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Blended Work/Life Relationships: Organizational Communication Involving Workplace Peers, Friends, and Lovers



Given the vast amount of time people spend communicating at work, relationships naturally develop. In addition, friends or romantic partners sometimes become coworkers. These interpersonal relationships involve work and life dimensions. We refer to them as personal workplace relationships: voluntary, informal, mutual, and consensual relationships between two members of the same organization that are marked by a strong emotional component and the partners’ knowing and communicating with each other as whole, unique persons. In this review, we summarize research examining these relationships. Specifically, studies of workplace peers, workplace friendships, and workplace romances are reviewed. In doing so, we highlight key research and theoretical perspectives from various disciplines. The review concludes with a discussion and recommendations for future research.
Americans employed full-time typically work 8½
hours a day during the week and nearly 5½ hours on
the weekend (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020).
Naturally, as individuals spend this much time together,
communicating either face-to-face in workplaces or via
mediated technology working remotely, some form
close(r) relationships with colleagues, such as friend-
ships (e.g., Sias & Cahill, 1998) and romantic relation-
ships (e.g., Chory, 2019). This makes sense as commu-
nication has both content and relational aspects
(Watzlawick et al., 1967) and coworkers typically must
communicate to accomplish work-related tasks. What
happens, though, when communication includes rela-
tional aspects that result in or stem from close work-
place relationships?
This review synthesizes the major research and
theoretical trends on personal workplace relationships.
We begin by describing the conceptualization of work-
place relationships and then we review some theories
that speak to the types of relationships at work that we
review. Subsequently, we present a synthesized discus-
sion of research on peer workplace relationships, work-
place friendships, work spouses, and workplace
romances. We conclude with a discussion of future
research considerations. Readers should note that the
current review is representative, not exhaustive. To
frame our discussion, we begin by explicating the rela-
tionship realm we focus on in this manuscript—personal
workplace relationships.
A. Conceptual parameters
We focus on relationships at work that vary in
closeness—therefore, we first define some commonly
used relational terms. Interpersonal relationships are
marked by repeated, patterned, mutually influential
interactions over time between two individuals.
Interpersonal relationships range in intimacy, interde-
pendence, endurance, and connectedness (Regan,
2011; Sias, 2009; Sias et al., 2002). Oganizational role-
based relationships are characterized by contact and
communication that occurs in the course of doing one’s
job or performing one’s assigned organizational role
(e.g., seeking approval of a policy initiative from one’s
supervisor). These are formal relationships; partners
are assigned to the relationship by the organization
(Morrison, 2009b; Regan, 2011). Combining the two,
workplace relationships are defined as the interperson-
al relationships that individuals participate in as they
go about doing their jobs (performing their organiza-
tional roles; Sias, 2009).
In conceptualizing workplace relationships for
the present discussion, we move beyond role-based,
formal interpersonal relationships (e.g., superior-subor-
dinate) and communication (e.g., communicating with
someone solely for job-related purposes or stemming
from one’s formal position). Instead, we focus on per-
sonal workplace relationships. Personal relationships
“have a holistic quality. They are more than highly-
scripted role relations. Personal relationships include a
range of relationships, including, but not exclusive to
our most intimate relationships” (Perlman &
Vangelisti, 2006, p. 3). These workplace relationships
“are unique interpersonal relationships” (Sias et al.,
2002, p. 615) that differ depending on “status, intima-
Blended Work/Life Relationships:
Organizational Communication Involving
Workplace Peers, Friends, and Lovers
Sean M. Horan, Rebecca M. Chory, Erin S. Craw, Hannah E. Jones
Sean M. Horan (PhD, West Virginia University) is
Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication
at Fairfield University. Rebecca M. Chory (PhD, Michigan
State University) is a Professor of Management at Frostburg
State University. Erin S. Craw (MA, Fairfield University) is
a doctoral student in the School of Communication at
Chapman University. Hannah E. Jones (MA, Texas State
University) is a doctoral student in the Department of
Communication at Rutgers University. Correspondence:
cy, and choice” (p. 616)—all influential contextual ele-
ments in communication.
Personal workplace relationships are distinguish-
able from other workplace relationships in a number of
ways. First, personal workplace relationships are infor-
mal relationships in that they are voluntary versus
assigned “relationships of choice” (Booth-Butterfield,
2002, p. 5). That is, employees choose whether to
establish personal relationships with other employees,
and if so, which employees to engage. This stands in
opposition to formal, role-based work relationships in
which individuals are assigned to a relationship with
another organizational member (e.g., direct report to a
given supervisor) as part of their formal role (Sias,
2009). Second, in personal workplace relationships, the
partners grow to know and interact with each other as
whole persons with unique experiences, personalities,
and opinions, as opposed to simply communicating as
role occupants to accomplish work tasks (Sias, 2009;
Sias & Cahill, 1998). Third, personal workplace rela-
tionships are characterized by a stronger emotional
component than other workplace relationships (Sias,
2009). Finally, personal workplace relationships are
mutual and consensual (Sias, 2009) and vary in close-
ness. Personal workplace relationships may be hierar-
chical in nature, i.e., involving organizational members
of different statuses (e.g., superior-subordinate work-
place romances), or lateral, i.e., involving employees
of the same status (e.g., peer-peer workplace friend-
ships; Chory, 2019).
Although Sias’s (2009) discussion of workplace
relationships included both role-based (e.g., superior-
subordinate, peer-coworker) and personal (e.g., work-
place friendships) workplace relationships, we focus
solely on the latter. We discuss personal workplace
relationships that range in intimacy, including work-
place friendships and workplace romances.
Communication in these relationships blends work and
life domains (Clark, 2000) and has content and rela-
tional dimensions (Watzlawick et al., 1967). It is
through these relational dimensions, then, that the rela-
tionships form, escalate, and de-escalate in closeness
(e.g., Altman & Taylor, 1973). Such relationships are
sometimes referred to as “multiplex” (Hood et al.,
2017; Methot et al., 2016) or “blended” (Bridge &
Baxter, 1992) relationships.
B. Review plan
In this review, we focus first upon theoretical
approaches and then upon the following personal
workplace relationship types: peer relationships, work-
place friendships, work spouses, and workplace
romances. Space constraints limit us from discussing a
wider scope of personal workplace relationships. For
instance, informal mentorships, which are relationships
between more experienced and newer employees that
naturally develop over time, are based on mutual iden-
tification and satisfaction of needs, and involve friend-
ship (Ragins & Cotton, 1999; Winstead & Morganson,
2009), could have been included.
1. Theoretical Approaches
A. Work/life border theory
One theory used to understand blended work-
place relationships is work/family border theory
(Clark, 2000). This theory intended to “give a frame-
work for attaining balance,” yet some researchers have
adopted it as a frame to understand relationships that
blend work and life (Clark, 2000, p. 8). The theory
describes how individuals strive to manage distinct
norms, rules, and expectations associated with work
and personal domains, in turn helping us understand
close personal relationships at work. While Clark
(2000) originally named her theory “work/family” bor-
der theory, some researchers have adopted the label
“work/life” border theory (Cowan & Hoffman, 2007;
Horan & Chory, 2011) or have used the labels inter-
changeably. Hoffman and Cowan (2008) argued that
referring to this intersection as “work/family” instead
of “work/life” privileges those with children as legiti-
mate and subjugates single or childless individuals.
Thus, we use work/life border theory to encompass all
working individuals.
Work/life border theory purports that individuals
serve as border-crossers between their home (personal)
and work domains and engage in integration and seg-
mentation of these domains (Clark, 2000). Individuals
can engage in this integration and segmentation differ-
ently, with some preferring little to no interaction
between the two domains, thus having strong borders
(Cowan & Hoffman, 2007). Others prefer a high
degree of overlap, resulting in weak borders. Clark
(2000) conceptualizes this overlap as permeability, but
others often refer to it as spillover in work/life research
(e.g., Boren & Johnson, 2013; Jones & Horan, 2019).
Work/life spillover, positive or negative, refers to emo-
tions, concerns, and attitudes from one domain affect-
ing the other (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006; Jones &
Horan, 2019; McNall et al., 2009; Miller, 2002). One
example of spillover surrounds disclosure, knowledge,
or concealment of an employee’s sexual orientation.
Concealing one’s LGBTQIA+1 orientation creates
added stress that can be carried over from the work
domain to impact family satisfaction. Employees who
conceal their orientation are less likely to request flex-
ibility with familial demands, giving them less control
in balancing the work and home domains. Conversely,
being able to disclose one’s sexual orientation at work
can positively impact family satisfaction and may
potentially help mitigate the adverse effects mentioned
above (Williamson et al., 2017).
Clark’s (2000) theory appears in a number of
communication studies that explore work/life blending
and balance (Cowan & Hoffman, 2007; Schultz et al.,
2012) and, relevant here, in the study of workplace
relationships (see Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020; Horan
& Chory, 2011; Horan et al., 2019). For example,
work/life boundary management issues (e.g., jealousy,
workplace romance conflict spillover) comprised over
25% of the negative workplace romance effects identi-
fied by Millennial workplace romance partners (Chory
& Gillen Hoke, 2019). Furthermore, the extent to
which organizational cultures blur work/life bound-
aries appears to impact the prevalence of workplace
romance and beliefs about its reputational damage
(Chory et al., under review).
This theory supports the argument that close(r)
personal workplace relationships exist as a form of
work/life blending. That is, close(r) personal work-
place relationships represent “the blended domains of
work and life” in which “communication about work
likely occurs in life, and communication about life like-
ly occurs at work” (Horan et al., 2019, p. 567).
Therefore, work/life border theory’s propositions about
work/life blending can be useful in understanding
workplace relationships.
In addition to work/family (work/life) border theo-
ry, other theoretical approaches have been adopted in
exploring blended relationships. Among those most
commonly used in “beyond the roles” (Booth-
Butterfield, 2002, p. 3) workplace relationships research
are attribution theory (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1973), equi-
ty theory (Adams, 1965), leader-member exchange the-
ory (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995), and communication pri-
vacy management theory (Petronio, 2002). Those theo-
ries are subsequently discussed.
B. Attribution theory
Attribution theory (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1973)
seeks to uncover how we explain the behavior of oth-
ers. It purports that we make causal inferences about
others’ behavior (i.e., we attribute causes to their
behavior). These attributions then shape how we feel
about, respond to, and behave toward others (Kelley,
1973). Among workplace relationships scholars, attri-
bution theory has primarily informed the study of
workplace romance motives (Cowan & Horan, 2014b),
though it has been explored in workplace friendships
research, too (e.g., Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018).
Several scholars address the fundamental attribution
error and how it may function in the workplace
romance sensemaking process (e.g., Chory & Gillen
Hoke, 2020; Cowan & Horan, 2014b). More recently,
Carson (2019) discussed organizational members
attributing workplace outcomes to the relationship
between third parties (i.e., external relational attribu-
tions), which is consistent with employees reporting
discomfort, awkwardness, and lower morale due to
their coworkers’ WRs (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019;
Riach & Wilson, 2007).
The motives attributed to coworkers in workplace
relationships are impacted by the type (e.g., friendship or
romance) and sex composition (same-sex or cross-sex)
of the relationship (Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015), the
relationship’s status dynamic (Biggs et al., 2012; Gillen
Hoke & Chory, 2018; Jones, 1999; Malachowski et al.,
2012; McLaren, 1994; Pierce et al., 1996; Powell, 2001;
Quinn, 1977) and the sex of the relational partner
(Anderson & Fisher, 1991; Dillard, 1987; Gillen Hoke &
Chory, 2018; Jones, 1999; Powell, 2001; Quinn, 1977).
Attributions of workplace relationship motives have
been associated with third party coworkers’ trust in the
relational partners (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020;
1 It was our intention to be encompassing of various identi-
ties. Accordingly, this acronym encompasses multiple sexual
minorities at work, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,
queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and + representing any sex-
ual minorities not previously mentioned
Malachowski et al., 2012) and their communication with
or about the partners (e.g., self-disclosure, deception,
gossip; Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020; Dillard, 1987;
Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018; Malachowski et al.,
2012; McLaren, 1994). Some have linked workplace
relationship motives to general evaluations of workplace
romance (Brown & Allgeier, 1996; Jones, 1999) and per-
ceptions of its impact on romantic partners’ perform-
ance, as well as team and organizational functioning
(Dillard et al., 1994; Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018;
Powell, 2001).
C. Equity theory
Adams’ (1965) equity theory has been extensive-
ly used to explain third-party coworkers’ perceptions of
and communication with workplace romance partners
(Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020; Horan & Chory, 2009,
2013; Malachowski et al., 2012) and workplace friends
(Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018). Equity theory pro-
poses that individuals evaluate their relationships based
on their perceptions of the benefits or outcomes they
receive relative to the inputs they contribute and how
that ratio compares to that of a referent, such as a
coworker. When individuals’ costs are greater than
their benefits and/or their cost-benefit ratio is less
favorable than that of their referent, they perceive
inequity or unfairness, which motivates them to restore
balance. In terms of workplace relationships, cowork-
ers may perceive that an employee receives unfair job
advantages (e.g., advancement opportunities) due to
his or her romance with a supervisor or his or her close
friendship with a talented peer. In the workplace rela-
tionships literature, researchers have focused on
coworkers restoring equity by increasing costs to col-
leagues in romances or friendships, often in the form of
information manipulation (Chory & Gillen Hoke,
2020; Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018; Horan &
Chory, 2009, 2013; Lancaster & Chory, 2013;
Malachowski et al., 2012).
D. Communication privacy management theory
According to communication privacy manage-
ment theory (Petronio, 2002), individuals own their
private information until they share it with others. To
protect that information, they establish boundaries and
rules for disclosure. This theory is particularly impor-
tant in the study of close relationships, as self-disclo-
sure of private information is a key mechanism through
which “beyond the roles” (Booth-Butterfield, 2002, p.
