

Job Security?

It’s murky territory about job security if there is an affair. Certainly, it is awkward, at best. Many companies have rules in place to try to avoid this. And, under the employment-at-will doctrine, an employer can generally fire an employee for any reason or for no reason at all, according to There are notable exceptions to this, for instance, in California, you cannot be fired solely for dating a co-worker.

I’m not a Puritan; life happens and so do relationships. But, if you enter into close relationship at work, know that you may and probably will have to dodge land mines. There are lots of issues that can pop up:

  • How about favoritism and conflict of interest?
  • How about jealousy among other workers?
  • How about if the relationship turns sour and as a result, there can be unfair treatment to a co-worker or subordinate?

If the employer has a policy against dating subordinates, for instance, because they want to avoid conflicts of interest, you could be fired. The relationship can also turn into sexual harassment, which it really could have been all along.

The moral of the story is that it is never easy. I’m an Executive in Residence at Columbia Graduate School of Business, where I mentor our next generation of business leaders. The students spend lots of time telling me how things are different and how the workplace is so much more collegial today than in my day. I’ll give them that, but the issues of gender parity, dating and sexual harassment have not, unfortunately, kept up with the pace of change.

My advice?

Just be aware of what you are doing and where it can lead. Keep this fun fact in mind: When office romances go sour, “they end in termination for at least one person 33% of the time,” according to a study by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Finally, I found this quote by George Bernard Shaw, who lived way before the world of texting; “The perfect love affair is one which is conducted entirely by post.” Of course, he also didn’t know about hacking!

About the Author

Neale Godfrey, Financial Literacy Expert

President & CEO, Children's Financial Network Inc.

Neale Godfrey is a New York Times #1 best-selling author of 27 books, which empower families (and their kids and grandkids) to take charge of their financial lives. Godfrey started her journey with The Chase Manhattan Bank, joining as one of the first female executives, and later became president of The First Women's Bank and founder of The First Children's Bank. Neale pioneered the topic of "kids and money," which took off after her 13 appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

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