3) relationships develop and grow in intimacy (Li &
Lee, 2020; Romo et al., 2016; Toth & Dewa, 2014).
Communication privacy management theory has been
used to frame the risk-benefit analysis and decisions
involved in third parties’ self-disclosure to coworkers
in workplace romances (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020;
Horan & Chory, 2009; Malachowski et al., 2012). An
employee’s decision to self-disclose to a coworker in a
workplace romance is driven, in part, by the employ-
ee’s assessment of the likelihood of the coworker’s
revealing the disclosed information to his/her romantic
partner (i.e., violating privacy rules). Mindful commu-
nication with workplace romance participants in the
form of less honest and accurate self-disclosure may
help protect employees from coworkers’ breaches of
privacy (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020; Horan & Chory,
2009; Malachowski et al., 2012). In a study of informa-
tion communication technology’s role in workplace
romance, participants cited concerns over privacy in
their early initiation and maintenance phase, when they
pondered disclosure (Cowan & Horan, 2021).
Researchers also use this theory as a framework
to examine the intricacies of health disclosure in the
workplace (Romo et al., 2016; Westerman et al.,
2015; Wittenberg-Lyles & Villagran, 2006). Blending
work and life, individuals bring their health status
from their home (personal) domain into their work
domain. Invisible illnesses (Kundrat & Nussbaum,
2003), such as cancer, anxiety, depression, neuropa-
thy, and fibromyalgia, warrant disclosure to obtain
interpersonal and work-related supports (e.g., Horan
et al., 2009; Wittenberg-Lyles & Villagran, 2006).
Health disclosure decisions are complex (see Greene,
2009) and, in the workplace, employees may not be
able to maintain strict privacy rules or boundaries
with everyone (Westerman et al., 2017). In deciding
whether to disclose or conceal health information at
work, employees consider the potential positive and
negative outcomes of revelation (Romo et al., 2016;
Toth & Dewa, 2014). The greater the perceived risks
associated with disclosure, the more uncertain indi-
viduals are about revealing their health information
(Li & Lee, 2020).
Privacy rules are defined based on the individ-
ual’s relationship with the receiver (Westerman et al.,
2017). Disclosing private health information with oth-
ers allows individuals to feel in control of disclosure
decisions (Petronio, 2002; Westerman et al., 2015).
For example, individuals may share personal health
information with others to avoid rumors or invasion of
privacy (Westerman et al., 2015). These privacy inva-
sions occur, as Wittenberg-Lyles and Villagran (2006)
found that individuals reported instances of learning
about a coworker’s cancer from another colleague.
Changes in performance or safety issues related to ill-
ness or health conditions can also motivate employees
to disclose (Westerman et al., 2015). Still, relation-
ships are an essential aspect of health disclosure deci-
sions, particularly in receiving support and reducing
stress (Greene, 2009). The stronger the perceived rela-
tionship between employees and their supervisors, the
more likely individuals will be to disclose at work.
Therefore, creating opportunities for friendship forma-
tion is vital for organizations in enhancing workers’
willingness to disclose health information at work
(Westerman et al., 2017).
In addition to personal health information, sexual
orientation is an invisible identity dimension that sur-
faces in privacy management at work. Individuals who
identify as LGTBQIA+ may find it challenging to dis-
close their sexual identity and/or sexual orientation in
the workplace (Chory et al., under review; Ozeren,
2013). Further complicating matters related to (non)dis-
closure is that sexual orientation and sexual behavior do
not always align (e.g., Denes et al., 2015; Diamond,
2018; Horan, 2016). Many of the factors complicating
disclosure of sexual orientation and identity rest on the
relationships among organizational members.
For instance, perceptions that supervisors and
coworkers were less supportive of LGBTQIA+ indi-
viduals were associated with closeted individuals expe-
riencing more fear about disclosing their sexual orien-
tation at work (Ragins et al., 2007). On the other hand,
supportive coworkers and organizational climates led
to more positive sexual orientation disclosure experi-
ences (King et al., 2008). Additionally, feeling unable
to fit into normative conversations about relationships
(i.e., heterosexual relationships) may inhibit individu-
als from engaging in everyday conversation with
coworkers (Lewis, 2009), thereby preventing them
from building close relationships with coworkers
(Dixon & Dougherty, 2013).
E. Leader member exchange theory
Leader member exchange (LMX) theory (Graen
& Uhl-Bien, 1995) states that leaders develop unique
relationships of varying quality with individual follow-
ers as a result of the role development process
(Dienesch & Liden, 1986). These relationships vary
along such factors as mutual trust, respect, obligation
(Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995), contributions, loyalty, affect
(Dienesch & Liden, 1986), and professional respect
(Liden & Maslyn, 1998). High quality LMXs tend to be
characterized by high levels of these attributes and yield
social and job benefits to both leaders and members,
whereas low quality LMXs tend to have low levels of
these attributes and are associated with less beneficial
outcomes (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; Liden & Maslyn,
1998). Individuals in high LMX relationships report
their managers communicate care and concern for them,
whereas those in low LMX relationships report their
managers exclude them from social communication and
interaction (Omilion-Hodges & Baker, 2017).
There is debate as to whether LMX relationships
are based solely on work-related judgments (Graen &
Uhl-Bien, 1995) or if they also consider interpersonal,
“beyond the roles” factors (Booth-Butterfield, 2002, p.
3), such as interpersonal attraction and liking
(Dienesch & Liden, 1986; Liden & Maslyn, 1998).
Regardless, it is clear that LMX and personal work-
place relationships are connected. For example, mutual
affection in high LMX relationships may lead to the
development of workplace friendships (Dienesch &
Liden, 1986; Liden & Maslyn, 1998). By the same
token, accepting a Facebook friend request from one’s
boss may be seen as an opportunity to build a stronger
LMX relationship (Peluchette et al., 2013). Perhaps
most relevant, Boyd and Taylor (1998) proposed a
model of leader-follower friendship development that
they mapped onto Graen and Uhl-Bien’s (1995) LMX
development model. They emphasized, however, that
although high LMX and close workplace friendships
may share characteristics and develop alongside one
another, they are not interchangeable.
A more recent development in the LMX work-
place relationships literature is research examining
third-parties’ perceptions of and responses to their
coworkers’ LMX relationships. Organizational
members are well aware of variations in LMX and
attempt to make sense of them when they occur
(Omilion-Hodges & Baker, 2013, 2017; Sias &
Jablin, 1995; Yu et al., 2018). In many cases,
employees find these discrepancies to be unfair
(Omilion-Hodges & Baker, 2017; Yu et al., 2018).
For example, high LMX relationships in which lik-
ing and interpersonal attraction compensate for low
levels of other dimensions (e.g., contributions;
Dienesch & Liden, 1986) may be seen as unjust by
third parties who excel at their jobs. In addition, per-
ceptions of unfairness associated with third-party
coworkers’ high LMX relationships have been
linked to employees building coalitions against the
coworkers (Omilion-Hodges & Baker, 2017).
LMX and its related constructs have also been
included in discussions of employees in hierarchical
workplace romances (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019) and
friendships (Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018) reaping unfair
benefits, resulting in jealousy in the case of the former
(Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019) and deception in the case
of the latter (Lancaster & Chory, 2013). Furthermore,
Omilion-Hodges and Baker (2013) demonstrated that
the LMX of participants and their group members, as
well as justice perceptions concerning these LMX rela-
tionships, influenced participants’ sharing of resources
with group members. However, high LMX does not
always lead to more negative coworker relationships.
In fact, LMX has been shown to positively influence
friendship development beyond the leader-member
dyad, especially in work climates marked by warmth
and enthusiasm (Tse et al., 2008).
The above section described several theories that
have been used to explore workplace relationships.
This work represents the rich diversity of perspectives
used to understand the communication challenges asso-
ciated with personal workplace relationships. Next, the
differing types of personal workplace relationships that
have been the subject of research are discussed.
2. Peer relationships
One of the earliest and oft-cited work examining
workplace relationships is Kram and Isabella’s (1985)
study of work peers. They noted that most prior
research approached adult workplace relationships
from a mentoring perspective, citing distinctive begin-
nings and endings to these relationships (Kram, 1983;
Phillips-Jones, 1982) and specific career-enhancing
functions (Kram, 1985). Kram and Isabella (1985) the-
orized that workplace relationships other than formal
mentorships could meet employees’ personal and pro-
fessional developmental needs. It is within this context
that they sought to identify peer relationships that sup-
ported the “personal or professional growth” of the
peers (p. 114). Through interviews with employees,
Kram and Isabella (1985) identified three types of
workplace peers: information, collegial, and special
peers. Like mentor-mentee relationships, Kram and
Isabella’s (1985) workplace peer relationships perform
career-enhancing and psychosocial functions. Unlike
mentor-mentee relationships, however, peer relation-
ships are not hierarchical in nature, thus one partner
does not have formal power over the other (Sias et al.,
2002). Furthermore, mentorships are marked by com-
plementarity exchange (the mentor acts as a guide or
sponsor to the mentee, helps the mentee), whereas peer
relationships are typified by mutuality, reciprocity, and
a two-way exchange (peers guide and help each other).
Both individuals equally benefit from the peer relation-
ship. Finally, peer relationships tend to last longer than
mentor-mentee relationships (Kram & Isabella, 1985).
Kram and Isabella’s (1985) peer relationships
serve a variety of career-enhancing functions, includ-
ing information sharing, career strategizing, and job-
related feedback, as well as psychosocial functions,
such as confirmation, emotional support, personal
feedback, and friendship. Even though the main func-
tions of the relationship type do not change, the subject
matter and the process through which it is communi-
cated differ as careers progress. Perceptions of the rela-
tionships also vary according to career stage, as differ-
ent stages have different developmental tasks. For
example, in early career stages, special peers discuss
work/family conflicts, whereas in late career stages
they talk about the past and plans for retirement.
A. Peer types defined.
Kram and Isabella’s (1985) three types of peer
relationships are marked by differences in developmen-
tal function, trust, self-disclosure, and relationship con-
text. Information peer relationships tend to have low
levels of trust and self-disclosure. Their primary func-
tion is to exchange information about work and the
organization. Information peers receive only occasional
confirmation and social support. There is not enough
trust between information peers to allow for personal
feedback, but this type of relationship may provide
familiarity and friendship to a limited extent.
Information peers were the most common workplace
peer type identified by Kram and Isabella. Collegial
peers are characterized by moderate levels of trust and
self-disclosure. These peer relationships mainly serve
career strategizing, job-related feedback, and friendship
functions. Confirmation, emotional support, and infor-
mation sharing occur to a lesser extent in collegial peer
relationships. The work/life boundaries begin to blend as
discussions about work and family become more inti-
mate. This also provides opportunities for more confir-
mation and validation of the partners’ self-worth.
Collegial peer relationships tend to develop between
individuals who work in the same department and have
frequent contact. It is estimated that employees have two
to four collegial peer relationships in any given organi-
zation (Kram & Isabella, 1985). Finally, special peers
exhibit the highest levels of trust, self-disclosure, and
enmeshment. Special peers function primarily to provide
personal feedback, emotional support, ongoing confir-
mation, and friendship. Special peers are the most blend-
ed peer type as partners discuss a wide range of work
and family problems and address important develop-
mental tasks. They involve an emotional connection and
bonding between peers. Special peers are the least com-
mon workplace peer type; Kram and Isabella (1985)
found that individuals typically only have one to three of
these relationships. Special peer relationships rest on
high levels of self-disclosure and self-expression that
help them to endure over time and through organization-
al transitions (Kram & Isabella, 1985).
B. Peer types and communication
Organizational communication research has sup-
ported Kram and Isabella’s (1985) typology (Fritz &
Dillard, 1994; Myers et al., 2018; Odden & Sias, 1997)
and expanded on the roles and functions of each peer
type. On a fundamental level, men are more likely to
develop information peer relationships, whereas
women are more likely to develop collegial peer rela-
tionships (Odden & Sias, 1997), though changes in
societal norms suggest that this should be re-examined.
The organizational environment influences and
is influenced by the distribution of the different peer
type relationships. Environments in which members
have a balance of different peer type relationships may
indicate a positive and well-functioning organization
(Kram & Isabella, 1985). Cohesive climates were
associated with higher numbers of collegial and spe-
cial peer relationships, whereas a lack of cohesion pre-
dicted more information peer relationships. In addi-
tion, the perceived pressure dimension of climate pre-
dicted employees having a lower proportion of special
peer relationships (Odden & Sias, 1997).
Communication research also indicates that develop-
ing relationships with peers appears to be especially
important during the organizational encounter and
transition stages of the assimilation process, in part
due to the high uncertainty employees experience at
these times (Kramer, 1996). For new employees, peers
serve as sources of information and support that help
them learn “the ropes” (Miller & Jablin, 1991) and
adapt to new organizations at a faster rate (Comer,
1991; Kramer, 1996). In short, peer relationships con-
tribute to the socialization process of new employees
(Ostroff & Kozlowski, 1993; Reichers, 1987). For
individuals transitioning to new jobs, Kramer (1996)
found that having a high number of information peers
at the new job was associated with transitions being
more difficult. He noted that these impersonal rela-
tionships are not necessarily suitable for reducing the
transitioning employee’s high uncertainty. This may
be due to the quality of information communicated by
information peers. Sias (2005) observed that informa-
tion peers were perceived to provide lower quality
information, whereas collegial peers were seen as pro-
viding higher quality information.
Further, Myers et al. (1999) found that, compared
to collegial and special peers, information peers were
less likely to use ego support, comforting, conflict
management, and regulative communication strategies
and were less open in their communication with each
other. Additionally, they were less likely to use persua-
sive, narrative, referential, and conversational commu-
nication skills with each other than were collegial and
special peers (Myers et al., 1999). Consistent with
these findings, special peers were more likely to use
affinity-seeking strategies and open communication
than were information peers (Gordon & Hartman,
2009). Moreover, special and collegial peers more fre-
quently expressed lateral dissent to each other than
information peers did (Sollitto & Myers, 2015). The
willingness to engage in dissent is likely due to the
closer bonds found in collegial and special peer rela-
tionships. Overall, communication may prove useful in
identifying different organizational peer types (Myers
et al., 1999).
Beyond communication strategies, collegial and
special peers perceived higher levels of solidarity in
their relationships and trusted each other more than did
information peers. Surprisingly, self-disclosure did not
differ among the peer types (Myers & Johnson, 2004).
Still, individuals perceive it to be more appropriate and
important to seek information from special peers, and
they seek normative and organizational information
more frequently from special peers than from collegial
peers (Myers et al., 2018). The information exchanged
between special peers and collegial peers is also likely
to be of higher quality than the information exchanged
between information peers (Sias, 2005). This research
illustrates that employees prefer to seek information
from peers with whom they have closer connections.
However, having too many special peer relationships
may be problematic, as well, especially if these relation-
ships are hierarchical in nature (Odden & Sias, 1997).
C. Peer types critiques and challenges
One critique of Kram and Isabella’s (1985) peer
typology lies in the distinction between the different
peer types. Specifically, whereas the differences
between information and collegial peers are relative-
ly straightforward, there is less clarity in the differ-
ences between collegial and special peers (Fritz &
Dillard, 1994), as they share similar approaches to
communication openness and skill (Myers et al.,
1999), dissent (Sollitto & Myers, 2015), and infor-
mation exchange (Sias, 2005). Myers et al. (2018),
however, provided some clarification by illustrating
the differences in the appropriateness, importance,
and extent of information-seeking among the three
peer types. Further complicating clear distinctions
among these peer types is that while individuals tend
to have many information peers (Fritz, 1997a) and
relatively few special peers (Kramer, 1996; Sias,
2005), these relationships progress or regress over
time (Fritz, 1997a). As with relationships formed
outside of organizations, workplace relationships can
develop or deteriorate over time. For example, a
coworker who was once a special peer may eventual-
ly become an information peer and vice versa. The
three peer types exist on a continuum. With specific
organizations and individuals, it may be more diffi-
cult to delineate between the types. Thus, peer types
should be approached as points of reference, rather
than the only variations that exist in organizational
relationships (Kram & Isabella, 1985).
As highlighted in research (Sias & Cahill, 1998;
Sias et al., 2002), while information peers may be
considered merely colleagues or acquaintances, the
high-quality nature of collegial and special peers
resembles aspects of workplace friendships (Kram &
Isabella, 1985; Morrison, 2009b; Myers et al., 2018,
Odden & Sias, 1997; Sias, 2009). Additionally,
research has illustrated that the work setting for
friendship purposes is similar to nonwork contexts
(Fritz, 1997a), generating a need to explore these rela-
tionships at a more in-depth, interpersonal level.
Therefore, more recent research has moved away
from exploring peer types and transitioned to focus-
ing more on friendships in the workplace.
3. Workplace Friendships
Workplace friendships are voluntary in that
employees choose to engage in these relationships, and
they choose the fellow organizational members they
wish to befriend (Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018; Sias et
al., 2002; Sias & Cahill, 1998). Workplace friends also
spend time together “away from the workplace,
beyond that mandated by their organizational roles”
(Sias et al., 2004, p. 322). Workplace friendships are
considered special peer relationships, given the high
level of closeness, emotional support, and confirma-
tion experienced by the partners (Fritz, 1997a; Kram &
Isabella, 1985; Sias & Cahill, 1998). Whereas strictly
role-based organizational relationships involve instru-
mental goals and exchange norms, workplace friend-
ships have both instrumental and affective goals and
both exchange and communal norms (Pillemer &
Rothbard, 2018). From a network theory perspective,
workplace friendships are multiplex relationships, as
they are marked by affective, personal ties and instru-
mental, work-related ties or links (Hood et al., 2017;
Katz & Khan, 1978; Methot et al., 2016). They are also
referred to as blended relationships because they com-
bine personal and job role components and blend the
work and life domains (Bridge & Baxter, 1992).
Workplace friendship literature discusses the
benefits of perceived closeness in these relationships.
For example, perceived closeness in workplace friend-
ships is associated with higher job satisfaction (Raile et
al., 2008) and less dual role tension (Bridge & Baxter,
1992). However, perceptions of relational closeness
may be relative to the environment and individual pref-
erences for work/life boundaries. For instance, individ-
uals have described workplace friendships as more
superficial than their friendships outside of work
(Pfahl et al.,2007; Zorn & Gregory, 2005). Sias and
Cahill (1998) found that their respondents were reluc-
tant to describe their work friends as “best friends,”
instead preferring to use the terms “best friend at
work,” “very close” friend, or “almost best” friend (p.
284). Similarly, Markiewicz et al. (2000) noted that
90% of their sample did not perceive their workplace
friends as their best friends, but 75% did view them as
close friends.
A. Workplace friendship development,
maintenance, deterioration, and disengagement
Workplace Friendship Development Process.
Although choice is involved in workplace friendship
development, workplace friendship’s formation is less
intentional than that of romantic or mentoring relation-
ships. The two primary factors associated with the
development of workplace friendships are proximity
and perceived similarity (Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Sias
& Cahill, 1998; Sias et al., 2004; Sias et al., 2012).
Workplace friendships develop over time between
coworkers who interact often (Sias & Cahill, 1998;
Sias et al., 2012). Colleagues who share similar inter-
ests, values, and personalities, will also more likely
become friends (Pedersen & Lewis, 2012; Sias &
Cahill, 1998; Sias et al., 2012). Researchers have sug-
gested that shared tasks, teamwork, and projects that
require collaboration are essential for developing
workplace friendships (Cranmer et al., 2017; Pedersen
& Lewis, 2012; Sias et al., 2012). Sias and Cahill
(1998) described the context, individual, and commu-
nication factors present at each stage of the transition
from coworkers as acquaintances to coworkers as
“almost best friends” (p. 283). To begin, as people
work in close proximity, sharing tasks and working on
projects together, they have the opportunity to get to
know one another better. Perceptions of similarity and
attractive personality traits, along with socializing out-
side of work, increase the likelihood that coworkers
will move from the acquaintance to “friend” stage.
More frequent, but less cautious, communication about
non-work issues characterizes this phase of the friend-
ship development process (Sias & Cahill, 1998).
In progressing from a friend to a “close friend,”
extra-organizational socializing, perceived similarity,
and decreased caution in communicating remain influ-
ential. In addition, life events and work-related prob-
lems, such as having an unreasonably demanding boss,
draw the friends closer to each other. Discussions of
work problems and more intimate communication
between the friends occur at this stage (Sias & Cahill,
1998). During the final transition from close friend to
“almost best friend,” socializing outside of work, life
events, work problems, and similarity continue to drive
friendship progression, as does the simple passage of
time. Communication during this phase is even less
cautious, more intimate, and increasingly focused on
work-related problems. It is important to note that not
all workplace relationships follow this progression.
Some coworker relationships never make it to the first
stage (“friend”), let alone the third (“almost best
friend”; Sias & Cahill, 1998).
Workplace Friendship Development Factors. The
organizational climate plays a role in workplace friend-
ship development and maintenance (Sias & Cahill,
1998). Cohesion in organizations and in work groups
predicted more employee friendship opportunities and
greater workplace friendship prevalence (Morrison,
2004). Supervisory practices seen as unfavorable by
employees also appear to encourage coworker friend-
ships. For instance, when employees believed superiors
treated other employees unfairly, the coworkers’ rela-
tionships became more intimate (Sias & Jablin, 1995).
These results suggest that in environments character-
ized by “office politics” and job-related problems,
which create an overall sense of uncertainty and stress,
workplace friendships may be even more essential for
employee well-being (Sias & Cahill, 1998; Yen et al.,
2009). Likewise, perceptions of inconsiderate supervi-
sion predicted the presence of more special peer rela-
tionships among women but not men (Odden & Sias,
1997). For men, the proportion of special peer relation-
ships was greater when organizational pressure was
low (Odden & Sias, 1997). These results suggest that
workplace friendships may form or deepen as a way for
female employees in particular to deal with difficult
work situations and/or to resist organizational prac-
tices. Consistent with this reasoning, Morrison’s
(2009a) research supported her contention that female
organizational members may respond to workplace
stress by forming friendships and caring for others
(“tending and befriending;” Taylor et al., 2000).
Demanding work environments that require
employees work long hours may also indirectly facili-
tate workplace friendship development through the
extensive amount of time coworkers spend working
together (Pedersen & Lewis, 2012; Zorn & Gregory,
2005). Additionally, the stress of managing work and
life motivated employees, especially parents, to blur
the lines between the two domains by forming work-
place friendships (Pedersen & Lewis, 2012).
Friendships can also be part of the organizational
assimilation process (Zorn & Gregory, 2005), making
these relationships even more pertinent to younger or
newer employees (Feeley et al., 2008). For instance,
research revealed that first-year medical students
formed bonds with members of their cohort, which
helped in terms of overall adjustment and coping with
stress (Zorn & Gregory, 2005).
Pillemer and Rothbard (2018) theorized about the
role of social media in workplace friendship formation.
They purported that because a potential workplace
friend’s social media messages are not likely to be tai-
lored specifically to the coworker, the coworker will be
exposed to aspects of the potential friend’s attitudes,
behaviors, and personality earlier than would otherwise
be the case. This exposure is expected to accelerate the
workplace friendship formation process if there is sim-
ilarity between the coworkers in the areas revealed, but
it is likely to disrupt it if they are dissimilar.
Workplace Friendship Dialectical Tensions.
Conflicting expectations associated with formal orga-
nizational and informal friendship roles also present
challenges (Grayson, 2007; Methot et al., 2016;
Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018; Sias et al., 2004). For
example, the roles of friend and work associate some-
times make incompatible demands that negate one
another, creating dilemmas for the workplace friend-
ship partners. These contradictions are referred to as
dialectical tensions (Bridge & Baxter, 1992). Bridge
and Baxter’s (1992) research revealed five dialectical
tensions present in close workplace friendships.
Impartiality-favoritism reflects the work role expecta-
tion of treatment based on unbiased and rational crite-
ria versus the friendship expectation of special, unique,
preferential treatment. It was the most frequently iden-
tified tension. Although this tension is similar to third-
party coworkers’ concerns about unfair advantages due
to workplace friendships and romances (e.g., Lancaster
& Chory, 2013; Malachowski et al., 2012; Pillemer &
Rothbard, 2018), this tension is felt by the friends or
lovers themselves (as are all the dialectical tensions).
Judgment-acceptance, which was the next most com-
mon tension, reflects work associates’ expectations of
critical evaluation contradicting friends’ expectations
of acceptance and affirmation. Autonomy-connection
(interdependence in friendship and autonomous action
in work relationships) was the third most frequently
identified tension, followed by equality-inequality
(equal status in friendships vs. potentially unequal sta-
tus in work relationships, e.g., hierarchical relation-
ships), and openness-closedness (full honesty between
friends, while keeping confidences vs. discretionary
information sharing and confidentiality in work roles).
An instrumentality and affection tension, which
involves the contradiction between the utilitarian and
instrumental expectations of the job role and the affec-
tion-based expectations inherent in the friend role, has
also been identified (Rawlins, 1989; Sias et al., 2004),
though Bridge and Baxter’s (1992) research did not
find support for it. A further complicating factor in
workplace friendships is that the homophily that facil-
itates friendship formation may also lead the friends to
experience greater inter-role conflict in that their simi-
larity in status, skills, and career stage is likely to leave
them competing for organizational resources (Pillemer
& Rothbard, 2018). In stressful work environments,
individuals experience tension between needing sup-
port from peers and having limited time to develop
relationships (Zorn & Gregory, 2005).
These dialectical tensions put pressure on work-
place friends to choose between the conflicting roles
(Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Grayson, 2007; Sias et al.,
2004). Pillemer and Rothbard (2018) noted that in the
workplace, instrumental goals and formal role obliga-
tions are expected to prevail over personal relation-
ships. However, Morrison (2009b) invokes Wright’s
(1974) definition of a friendship as a relationship in
which the friend’s commitment to another usually takes
precedence over the allegiances, duties, or role bound-
aries imposed by the context in which the friends inter-
act. This definition is consistent with Kram and
Isabella’s (1985) conceptualization of the special peer
relationship as one in which formal organizational sta-
tus differences and roles are de-emphasized in favor of
personal connections. Morrison and Nolan (2009)
reported that some employees will place their friend-
ship above their organizational roles when faced with
dual-role dilemmas. Another view is that established
workplace friendships are strong enough to endure
stressors, and close workplace friends have the ability
to successfully integrate their roles and manage the
conflict, therefore, close friends may, at times, priori-
tize their work roles over their friendships without
jeopardizing their friendships (Pillemer & Rothbard,
2018). Bridge and Baxter (1982) observed that close
friends experienced less dual role tension, and though
this was not related to the means of managing the ten-
sion they studied, they proposed that close friends may
have other means to protect their friendships from the
demands of their formal roles.
Choosing one role (i.e., giving priority to one
relationship) over the other is referred to as selection.
Individuals in hierarchical versus lateral workplace
friendships were more likely to use selection to address
their dual-role tension. Partners in blended relation-
ships also manage dialectical tensions through integra-
tion, which involves meeting the demands of both roles
through ambiguity, flexibility, or reframing. Friends
with cohesive work groups were more likely to use
integration. Finally, separation entails isolating the
relationships from one another, such as by behaving as
work colleagues while on the job and friends outside
the workplace (Bridge & Baxter, 1992). Sias et al.’s
(2004) research suggests that the management of
dialectical tensions will only be effective if both
friends agree on the strategy to be used.
Workplace Friendship Maintenance. Given the
interdependent nature and benefits of workplace
friendships, employees are typically motivated to
maintain these relationships (Sias, 2009; Sias et al.,
2012). Even so, maintaining workplace friendships
requires time and effort (Methot et al., 2016; Sias et al.,
2004), which can be challenging given the physical,
mental, and emotional demands of work (Hood et al.,
2017; Pedersen & Lewis, 2012; Zorn & Gregory,
2005). Experiencing greater maintenance difficulty
with one’s best workplace friend predicted lower satis-
faction with pay, people on the job, and supervision
(Winstead et al., 1995). One way in which individuals
make time for workplace friends is by blurring the
friends-family boundary and the work/life boundary,
for example by integrating partner, parent, and friend-
ship roles and engaging in friendship behaviors during
work hours (Pedersen & Lewis, 2012).
Sias et al. (2012) adapted Lee and Jablin’s (1995)
superior-subordinate relationship maintenance frame-
work to workplace friendships. This model suggests
three types of situations in which workplace relation-
ship maintenance behaviors occur. In routine situa-
tions, no moves to make the relationship closer or more
distant are apparent and the subordinate/friend desires
to preserve the relationship in its present state. In esca-
lating situations, the subordinate/friend feels uncom-
fortable with the friendship’s growing intimacy and
desires to maintain the existing work/life relationship
boundary (i.e., to prevent the relationship from grow-
ing closer). In deteriorating situations, the subordinate/
friend fears the relationship is falling apart and wishes
to prevent the relational partner from disengaging from
the friendship. To maintain their work-related relation-
ships, i.e., to keep their superior-subordinate relation-
ships, friendships, romances, or other work relation-
ships intact or steady, organizational members use var-
ious communication behaviors, tactics, and/or strate-
gies (Lee, 1998; Lee & Jablin, 1995; Sias et al., 2012).
The use of particular strategies depends on the relation-
al situation (Lee, 1998; Lee & Jablin, 1995; Sias et al.,
2012), concern for protecting the other’s public self-
image or face (Sias et al., 2012), the quality of the rela-
tionship (Lee & Jablin, 1995), and one’s perceived
effectiveness in relational maintenance strategy use
(Lee, 1998). In escalating situations, workplace friends
may use the following relational maintenance strate-
gies: open communication about the relationship
and/or direct refocus of conversations from personal to
work topics, indirect refocusing of conversations, and
avoidance of the friend. In escalating friendship situa-
tions, indirect conversational refocus was seen as the
politest strategy and employees indicated the strongest
likelihood of using this strategy. Avoidance was judged
to be the least polite strategy, but employees reported
being least likely to use openness and direct conversa-
tional refocus in escalating situations (Sias et al.,
2012). In deteriorating situations, workplace friends’
relational maintenance strategies include circumspec-
tiveness in communicating with the friend, open dis-
cussion of relationship problems, creating closeness by
emphasizing personal topics, and deception (withhold-
ing bad news, denying problems). In deteriorating
workplace friendships, circumspectiveness and creat-
ing closeness were perceived as more polite and more
likely to be used than was openness. Deception was
seen as the least polite strategy (Sias et al., 2012). Sias
et al. (2012) did not investigate maintenance strategies
used in routine situations. Lee and Jablin (1995), how-
ever, identified avoidance, supportiveness, positive
regard, restrained expression, and small talk as strate-
gies subordinates use to retain their current relational
state with their superiors.
Although Lee and Jablin (1995) did not study
workplace friendships, they did examine relational
maintenance in superior-subordinate relationships of
varying quality. They found that the quality of the
superior-subordinate relationship was positively relat-
ed to subordinates’ use of the strategies creating close-
ness and supportiveness. Superior-subordinate rela-
tionship quality was negatively associated with subor-
dinates’ use of avoidance, conversational refocus,
deception, directness/openness, and restrained expres-
sion to maintain the relationship. In a related study
using hypothetical scenarios, participants indicated a
lower propensity to derogate, forgive, and ask for for-
giveness from their workplace friend when they were
under-benefitted versus over-benefitted in the task-
based relationship. Both under-benefitted and over-
benefitted workplace friendship partners reported a
higher likelihood of using a direct versus an indirect
approach to address the inequity (Westerman, 2013).
Individuals may be able to renegotiate work-related
tasks as a means to reestablish fairness, however, when
unfairness is unable to be remedied by doing so,
addressing the imbalance through direct communica-
tion may be most effective in maintaining the relation-
ship (Litwin & Hallsten, 2007; Westerman, 2013).
Despite these communication preferences, individuals
often deal with conflicts in workplace friendships
through more implicit communication (Litwin &
Hallsten, 2007; Sias et al., 2004).
Workplace Friendship Deterioration and
Disengagement. When relational dialectical tensions
cannot be managed and workplace friendships cannot
be maintained, the friendships will deteriorate (Bridge
& Baxter, 1992; Grayson, 2007; Pillemer & Rothbard,
2018; Sias et al., 2004). Various factors, such as higher
organizational formalization, are linked to workplace
friends experiencing more dual-role tension, leading to
deterioration (Bridge & Baxter, 1992). Workplace
friendship deterioration is also caused by clashing per-
sonality traits, events in one’s personal life bleeding
into and interfering with one’s work, differences in
expectations about how the friends should behave
toward each other, one friend getting promoted to a
position of authority over the other, and a betrayal of
trust (often stemming from withholding or revealing
information; Pedersen & Lewis, 2012; Sias et al., 2004;
Sias & Perry, 2004).
Employees’ decisions about whether to disengage
from deteriorating workplace friendships, and if so,
how to disengage, are critical due to the inevitability of
the partners’ continued job-related interaction post-dis-
solution (Sias & Perry, 2004; Sias, 2006). Sias and col-
leagues (Sias et al., 2004; Sias & Perry, 2004) identi-
fied three strategies employees use to disengage from
their workplace friendships: depersonalization (avoid-
ing discussions of personal topics and refraining from
socializing with the coworker outside of work), cost
escalation (behaving in a negative manner toward the
coworker so that the friendship becomes too “costly”
for the coworker), and state-of-the-relationship talk
(openly discussing the relationship disengagement).
Indirect and other-oriented forms of disengagement,
such as depersonalization through nonverbal distanc-
ing or avoidance of social contact outside of work,
were the most commonly used strategies (Sias et al.,
2004; Sias & Perry, 2004). Employees may engage in
depersonalization to withdraw from the friendship
while remaining amiable in shared work-related tasks
or conversations (Sias & Perry, 2004). Employees
rarely engaged in direct relationship discussions or cost
escalation to disengage from their workplace friend-
ships (Sias et al., 2004; Sias & Perry, 2004).
Apart from these general patterns of disengage-
ment, structural and interpersonal factors influence the
particular disengagement strategies organizational mem-
bers choose to enact. Individuals in friendships that
involve high interdependence often use more indirect
communication (Sias & Perry, 2004; Sias & Gallagher,
2009), whereas those in friendships with lower task
interdependence may use more direct communicative
approaches to address deterioration (Sias & Gallagher,
2009). In addition, the cause of friendship deterioration
has been shown to influence the disengagement strategy
used. For instance, respondents indicated a higher likeli-
hood of using depersonalization to disengage when
betrayal, conflicting expectations, or problem personali-
ties was the cause of relationship deterioration as
opposed to when promotion precipitated the disengage-
ment. Respondents also reported cost escalation as more
likely to be enacted when conflicting expectations ver-
sus promotion or distracting life events triggered disen-
gagement. The cause of relationship deterioration did
not affect the use of state-of-the-relationship talk to dis-
engage from the friendship. Furthermore, the friend-
ship’s status dynamic did not impact disengagement
strategy choice (Sias & Perry, 2004).
Workplace friendship deterioration leads to
employee turnover, declines in job performance, emo-
tional distress, and increased knowledge on how to bet-
ter manage relationships (e.g., by maintaining the
work/life boundary; Sias et al., 2004). If the deteriora-
tion is caused by violation of friendship or work role
expectations, the potential for the partners to feel
betrayed increases, leading to avoidance or indirect
aggression (Litwin & Hallstein, 2007). Furthermore,
because workplace friendships are associated with
higher job satisfaction (Cranmer et al., 2017; Morrison,
2004; 2009a) and lower turnover rates (Feeley et al.,
2008), friendships ending could lead to long-term neg-
ative repercussions for the friends and the organization
(Sias, 2009).
B. Workplace friendship effects
Workplace friendships can encourage innovation,
learning, and creativity through information sharing;
facilitate organizational change through increased
trust; and reduce turnover (Feeley et al., 2008;
Morrison, 2004, 2009a; Pedersen & Lewis, 2012; Sias,
2009). They can boost workplace morale, strengthen
work role relationships, and advance careers and pro-
fessional development (Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Gillen
Hoke & Chory, 2015; Sias, 2009). Consistent with
work-family enrichment theory (Greenhaus & Powell,
2006), workplace friendships have been shown to
enhance employees’ lives and relationships outside of
work (Bridge & Baxter, 1992; Gillen Hoke & Chory,
2015; Pedersen & Lewis, 2012), and can be a source of
positive emotion (Lutgen-Sandvik et al., 2011).
Social Support. A significant advantage of workplace
friendships is social support (Bridge & Baxter, 1992;
Sias, 2009), defined as interpersonal communication
that reduces uncertainty about a situation, relationship,
or oneself, and increases perceptions of control over
one’s life (Albrecht & Adelman, 1987). Social support
in organizations includes employees assisting cowork-
ers with tasks and performing other services (instru-
mental support), sharing information (informational
support), and listening to concerns or frustrations and
conveying empathy (emotional support; Cohen, 2004;
Kram & Isabella, 1985; Sias, 2009; Thoits, 1995).
Social support provided by workplace friends helps to
alleviate stress and improve well-being (Albrecht &
Adelman, 1987; Albrecht & Goldsmith, 2003; Cohen
& Wills, 1985; Sias, 2009; Thoits, 2011). Peer support
has been associated with collaboration, information
sharing, and enhanced work performance (Bridge &
Baxter, 1992; Goldsmith, 2007; Pedersen & Lewis,
2012). Perceptions of social support from workplace
friendships are positively related to workers’ views of
being appreciated by the organization (LaRocco &
Jones, 1978) and overall job satisfaction (Raile et al.,
2008). When employees are more active in social net-
works and therefore perceive higher support levels,
they are more likely to remain in the workplace (Feeley
et al., 2008). Thus, workplace friendships may be
viewed as an organizational resource (Cranmer et al.,
2017; Methot et al., 2016; Zorn & Gregory, 2005).
Job Satisfaction and Retention. Workplace friend-
ships relate to employee retention through their impact
on job satisfaction and organizational commitment
(Morrison, 2004, 2009a; Sias, 2009). Organizational
members report that having workplace friends makes
work more enjoyable for them (Gillen Hoke & Chory,
2015; Pedersen & Lewis, 2012). Employees’ percep-
tions that their jobs provided opportunities to make
friends also predicted stronger job satisfaction, which
predicted stronger organizational commitment and
weaker intentions to exit the organization (Morrison,
2004). Similarly, increased friendship opportunities
and a cohesive work group were associated with the
presence of workplace friendships, which directly pre-
dicted weaker intentions to leave (Morrison, 2004).
Likewise, friendship opportunities and having friend-
ships at work were positively correlated with organiza-
tional commitment (Morrison, 2009a). Furthermore,
workplace friendships can help to promote a positive
organizational climate (Odden & Sias, 1997), which is
conducive to employees remaining at their jobs.
Workplace Friendships as Social Capital. Workplace
friendships and other personal coworker relationships
may provide individuals an organizational advantage
known as social capital (Sias, 2009; Winstead &
Morganson, 2009). Social capital is a relationship-
based resource or currency an employee can accrue and
use to accomplish goals in the workplace (Hafen, 2004;
Winstead & Morganson, 2009). Workplace friendships,
institutional memberships, and other network ties are
examples of social capital in organizations (Sias, 2009;
Winstead & Morganson, 2009). Workplace friendships
provide access to discretionary and sometimes propri-
etary information, which may be used as social capital
(Sias, 2009). Hafen (2004) conceptualized gossip as
social capital and found it enabled both employee
resistance and organizational control. It also strength-
ened workplace friendships (Hafen, 2004; Sias, 2009).
The social capital accrued by having friends through-
out the organization (not just among powerful mem-
bers) enhances the friends’ job performance, pay, and
career advancement (Sias, 2009).
Workplace Friendships as Control Mechanisms.
Despite the benefits that may accrue from close work-
place friendships, these relationships have drawbacks,
including the potential to inadvertently function as
sources of control. Winstead et al. (1995) found that
voluntary interdependence in the workplace friendship
(mutual commitment to spend free time together) pre-
dicted lower satisfaction with work and supervision. In
addition, employees may choose to continue working
in unhealthy or destructive workplaces (Sias & Perry,
2004) or in jobs that do not offer challenge or advance-
ment (Pedersen & Lewis, 2012) because they do not
want to leave their workplace friends. Furthermore, the
number of employees’ multiplex relationships predict-
ed employees feeling more obligated and indebted to
coworkers (Methot et al., 2016). Moreover, close work-
place relationships were associated with employees
feeling guilty for missing work due to illness (Pedersen
& Lewis, 2012). Finally, friendships may serve as
sources of unobtrusive organizational control through
gossip (Hafen, 2004), as previously discussed, and by
motivating the friends to assimilate rather than resist
the organization’s perspectives (Sias & Cahill, 1998).
Workplace Friendships and Third-Party
Coworkers. As workplace friendships occur in the
context of the wider organizational network or system,
it is no surprise that they affect third-party organiza-
tional members’ perceptions and responses. For
instance, workplace friendships may compromise orga-
nizational decision-making by allowing personal con-
nections and feelings to take precedence over more
objective criteria (Sias, 2009). Employees in role-based
relationships who follow exchange norms may, at
times, view the friends who follow communal norms as
unfairly benefitting from the friendship (Gillen Hoke &
Chory, 2015; Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018). Pillemer
and Rothbard (2018) proposed this would be most like-
ly to occur when the formal status difference between
the friends was great. Another third-party effect is that
workplace friendships lead to perceptions of the forma-
tion of workplace cliques involving the friends (Gillen
Hoke & Chory, 2015). Pillemer and Rothbard (2018)
asserted that third parties notice coworkers’ friend-
ships, especially those involving higher-status mem-
bers, and as these friendships grow closer, third parties
start to view the friends as part of an “in group” or
clique. The third-party coworkers feel excluded, which
may lead them to form coalitions or cliques of their
own. As a result, knowledge sharing across the organi-
zation may be jeopardized. Social media is expected to
exacerbate this effect because it increases the visibility
and salience of coworkers’ personal relationships with
each other (Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018).
Effects on Job Performance. Workplace friendship can
both positively and negatively impact one’s job perform-
ance. Specifically, workplace friendships can improve
the friends’ job performance through informational and
instrumental support, increased motivation, and social
capital assisting in meeting goals (Sias, 2009). On the
other hand, workplace friends reported their friendships
created difficulties in managing [in]equality, objectivity,
and information disclosure. The friendships also inter-
fered with friends’ job performance (Bridge & Baxter,
1992). Third-party coworkers reported that workplace
friends were distracted from their work due to talking or
enjoying themselves, causing the coworker to pick up
the slack (Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015). Pillemer and
Rothbard (2018) proposed that compared to employees
in strictly role-based coworker relationships, employees
in workplace friendships, especially close ones, would
be more distracted from instrumental goals due to the
time and emotional and cognitive resources they spend
on the friendship.
Methot et al. (2016) investigated workplace
friendship’s effect on job performance from a network
perspective. They found that employees having larger
numbers of overlapping friendship and instrumental ties
(more multiplex relationships) had a positive effect on
task performance through increases in positive affect
and trust, but a negative impact on performance through
emotional exhaustion and relationship maintenance dif-
ficulty. Although multiplex network size predicted
higher emotional support and felt obligation, these fac-
tors did not predict task performance ratings. Similarly,
Hood et al.’s (2017) network study proposed that con-
flict between workplace friends would more negatively
impact team performance than would conflict between
non-friends due to the increased time and energy friends
spend on conflict management and relational mainte-
nance. Results supported their contention in that rela-
tionship conflicts between team members who were
friends were associated with weaker team performance
and task conflict between team member friends was
unrelated to performance. In contrast, both relationship
and task conflicts between team members who were not
friends predicted stronger team performance.
Like team performance, team decision-making
may be negatively impacted by the presence of work-
place friendships. Pillemer and Rothbard (2018) posit-
ed that the similarity in beliefs and attitudes, as well as
the focus on socioemotional issues and concurrence,
that characterize workplace friendships would result in
the friends preparing for and deliberating less rigorous-
ly in complex decision-making tasks. They noted this
pattern would be most likely to occur in the early
stages of workplace friendship, as coworkers in latter
stages are expected to have figured out how to disagree
without jeopardizing the friendship. Further, they
posited that because social media sites emphasize
informality and personal relationship-building and
self-disclosure in service to socio-emotional goals,
social media use between workplace friends may dis-
rupt the friends’ personal/professional (work/life)
boundary management and undermine instrumental
organizational goals (Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018).
C. Workplace friendship differences
Cultural Differences in Workplace Friendships.
Culture influences workplace friendships in terms of
expected behavior and perceptions of closeness.
Researchers have explored how cultural differences
impact employees’ views on the meaning of friendship
in work contexts (Pfahl et al., 2007; Raile et al., 2008)
and communication differences in maintaining such
relationships (Westerman et al., 2017). For instance, in
Thai culture, workplace friendships are viewed as less
close than friendships outside of business, especially in
cases of cross-sex relationships (Pfahl et al., 2007).
Further, in Korean culture, shared goals are often val-
ued over individual goals, making Korean employees
less concerned than American workers about equity in
workplace friendships (Westerman et al., 2017).
Cultural differences also influence who an individual
forms a bond with at work, related to sex and distance
from authority (Mao, 2006). Additional explorations of
culture in this context are needed to better understand
its influence on relationships at work.
Status Dynamics in Workplace Friendships. An
organizational member’s hierarchical position also
influences workplace friendship. For instance, those in
higher-level positions have fewer workplace friend-
ships and, consistent with the equality-inequality ten-
sion (Bridge & Baxter, 1992), the promotion or
advancement of one partner can lead the friendship to
deteriorate (Mao, 2006; Pedersen & Lewis, 2012; Sias
et al., 2004). On the positive side, mutual concern,
interest, and seeing the friend as unique and irreplace-
able—a mark of high-quality friendships—predicted
higher satisfaction with work and pay among employ-
ees whose best work friend was a subordinate
(Winstead et al., 1995). In addition, the workplace
friendship status dynamic relates to how third-party
coworkers perceive and respond to the friends.
Hierarchical workplace friendships draw more atten-
tion from third parties than do lateral ones, in part due
to their perceived potential to disrupt merit-based,
rational procedures (Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018). As a
result, perceptions of organizational justice are threat-
ened. These perceptions are likely to be even stronger
when the hierarchical workplace friendships are visible
to third-party coworkers through the friends’ social
media interactions (Pillemer & Rothbard, 2018).
Empirical research supports the relationship between
the workplace friendship status dynamic and organiza-
tional justice. In a scenario-based study, employees
perceived that peer coworkers who were friends with
the supervisor received more unfair job advantages
than did peers who were not friends with the supervi-
sor. In turn, these perceptions of unfairness led third-
party coworkers to report a higher likelihood of deceiv-
ing the peer (Lancaster & Chory, 2013).
Sex Differences in Workplace Friendships. Most
workplace friendships are same-sex (Ibarra, 1992;
Markiewicz et al., 2000; Winstead & Morganson,
2009). Research indicates that male coworkers tend to
bond over sharing activities, whereas female cowork-
ers’ same-sex friendships center around talking and
connecting emotionally (Fritz, 1997a; Morrison,
2009b; Sapadin, 1988; Sias et al., 2003). In describing
their same-sex friendships, women versus men identi-
fied increased communication frequency and intimacy
as more influential in transitioning their relational sta-
tus from acquaintances to friends. Women also per-
ceived various life events as more important to their
same-sex workplace friendships growing closer than
men did (Sias et al., 2003). Men and women have dif-
fering workplace friendship expectations, preferences,
and needs and they conceptualize these relationships
differently (Fritz, 1997a; Morrison, 2009a). Morrison
(2009a) adopted the tend-and-befriend framework
(Taylor et al., 2000) in her study of male-female differ-
ences in workplace friendships. This framework posits
that in stressful situations, women not only respond
with fight or flight, but they tend and befriend. In sup-
port of the tend-and-befriend explanation, female
employees were more likely to identify social and emo-
tional benefits of their friendships, whereas men tended
to more frequently note the networking or career-relat-
ed benefits (Morrison, 2009a).
In addition to sex differences in friendship charac-
teristics and development, workplace friendships
impact men and women’s work experiences in different
ways. For instance, university employees whose best
workplace friend was a woman versus a man reported
lower satisfaction with work and supervision. In addi-
tion, employees in hierarchical “best” workplace friend-
ships with a female versus male supervisor reported less
satisfaction with work and opportunities for promotion
(Winstead et al., 1995). On the other hand, men had
fewer workplace friends they went to for emotional sup-
port than did women, and they were less satisfied with
those friends than women were with their friends
(Cahill & Sias, 1997). Furthermore, having a workplace
friendship and a team that shared the workload were
positively related to men’s job satisfaction, but not
women’s satisfaction (Morrison 2009a). Workplace
friendships also impact men and women’s organization-
al exit in different ways. For example, Morrison
(2009a) observed that workplace friendship opportuni-
ties and prevalence, as well as having cooperative,
socially supportive work groups were negatively related
to women’s turnover intentions, but not men’s.
In addition to effects on satisfaction and turnover,
workplace friendship networks have implications for
men and women’s career advancement. Women have
been shown to have smaller workplace friendship net-
works (fewer workplace friends) than men and to have
fewer men in their friendship networks than men have
in their networks. Because having close workplace
friendships with men was associated with higher
salaries, whereas commitment to spending time with
close female workplace friends was related to lower
salaries, women’s workplace friendship networks may
be less advantageous than men’s (Markiewicz et al.,
2000). Markiewicz et al. explained their results as
potentially due to men perceiving women as less desir-
able relational connections (e.g., as lower in status,
similarity, and competence). Consistent with this view,
Markiewicz et al. observed that tension and strain in
maintaining close friendships with male coworkers was
linked to lower job satisfaction, whereas experiencing
similar tensions with female coworkers was not. The
authors suggested that because men tended to be more
powerful in these organizations, conflict with them
may have been perceived as more threatening and anx-
iety-provoking compared to conflict with women.
Even so, Markiewicz et al. (2000) did find that having
close female friends who provide instrumental assis-
tance was associated with higher salaries, suggesting
female friends can be beneficial “as long as one is not
perceived as too closely allied to these women” (p.
177). Indeed, women versus men in workplace rela-
tionships of various types (friendships, romances, and
professional relationships) were perceived by third par-
ties as receiving more unfair advantages by virtue of
their relationship (Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015). In
female workplace friendships, women have implied
expectations for how female friends should behave,
which may add to the complex nature of women’s
workplace friendships (Litwin & Hallstein, 2007).
Cross-sex and Cross-Sexuality Workplace
Friendships. Cross-sex workplace friendships are
friendships between male and female coworkers. The
sexual orientation of these opposite sex coworkers may
be the same (e.g., a lesbian and a gay male coworker)
or different (e.g., a gay man and a heterosexual
woman). Cross-sexuality workplace friendships are
relationships between coworkers who differ in their
sexual orientation (e.g., a friendship between a bisexu-
al coworker and a heterosexual coworker; Rumens,
2010). The sex/gender of the coworkers may be the
same (e.g., a gay man and a heterosexual man) or dif-
ferent (e.g., a lesbian and a heterosexual man). Cross-
sex cross-sexuality workplace friendships are friend-
ships marked by differences in both coworker sex/gen-
der and sexuality/sexual orientation (e.g., a bisexual
man and a heterosexual woman).
In these relationships, it is important to consider
insider and outsider perceptions (Duck & VanderVoort,
2002). A cross-sex workplace friendship may be
viewed as potentially romantic by outsiders (e.g.,
coworkers), but platonic by insiders (i.e., the friends),
given the gay or lesbian sexual orientation of one or
both members. Oppositely, a cross-sex workplace
friendship may be viewed as purely platonic given that
one person is assumed to be gay or lesbian, but out-
siders are unaware of his/her/their bisexual orientation.
Perceptual mistakes are important to consider here as
sexual orientation and behavior do not always align
(e.g., Diamond, 2018; Horan 2016).
Studies of cross-sex workplace friendships have
focused on friendships between heterosexual male and
female coworkers (e.g., Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015,
2018) and friendships between gay male and hetero-
sexual female coworkers (e.g., Rumens, 2008a, 2008b,
2011, 2012). Cross-sexuality workplace friendships
research has examined gay and bisexual men’s work-
place friendships with heterosexual men and women
(Rumens, 2008a, 2010, 2012, 2018). This research is
discussed in depth in the following sections.
Heterosexual Cross-Sex Workplace Friendships.
Male-female workplace friendships, whether cross-
sexuality or same-sexuality, present unique challenges
referred to as the glass partition. The glass partition is
the invisible barrier that inhibits men and women from
forming friendships with each other on-the-job
(Elsesser & Peplau, 2006). Employee concerns about
sexual harassment, as well as fears that the cross-sex
friend and/or third parties may misinterpret the friend-
ship as romantic in nature, contribute to the construc-
tion of the glass partition (Elsesser & Peplau, 2006;
Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018; Rumens, 2008a,
2012). Research shows that heterosexual cross-sex
workplace friendships elicit third-party coworker per-
ceptions of the friends enjoying unfair advantages,
especially when the friendship is hierarchical in nature
(Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015, 2018). Coworkers also
trust the workplace friends less because they fear dis-
closures to one friend will get passed on to the other,
leading to more careful and mindful communication
around the friends (Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015).
Third-party coworkers’ perceptions of cross-sex work-
place friendships, particularly their attributions of the
cross-sex friends’ friendship motives, can impact orga-
nizational acceptance of these friendships. For exam-
ple, cross-sex workplace friendships believed to be
motivated by the job and ego were associated with
stronger beliefs that the friendship caused workplace
problems. Job motives were also related to more third-
party coworker deception with peers in cross-sex work-
place friendships. In contrast, cross-sex workplace
friendships attributed to sincere motives were associat-
ed with coworkers being less likely to claim the friend-
ships caused workplace problems and coworkers
engaging in more honest and accurate self-disclosure
with the friends (Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2018).
Cross-Sex Versus Same-Sex Workplace Friend-
ships. Cross-sex and same-sex workplace friendships
differed in the extent to which various contextual fac-
tors were perceived to influence their development.
Employees in cross-sex friendships perceived proxim-
ity as more important and similarity as less important
than did female employees in same-sex friendships.
Cross-sex workplace friends perceived socializing as
less important than did men in same-sex friendships
and life events as less important than did same-sex
workplace friends of both sexes (Sias et al., 2003).
These findings suggest that same-sex workplace
friends tend to engage in activities that cross the
work/life boundary, whereas cross-sex workplace
friends are more apt to restrict their friendship to the
workplace (Winstead & Morganson, 2009). Same-sex
and cross-sex workplace friendships also differed in
the communication that occurred at points of increas-
ing relational closeness. Same-sex female friends were
more likely to note increases in communication intima-
cy than were cross-sex friends, who were more likely
than male same-sex friends to note increases in com-
munication frequency (Sias et al., 2003). It appears that
as the proportion of women in the friendship increases,
so does the importance of communication.
In addition, men and women’s perceptions of
their cross-sex workplace friendships differed.
Sapadin’s (1988) study of professional employees
revealed that men rated their cross-sex friendships as
more nurturing and enjoyable than their same-sex
friendships. In contrast, women rated their same-sex
friendships as more intimate, enjoyable, and nurturing
than they rated their cross-sex friendships. It appears
that both men and women view friendships with
women versus men more positively. Men also reported
a higher frequency of sexual feelings and behaviors
concerning their cross-sex friends than women report-
ed. For same-sex friendships, Sapadin (1988) found
that women mentioned same-sex friends’ superficiality,
lack of commitment, and over-possessiveness more
than men did. In terms of what professionals disliked
about their cross-sex friendships, the most commonly
mentioned response was sexuality (misinterpretations,
third-party innuendo, sexual tension). Furthermore,
women identified superficiality and patronizing/sexist
behaviors in their cross-sex friendships more frequent-
ly than men did. Finally, third parties perceived
employees in same-sex versus cross-sex workplace
relationships of various types (friendships, romances,
and professional relationships) as receiving more
unfair advantages by virtue of the relationship (Gillen
Hoke & Chory, 2015).
Gay Men’s Workplace Friendships with
Heterosexual Women. Rumens has done extensive
work in the study of self-identified gay men and work-
place friendship. His research indicated that few, if
any, gay men had gay, lesbian, or bisexual men or
women as work friends (2010, 2012), whereas gay
men’s workplace friendships with heterosexual
women were relatively common (2008b). This pattern
was attributed, in part, to the difficulty in identifying
gay, lesbian, or bisexual coworkers (2008b) and the
greater number of heterosexual female coworkers the
men encountered in certain occupations or organiza-
tions (e.g., nursing; Rumens, 2008a, 2010). Many of
the participants in Rumen’s (2008b, 2011, 2012) stud-
ies of self-identified gay men’s workplace friendships
claimed it was easier to be friends with women
because it was clear that the relationship would be
non-sexual and platonic, and thus, non-problematic
(2008b, 2011, 2012). On the other hand, some of the
gay and bi-identified men in Rumens’ (2008a, 2008b,
2012) research indicated that sexual attraction, banter,
and behavior between them and heterosexual women
did occur. Moreover, gay men enjoyed sexual talk and
flirting with heterosexual female friends and were
generally unconcerned, rightly or wrongly, with such
behavior being construed as sexually harassing
(Rumens, 2008a, 2012). Gay men-heterosexual
women workplace friendships also were said to com-
pensate for the lack of emotional intimacy and rela-
tionship expertise found in relationships with hetero-
sexual men (Rumens, 2008a, 2010, 2012).
Furthermore, gay men reported that their friendships
with heterosexual female coworkers provided a space
in which they could explore various aspects of their
identities, such as parental status (Rumens, 2008a,
2010), and they could be their true selves as opposed
to performing male gender in ways acceptable to their
other colleagues (2008a, 2011). Finally, some gay men
may befriend female heterosexual coworkers because
they see women as “companionate ‘outsiders’ of het-
eronormative managerial work contexts” (Rumens,
2008a, p. 87).
Gay Men’s Workplace Friendships with Heterosex-
ual Men. Rumens’ (2018) study of gay men’s work-
place friendships with heterosexual men revealed that
younger gay men found nothing out of the ordinary
with being friends with heterosexual male coworkers.
They described how these friendships were not defined
by their sexuality and how they allowed the men to be
themselves. Likewise, older gay men noted how their
friendships with heterosexual male coworkers led them
to see heterosexual men as less homophobic. Gay-het-
erosexual male workplace friendships were also
marked by emotional disclosures and closeness, and in
some cases, by paternal concern. However, some gay
male participants reported heterosexual male cowork-
ers rejecting their extensions of friendship due to the
heterosexual men perceiving the gay men in this sam-
ple as too feminine (Rumens, 2018). For the self-iden-
tified gay men in Rumens’ (2008a, 2008b, 2012) stud-
ies, workplace friendships with heterosexual cowork-
ers tended to cultivate a sense of workplace belonging,
which appears to be particularly important in organiza-
tions with a predominately heterosexual workforce
(Rumens, 2008b). Rumens’ (2008a, 2008b, 2010, 2011,
2012, 2018) interviews with gay male organizational
members revealed they constructed and enacted their
workplace friendships in ways that both supported and
resisted heteronormative discourses about sexuality,
gender, and male-female relationships.
Gay Men’s Workplace Friendships with Other Gay
Men. Gay men’s friendships with senior gay male
coworkers may lead to mentoring relationships that
provide not only career guidance, but advice on navi-
gating the issues particular to gay men in that process.
These mentorships also foster a sense of workplace
belonging (Rumens, 2011). Workplace friendships
between more senior gay men and younger heterosex-
ual men also open up additional mentoring opportuni-
ties (Rumens, 2008b).
Third Party Influences on Gay Men’s Workplace
Friendships. The formation of gay male employees’
friendships also depends on beliefs about how third-
party coworkers and organizational superiors will view
the friendship. Rumens found that third parties often
try to make sense of these friendships using heteronor-
mative frames. For example, gay man-heterosexual
woman workplace friendships were cast in familial
terms, such as “mother-father” (Rumens, 2008a) and
“mother-son” (Rumens, 2012). In addition, heterosex-
ism influenced cross-sex cross-sexuality workplace
friendships being misinterpreted by third parties. This
was especially felt by men who identified as bisexual,
whose friendships were misread as heterosexual
romances or gay man-heterosexual woman friendships
(Rumens, 2012).
Reputational concerns associated with same-sex-
uality and same-sex workplace friendships have also
been observed. For example, gay men reported dis-
tancing themselves from other gay and lesbian
coworkers, especially those described as “camp” (the-
atrical, ostentatious), for fear of being labeled unpro-
fessional and ineffective at their jobs (Rumens, 2008b,
p. 19). LGBT employees with an eye toward manage-
rial careers may pay particular attention to how their
workplace friendships with other LGBT coworkers are
viewed (Rumens, 2011) due to how senior men may
view their friendships (Rumens, 2008b). Instead, they
may emphasize their friendships with heterosexual
coworkers to demonstrate their ability to assimilate in
and gain acceptance from the larger organization
(Rumens, 2011). In addition, older gay men were cau-
tious about forming friendships with younger hetero-
sexual male coworkers for fear their professional rep-
utations would be damaged by interpretations of the
friendship based on inaccurate stereotypes of older
gay men as predators who groom young heterosexual
men (Rumens, 2018).
Heteronormative and homonormative expecta-
tions about LGBT employees’ behavior impact the ini-
tiation, development, and quality of their workplace
friendships (Rumens, 2011, 2012), as do certain orga-
nizational characteristics (Rumens, 2010, 2011, 2018).
For example, organizational cultures that respect
diverse identities and lifestyles, enforce diversity poli-
cies, and truly value and support LGBT employees
positively impact LGBT employees’ workplace friend-
ships (Rumens, 2010, 2011, 2018). In contrast, conser-
vative, male-dominated, and rigidly hierarchical organ-
izations, as well as those that endorse orthodox mas-
culinity, tend to inhibit workplace friendships between
gay and heterosexual men (Rumens, 2018). In summa-
ry, Rumens’ program of research reveals that self-iden-
tified gay men’s workplace friendship motives, rela-
tional qualities, experiences with third parties’ reac-
tions, and strategies to manage these reactions are quite
diverse. Even though Rumens’ work is extensive and
informative, much remains to be learned about
LGBTQIA+ employees’ workplace friendships. Future
research is strongly encouraged.
4. Work Spouses
A specific type of workplace friendship that has
elicited both media (Dodgson, 2018; Erwin, 2008;
Hurwitz, 2020; Kline, 2019) and research (McBride &
Bergen, 2015; Miller-Ott, 2019) attention is the work
spouse. McBride and Bergen (2015) define a work
spouse as “a close, platonic [nonromantic] friendship in
the workplace” (p. 492). Their respondents described the
work-spouse relationship as one involving trust, deep
caring, loyalty, honesty, respect, sharing privileged infor-
mation, etc. According to a recent study by the Society of
Human Research Management, 25% of U.S. employees
report having a work spouse (Gilchrist, 2020).
A. Description of work-spouse relationships
Work-spouse friendships involve high levels of
disclosure, support, and trust (McBride & Bergen,
2015; Miller-Ott, 2019; Whitman & Mandeville,
2019). Miller-Ott (2019) described them as “discourse-
dependent” as “it is through communication that the
relationship is created and justified to others” (p. 21).
Individuals use the term “work spouse” to emphasize
the friendship’s intimate nature (McBride & Bergen,
2015; Whitman & Mandeville, 2019) and uniqueness
compared to other workplace friendships (Miller-Ott,
2019). Like other workplace friendships, coworkers
become work spouses by working closely together
over time (McBride & Bergen, 2015; Whitman &
Mandeville, 2019). Work-spouse relationships are sim-
ilar to marital relationships in terms of disclosure lev-
els, loyalty, honesty, and mutual support (McBride &
Bergen, 2015; Miller-Ott, 2019) but, given that the
partners are friends and not actually married, work-
spouse friendships differ, at least, theoretically, in key
ways (e.g., legal commitment, co-parenting, sharing
finances). Communication is a critical component of
work-spouse relationships, given the high levels of
self-disclosure (McBride & Bergen, 2015), role of face
(McBride et al., 2020a), management of privacy
(McBride et al., 2020b), and effort in managing the
perceptions of other colleagues (Miller-Ott, 2019).
Because work spouses are usually cross-sex friends
(McBride & Bergen, 2015), third-party coworkers tend
to suspect that romance or sexual attraction is involved
in the work-spouse relationship (Miller-Ott, 2019).
Such suspicions are commonly reported for cross-sex
workplace friendships (Elsesser & Peplau, 2006;
Gillen Hoke & Chory, 2015). To correct or prevent
these misperceptions, work spouses label and describe
their friendships to third-party coworkers using famil-
ial labels such as “sibling” (Miller-Ott, 2019).
Given shared experiences in the workplace, work
spouses provide support for work-related and personal
life stressors. Thus, work spouses are viewed as posi-
tively impacting work and personal life (McBride &
Bergen, 2015). In alignment with work/life border the-
ory (Clark, 2000), work-spouse relationships are at the
intersection of work and life domains (McBride &
Bergen, 2015). Boundaries are important, as there is a
high level of permeability involved in developing
work-spouse relationships (Dodgson, 2018; Kline,
2019; Miller-Ott, 2019).
B. Explication of the work-spouse construct
Media coverage of this type of friendship broadly
discusses the advantages and disadvantages of having a
work spouse (Hurwitz, 2020; Kline, 2019). The term is
now part of popular vernacular, yet, as the study of
work spouses is relatively new, several questions
remain. Most notably, explication of the work-spouse
relationship as a theoretical construct distinct from
related constructs is lacking. We agree, then, with
McBride et al. (2020b) that “scholars should further
tease out the ways that this work relationship is com-
municatively unique from other close work relation-
ships” (p. 551). We offer the following questions to
guide future studies.
First, what is a work-spouse relationship?
McBride and Bergen (2015) offered a definition and
description of work spouses that suggests the need for
replication using different methods. In their initial
study, McBride and Bergen presented 269 participants
with a brief definition of the work-spouse relationship
as “a close, platonic [nonromantic] friendship in the
workplace” and then asked them to identify the “most
important characteristics” of this relationship (p. 492).
In effect, McBride and Bergen defined the work-
spouse relationship as a close friendship and then asked
participants what the important characteristics of that
relationship were. McBride and Bergen acknowledged
the potential problems associated with this approach
but used it because some individuals thought “work
spouse” referred to romantic partners in the workplace.
Not surprisingly, then, their participants described
“work spouse” relationships (i.e., “close, platonic [non-
romantic] friendship in the workplace”) as involving
feelings and behaviors found in close friendships (e.g.,
caring, disclosing discretionary information). McBride
and Bergen’s research did not empirically distinguish
the work-spouse relationship from a close workplace
friendship, though in a “discursive move,” participants
in their study compared the work-spouse relationship
to other workplace relationships (e.g., friendships),
making it seem unique (p. 499). However, the charac-
teristics they identified were not unique to work spous-
es. Future research, then, should explore the question
of what exactly is a work-spouse relationship?
This conceptual ambiguity leads to a second
question: Is a work spouse simply a best friend at
work? McBride and Bergen (2015) surmised that their
“findings indicate work spouses share the characteris-
tics and functions of close friends” (p. 18). As relation-
ships vary in closeness, is a work spouse a coworker
one is really close with at work but never sees outside
of work? Referencing boundaries specifically, one par-
ticipant explained that “the two keep their relationship
as professional as possible” (p. 502). Such a comment
suggests that a “work spouse” is only a relationship
that exists within work. However, what about work
spouses who spend time together outside of work?
Would both relationships be considered work spouses?
Thus, studies examining border-crossing and other
domain awareness (Clark, 2000) are important to
explore in this context.
A third question concerns the role played by
sexual attraction, orientation, identity, and behavior
in the work-spouse relationship. Although McBride
and Bergen (2015) defined work spouses as nonro-
mantic friends, two of their participants revealed,
without being prompted, that they had engaged in
sexual activity with their work spouse.
Problematically, then, it is unknown how many other
participants in this predominately heterosexual sam-
ple had actually engaged in sexual activity with
and/or experienced strong sexual attraction toward
their work spouse. Consistent with this finding, a
2020 Society of Human Research Management sur-
vey of nearly 700 U.S. employees revealed that more
than half of those with work spouses reported having
romantic feelings for them. Furthermore, romantic
attraction to the work spouse was 20% higher for
men than women (Gilchrist, 2020), consistent with
research conducted 30+ years prior on cross-sex
workplace friendships (Sapadin, 1988). The tension
or awareness of sexual possibilities is highlighted in
individuals’ discussions of boundaries, with state-
ments claiming participants should “realize physical
and emotional boundaries” (McBride & Bergen,
2015, p. 502) and “working relationships should
never cross the lines into romantic relationships” (p.
501). Following this, then, future studies should
explore the roles of sexual activity, attraction, and
identity in close(r) workplace relationships.
On a more basic level, is the question as to
whether employees’ sex and sexual orientation play a
role in labeling a close work friend a work spouse.
Although 81% of McBride and Bergen’s (2015) partic-
ipants had work spouses with the sexual orientation
and sex that the employee would otherwise desire in an
actual spouse, approximately 19% did not. Do hetero-
sexual men have gay-male work husbands and lesbian
women heterosexual work-wives? And, if so, do they
adopt or resist this label? Do these work-spouse rela-
tionships differ in meaningful ways from each other? If
so, how? If work spouses do have sexual orientations
and gender identities that would make them suitable
marital partners, the reason the relationship is platonic
and not romantic needs to be explored. For instance,
work-spouse relationships may be platonic because the
partners have not yet acted on their attraction or one
partner is interested in a romantic relationship and the
other is not. The relationships may be platonic because
the partners are not sexually attracted to each other or
they are otherwise partnered. Questions remain as to
what role physical attractiveness, mutual sexual inter-
est, and sexual orientation play in the development and
outcomes of work-spouse relationships.
A further question, and most relevant to commu-
nication researchers, is why do work spouses and
researchers studying work spouses feel the need to use
the “work spouse” label (McBride & Bergen, 2015)?
Though work spouses may, in fact, be “different from
other interpersonal workplace relationships” (McBride
et al., 2020a, p. 505), we are unaware of any research
that explicitly and empirically distinguishes a “work
spouse” from a “best friend” that originated in and/or
only resides at work. Therefore, in line with McBride
and Bergen (2015), studies “need to examine why peo-
ple in the workplace choose to use this term at all” (p.
20). Outside of research, there is some confusion, or at
the very least, a hesitancy, in the use of the “work
spouse” term, even among people who adopt it. That is,
individuals with work spouses stated that they used the
“work spouse” term with their work spouse, but uti-
lized other family terms (i.e., “brother”) for the work
spouse when discussing him or her with third-party
coworkers (Miller-Ott, 2019). Future studies would be
wise to explore this and consider the most appropriate
term for describing this unique relationship. A final
question pertains to juxtaposing the work spouse term
against actual work spouses, that is, the consideration
of married partners who work together. Though under-
studied, but common in family-owned businesses (e.g.,
McMillian & Morris, 2019), this research would be
informative for work/life blending theoretical develop-
ment. Problematically, what do we call these couples—
if not work spouses?
5. Workplace Romance
The most intimate of workplace relationships,
workplace romance, has been the subject of consider-
able research. Researchers have offered multiple defi-
nitions of workplace romance. Dillard and Wittemann
(1985), for example, defined a workplace romance as
“an intimate relationship characterized by some degree
of mutual sexual attraction” (p. 104). Likewise, Pierce
et al. (1996) conceptualized workplace romance as a
relationship between ‘‘two members of the same
organization that entails mutual sexual attraction” (p.
6). Mainiero (1986) defined workplace romance “in
behavioral terms to include those relationships that
occur between men and women working together that
are: (a) characterized by mutual sexual attraction, and
(b) made known to others through the participants’
actions” (p. 750). Like Mainiero, Quinn (1977) assert-
ed that workplace romance must be perceived by a
third party. Concern has been expressed over the preci-
sion of these definitions in distinguishing workplace
romances from related phenomena. For instance, when
discussing their method, Dillard and Wittemann (1985)
acknowledged “the distance between the notions of
attraction and romance . . . it is certain that not all
attraction leads to the formation of romantic relation-
ships” (p. 106). Similarly, Horan and Chory (2011)
pointed out that sexual attraction is not always acted
upon (i.e., Pierce et al., 1996), and Dillard and
Wittemann describe attraction, not workplace
romance. To articulate this difference, Horan and
Chory defined a workplace romance as “a nonplatonic
relationship between two members of an organization
in which sexual attraction is present, affection is com-
municated, and both members recognize the relation-
ship to be something more than just professional and
platonic” (p. 565). In contrast to Quinn (1977) and
Mainiero (1986), this definition does not require the
romantic relationship be made to known to others to
constitute a workplace romance (Chory, 2019).
Accordingly, workplace romances range in com-
mitment from hook-ups to marriage, including extra-
marital relationships (e.g., Chory, 2019). For instance,
employees considered workplace romance as “Flirting,
kissing, one-night stands, flings, and longer relation-
ships” (Riach & Wilson, 2007, p. 85). An early study
revealed that roughly one-third of employees inter-
viewed had participated in a workplace romance
(Dillard & Witteman, 1985). A recent study of nearly
1,000 workers in various jobs and industries in major
U.S. cities (Chory et al., under review), found that 58%
of respondents had observed a work place romance.
Likewise, a study of employed professionals in the
United States (Vault Careers, 2019) found that 58% of
respondents had participated in a workplace romance.
A. Motives and other predictors of workplace
Early on, Quinn (1977) identified three motives to
explain why people engaged in workplace romance: love
(e.g., companionship), ego (e.g., excitement), and job
(e.g., advancement). Scholars later identified types of
workplace romances based on the combination of the
partners’ motives. For instance, in companionate work-
place romances, both partners have love motives; in
flings, both partners have ego motives; and in mutual
user romances, both partners have job motives.
Additionally, utilitarian workplace romances involve a
lower status partner with job motives and a higher-status
partner motivated by ego (Dillard, 1987; Dillard et al.,
1994; Pierce & Aguinis, 2001; Pierce et al., 2004;
Powell & Foley, 1998; Quinn, 1977). Numerous studies
have examined the role of motives in understanding per-
ceptions of workplace romance. For example, workplace
romance observers were more likely to attribute the
romances to job motives than were workplace romance
participants themselves (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020).
Furthermore, coworkers attributed stronger job motives
to peers in hierarchical versus lateral workplace
romances and stronger love motives to work peers in lat-
eral versus hierarchical workplace romances
(Malachowski et al., 2012). Moreover, third parties were
more likely to assign ego versus love motives to male
versus female team leaders, as well as to married versus
single team leaders, in hierarchical workplace romances
(Jones, 1999). Furthermore, Anderson and Fisher (1991)
found that women in workplace romances were ten
times more likely than men to have job motives assigned
to them, though Malachowski et al. (2012) found no dif-
ference in the motives attributed to male and female
workplace romance participants.
In a series of studies, Dillard and associates
examined the role of motives in understanding work-
place romance perceptions. First, job and ego motives
were not thought to influence work-related perform-
ance, whereas love motives were seen to positively
influence performance (Dillard, 1987). Next, Dillard
and Broetzmann (1989) revealed that love-motivated
romance was related to increased enthusiasm for work,
and job-motivated romance was related to increased
absenteeism. Female employees in job-motivated
romances were viewed as more likely to leave early or
arrive late, but also to exhibit more enthusiasm for
work. Later, Dillard et al. (1994) found that 36% of
their sample described workplace romances due to both
love and ego motives. Female employees who were in
perceived job motivated relationships were also per-
ceived to have poorer attendance and to produce lower
quality work. More recent research by Chory and col-
leagues has shown that attributions of job motives pre-
dicted perceptions of unfair advantages due to the
workplace romance, lower coworker trust in workplace
romance participants, and less honest communication
with them (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020; Malachowski
et al., 2012). Job motives also mediated the relation-
ships between self-disclosure honesty and accuracy
and respondent role (workplace romance participant or
observer) and the romance’s status dynamic (hierarchi-
cal or peer-peer; Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020;
Malachowski et al., 2012). Attributions of love motives
to romantic partners functioned similarly, but in the
opposite direction (Malachowski et al., 2012).
Updating Quinn’s (1977) motive typology, and
using interview data of U.S. employees, Cowan and
Horan (2014b) identified four motives for romances at
work. First, and consistent with early research on
attraction, the amount of time spent together was cited
as a reason for workplace romances. Second, ease of
opportunity was cited as a motive, “because the work-
place allows and even promotes close proximity of
coworkers and direct management” (p. 13). Third, sim-
ilarity among employees (e.g., homophily; McCroskey
et al., 2006) was identified as a motive. Lastly, the
hook-up motive, which was identified by workplace
romance observers (but not workplace romance partic-
ipants), included various forms of sexual activity
among employees. In line with prior research (Dillard
et al., 1994), some individuals identified more than one
motive for their romance.
Azeez (2016) also sought to update Quinn’s
(1977) typology. In doing so, Azeez (p. 6) critiqued
Cowan and Horan’s (2014b) motive typology arguing
“that some of the motives identified—such as time,
ease of opportunity, and similarity, are more of factors
facilitating development of WR relationship, rather
than motives for engagement in WR.” Azeez’s focus
groups in India identified love, emotional support,
pleasure, ego, job, and convenience as workplace
romance motives. Despite Azeez’s (2016) critique of
Cowan and Horan (2014b), Azeez explained that some
of the reported findings correspond with those of
Cowan and Horan, although two did not: emotional
support and convenience. Noteworthy, though, is that
the motive of emotional support seems implicit in any
close relationship. That is, anyone involved with anoth-
er person would gain some level of the “companion-
ship, emotional support” Azeez described (p. 16)—fun-
damental of the inclusion, affection, and control needs
present in relationships (e.g., Schutz, 1958). Emotional
support is further explained “as one way to relieve the
stress and/ work pressure” (p. 16) and seems to overlap
with the reported pleasure motive. Implicit in these
relationships is some level of affection and/or sex,
which relieves stress (e.g., Floyd, 2019). The conven-
ience label, on the surface, sounds most similar to the
ease of opportunity Cowan and Horan described
(2014b), but in reality, occurs when people are “seek-
ing some personal favors” (p. 25).
Collectively then, future research is encouraged
to inductively identify motives for workplace
romance. A larger sample of current workplace
romance participants, those previously involved in a
workplace romance, and observers of workplace
romance should be included. Given the number of
studies reviewed using Quinn’s (1977) typology,
research providing a contemporary understanding of
motives is needed.
In addition to a motives-based approach, demo-
graphic, interpersonal, and organizational factors associ-
ated with the presence of workplace romance have been
identified. Dillard and Witteman (1985) found that work-
place romances were more likely to be enacted by those
with the same or similar rank. Education played a role in
understanding the frequency of men’s workplace
romances, whereas demographic factors, such as time at
the job, age, and role/rank, played a role in understanding
women’s workplace romances. Dillard and Witteman
(1985) also observed a curvilinear relationship between
organizational size and workplace romance occurrence,
such that workplace romance was more common in very
small and very large organizations. Pierce et al.’s (1996)
workplace romance model asserts that factors like time
spent together, homophily, attitudes, and organizational
culture predict workplace romance. Similarly, Horan and
Chory (2013) argued that factors such as increased time
spent at work, which limits opportunities to meet roman-
tic partners outside of the workplace, facilitate workplace
romance. Salvaggio, Streich, Hopper, and Pierce (2011)
identified task interdependence, workplace sexualization,
and male-female social contact as factors associated with
workplace romance occurrence. Furthermore, environ-
ments that emphasize employee attractiveness and sexu-
ality, such as those found in hospitality and entertain-
ment, tend to feature more workplace romance (Chory et
al., under review; Mano & Gabriel, 2006; Pizam, 2016;
Sias, 2016). Most recently, Chory et al. (under review)
found that workplace romances varied by industry and
organizational values, with healthcare, education, admin-
istration, and other professionals reporting the presence
of fewer workplace romances than did technology and
research workers. Healthcare, education, administration,
and other professionals also expressed more discomfort
with future workplace romance participation than did
employees in entertainment, media, and the arts. Finally,
organizations that held innovation to be their top priority
had more workplace romances than did firms that priori-
tized customer service.
B. Workplace romance disclosure
Cowan and Horan’s (2021) interviews highlight-
ed organizational members’ concerns about privacy as
well as questions about the disclosure of their romantic
relationships. Speaking to this directly, an earlier study
(Cowan & Horan 2014a) indicated that employees
learned of workplace romances in one of two ways:
through personal disclosures from employees involved
in the relationship or through impersonal revelations.
Impersonal revelations often resulted from third parties
observing nonverbal communication between the
romantic partners, catching the workplace romance
participants being affectionate, and/or gossip.
Reactions to workplace romance were partially
dependent on how one learned of the relationship, with
generally more positive reactions to personal disclo-
sures. As noted by Dillard (1987) and Cowan and
Horan (2014a), gossip occurs in the context of work-
place romance (non)disclosure. In their initial study of
communicatively restricted organizational stress
(CROS), Boren and Veksler (2015) found that both
workplace romances and gossip were sources of
CROS. Importantly, sources of CROS are considered,
by employees, as “stressful things they felt that they
couldn’t (or were limited in their ability to) talk to oth-
ers about” (p. 40). This paints a complex picture of
workplace romance and gossip, and power structures
and organizational culture likely explain the frequency
and appropriateness of gossip surrounding workplace
romance and (non)disclosure.
C. Information and communication
technology use in workplace romance
Regardless of why workplace romances occur, it
is clear that employees use information and communi-
cation technologies in the initiation, maintenance, and
termination of these romances. Cowan and Horan
(2021) report that during the initiation phase, technol-
ogy was used to reduce uncertainty and explore more
about a potential romantic partner. Technology was
used to maintain the relationship, while being mindful
of professionalism. During relational termination,
Cowan and Horan suggest that changes in technology
use may be a sign of a forthcoming break-up and/or
used to communicate dissolution.
D. Effects of workplace romance
The body of research on workplace romance
effects paints a complex picture with positive, nega-
tive, and neutral effects. When asking organizational
members about the effects of workplace romances, one
of the most common responses is “none” or “no
effect.” Dillard (1987), for example, found that most
participants (62%) thought the workplace romance had
“no impact at all” on the organization (p. 185).
Moreover, romances were thought to not impact task
effectiveness. Later, Cole (2009) found that third par-
ties identified no positive effects of workplace
romances. Most recently, Chory and Gillen Hoke’s
(2019) study of Millennial workplace romance partici-
pants and coworkers revealed the most commonly
reported positive and negative effects were “none”
(27% and 25%, respectively). Despite organizational
members’ reports of no effects, workplace romance and
employee social-sexual behavior have been associated
with job performance, decision making, and productiv-
ity improvements (Dillard, 1987; Dillard et al., 1994;
Henningsen & Henningsen, 2015; Pierce & Aguinis,
2003; Quinn, 1977; Riach & Wilson, 2007) and
declines (Dillard, 1987; Dillard et al., 1994; Riach &
Wilson, 2007). Likewise, workplace morale may be
enhanced or jeopardized due to the romantic partners’
emotions spilling over into the workplace (Pierce &
Aguinis, 2003; Pierce et al., 1996; Riach & Wilson,
2007). Third-party coworkers also report discomfort
(Vandewater, 2013) and awkwardness (Riach &
Wilson, 2007) stemming from their coworkers’ work-
place romance. Furthermore, observing social-sexual
behavior at work is related to lower levels of psycho-
logical well-being (Berdahl & Aquino, 2009), lower
job satisfaction (Salvaggio, Hopper, & Packell, 2011),
higher physical strain, and stronger intentions to exit
the organization (Baker, 2016; Salvaggio, Hopper, &
Packell, 2011).
In terms of positive impacts, Chory and Gillen
Hoke’s (2019) study of Millennial organizational mem-
bers revealed that after “no positive effects” (27%),
personal benefits for the workplace romance partners
(25%; e.g., stronger romantic bond) and romantic part-
ners enjoying work more (17%) were most commonly
reported. Positive organizational impacts (14%; e.g.,
partners’ improved performance, higher morale) were
followed by romantic partners gaining work advan-
tages (10%), communication benefits (3%), and finally,
improved coworker relationships (3%) rounded out the
list. Personal benefits for the partners, liking work
more, and improved coworker relationships were iden-
tified by a larger proportion of workplace romance
partners than third-party coworkers. On the other hand,
a greater proportion of coworkers than romance partic-
ipants reported no positive effects and communication
benefits for the partners. Despite claims that
Millennials are more accepting of workplace
romances, Chory and Gillen Hoke (2019) found that
they reported the same drawbacks to workplace
romance as prior generations had identified.
In terms of negative impacts, after “no negative
effects” (25%), Millennials in Chory and Gillen Hoke’s
(2019) study identified damaged coworker relation-
ships (25%) and negative organizational implications
(18%; e.g., partners’ diminished performance,
turnover). Workplace romance conflict-related issues
(13%) and partners’ negative affect (e.g., stress, guilt)
followed. Finally, partners spending too much time
together (5%), unfairness (4%), and communication
issues (2%) were noted. A larger proportion of work-
place romance participants than coworkers identified
unfair treatment.
E. Third-party coworkers’ perceptions
and responses
One line of inquiry has focused on understanding
how employees view their peers involved in workplace
romances. Horan and Chory (2009, 2011, 2013) used
hypothetical scenarios to examine differences in com-
munication and related perceptions based on the peer
coworker’s sex and the workplace romance status
dynamic (peer coworker dating another peer or a supe-
rior). In their initial study, they found that employees
reported lower feelings of solidarity, less trust, less
honest and accurate self-disclosure to, and more decep-
tion with peers dating superiors, compared to peers dat-
ing peers. Furthermore, trust explained the relation-
ships between the workplace romance status dynamic
and coworkers’ self-disclosure, deception, and feelings
of solidarity (Horan & Chory, 2009). Horan and
Chory’s (2011) next study revealed that coworkers dat-
ing superiors versus peers were viewed as less trust-
worthy and lower in goodwill (two components of
credibility). Horan and Chory (2013) conducted a third,
similarly designed study, this time examining same-sex
workplace romances. They found that same-sex work-
place romance participants who were dating superiors,
compared to peers, were viewed as less credible and
subject to less trust and more deception from cowork-
ers (Horan & Chory, 2013).
A related vignette-based study by Chan-Serafin et
al. (2017) revealed that the lower status partner in a
hierarchical workplace romance was less likely to be
recommended for promotion or important training than
was a peer not involved in a workplace romance. Chory
and Gillen Hoke (2020) demonstrated that third party
coworkers’ perceptions of, and behaviors toward, their
peers in workplace romances tended to be more detri-
mental than the workplace romance participants them-
selves believed them to be. This was especially true for
hierarchical workplace romances. Furthermore, consis-
tent with prior work, coworker attributions of work-
place romance job motives predicted coworkers trust-
ing workplace romance partners less, which predicted
less honest and accurate coworker self-disclosure to the
partners (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020). Horan and
Chory (2009, 2011) argued that these relational percep-
tions are important for understanding how peers com-
municate at work and they have implications for orga-
nizational productivity/functioning.
One potential explanation for the negative percep-
tions of and communication with coworkers involved in
status-differential romances pertains to justice and equi-
ty (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019, 2020; Cole, 2009;
Horan & Chory, 2009, 2011, 2013; Mainiero, 1986;
Malachowski et al., 2012). That is, perceptions of work-
place romance partners in status-differential romances
having greater access to information or resources might
prompt coworker perceptions of organizational injus-
tice. As a result, coworkers may behave in antisocial
ways toward their colleagues in workplace romances to
restore perceived inequity. For instance, empirical
research shows that hierarchical workplace romances
were associated with coworkers believing workplace
romance participants gained unfair advantages from the
romance (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2020). Results of
Malachowski et al.’s (2012) scenario-based study indi-
cated that perceptions of peers receiving more unfair
advantages due to the romance predicted coworkers
communicating less honestly with the peer.
Furthermore, work peers dating superiors were also
trusted significantly less, which led coworkers to
engage in more deception with the peer in the work-
place romance (Malachowski et al., 2012). Even among
Millennial organizational members reporting on their
actual experiences (as observers or participants) with
workplace romance, hierarchical romances were more
likely to be perceived as yielding unfair advantages to
the workplace romance partners than were lateral
romances (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019).
Associated with perceptions of unfair advantages,
individuals working in healthcare, education, administra-
tion, and other professional fields also reported stronger
beliefs that participating in a workplace romance caused
reputational damage than did employees in entertain-
ment, media, and the arts. Furthermore, healthcare, edu-
cation, administration, and other professionals held
weaker beliefs that workplace romance participation
reflected an aggressive business nature than blue-collar
workers reported (Chory et al., under review).
Another factor influencing workplace romance
perceptions is the illicit nature of the relationship.
Workplace romances involving marital infidelity were
associated with perceptions of decreased social climate
(Dillard et al., 1994), and superiors in extramarital ver-
sus non-extramarital hierarchical workplace romances
received greater blame (Jones, 1999). Over 10%
(10.6%) of respondents in Chory et al.’s (under review)
study of almost 1,000 US employees had observed an
extramarital workplace romance. The likelihood of the
affair occurring did not, however, differ by industry or
the organization’s top priority.
F. Differences in third-party coworkers'
perceptions and responses based on workplace
romance partner sex
In general, women versus men in workplace
romances tend to be perceived and treated more nega-
tively by coworkers. Horan and Chory (2009) found that
organizational members trusted female work peers dat-
ing superiors less than they trusted male peers dating
superiors and male and female peers in lateral workplace
romances. Likewise, employees’ judgements of female
peers’ credibility were impacted by the status of her
workplace romance partner, whereas judgements of
men’s credibility were not. Women were perceived as
less credible (less trustworthy and caring) when they
dated superiors versus peers (Horan & Chory, 2011).
Whether the romance was cross-sex or same-sex does
not seem to change this pattern, as organizational mem-
bers perceived female peers in same-sex workplace
romances as less credible (less competent and caring)
than male peers in same-sex workplace romances
(Horan & Chory, 2013). Consistent with these findings,
Chory et al. (under review) observed that employees
believed workplace romance participation was more
damaging to women’s professional reputations than it
was to men’s reputations. Furthermore, female versus
male organizational members of the Millennial genera-
tion were more likely to report workplace romance had
negative effects (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019). In con-
trast, Chan-Serafin et al. (2017) observed that lower-sta-
tus male versus female employees in hierarchical
romances received more negative evaluations.
G. Workplace romance dissolution
Like romantic relationships outside of work,
workplace romances generally have two possible out-
comes: life-long commitment (e.g., marriage) or break-
ing-up. As most workplace romances likely will not
result in marriage, it is important to understand what
happens when employees break up. Horan et al.’s
(2019) interviews with workplace romance participants
and observers revealed the romances broke up due to
distance, incompatibility, loss of interest, and partner
mistake (p. 7). The partners disengaged from their
romances using direct and indirect strategies. Unique
to personal workplace relationships, in many instances
former partners continue to work together. Horan et
al.’s participants identified neutral and negative out-
comes associated with this occurrence. Workplaces
were described as “awkward/tense,” and “an antago-
nistic environment” and resulted in some “distancing
or leaving the job” (p. 10). As Riach and Wilson (2007)
explained, “Dealing with the negative effects of a
break-up could be difficult for a manager and workers”
(p. 86). Studies point to these difficulties, including
workplace romance dissolution’s implications for sex-
ual harassment (e.g., Pierce et al., 2008).
H. Workplace romance and sexual harassment
Workplace romance and sexual harassment are
related, but distinct, phenomena. They both involve
social-sexual behavior (Pierce & Aguinis, 1997), which
can be ambiguous to employees (Powell, 1983;
Salvaggio, Hopper, & Packell, 2011; Toker, 2016). For
instance, an early study by Powell (1983) showed that
female employees were divided on whether workplace
romance was a form of sexual harassment. Even today,
Millennial organizational members differ, based on
their cultural norms and values, in perceptions of
whether expressing interest in and pursuing a work-
place romance constitutes sexual harassment (Toker,
2016). Despite this ambiguity, workplace romance and
sexual harassment are, in fact, distinct entities.
Workplace romances are consensual or mutually
desired relationships in whatever form they exist
(friends-with-benefits, hook-ups, dating, marriage),
whereas sexual harassment is unwelcome or unwanted
sexual behavior or communication (Mainiero, 2020;
Pierce & Aguinis, 1997; Pierce et al., 2008).
Furthermore, workplace romance is legal; sexual
harassment is not (Pierce et al., 2008).
The two constructs are often studied together
because dissolved consensual workplace romances
may lead to sexual harassment (Mainiero, 2020).
Cowan and Horan (2021; Horan et al., 2019) have
warned of the potential for harassment due to work-
place romances blending work and life domains. That
is, partners may pursue their ex-partners (see
Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al., 2000), some have sexu-
al relations post-breakup (Halpern-Meekin et al.,
2013), and some engage in on-again/off-again cycles
(Dailey et al., 2009). Such behavior is not uncommon
in non-workplace relationships, but it poses interesting
questions when this communication in the life domain
occurs in the work domain (Cowan & Horan 2021;
Horan et al., 2019.).
Pierce and Aguinis (1997) proposed an affective
model explaining the link between hierarchical work-
place romance dissolution and sexual harassment,
positing that frequent necessary work-related contact
with the former romantic partner heightens any nega-
tive affect experienced by the former partners. The
negative feelings may lead the partner to seek revenge
on the initiator of the break-up by filing a sexual
harassment complaint and/or by engaging in sexually
harassing behavior. The sexual harassment charge may
result in the former partner being transferred or sepa-
rated from employment at the organization. Sexually
harassing behavior may be used to attempt to rekindle
the romance against the other’s wishes or to upset the
former partner. Legal remedies for addressing such
sexual harassment, however, may be difficult to secure.
In the court of law, unless the alleged sexual harass-
ment was severe or witnessed, claims were unlikely to
progress beyond summary judgment if the plaintiff had
been in a workplace romance with the alleged harasser
(Pierce et al., 2008).
I. Organizational/employee perspectives
Employees’ workplace romance attitudes inter-
sect with their judgments concerning sexual harass-
ment in various ways. For example, employees with
more favorable workplace romance attitudes believed
it was less appropriate to discipline an individual
accused of sexual harassment by his former romantic
partner (Pierce et al., 2000). Pierce et al. (2004) con-
ducted two vignette studies involving third-party
employees’ and human resources professionals’
responses to a male superior being accused of sexual
harassment by a female subordinate following the dis-
solution of their workplace romance. Results showed
that the sexually harassing behavior of the accused was
judged to be more immoral when the romance had
occurred in an organization with a formal policy pro-
hibiting workplace romances, the workplace romance
was extramarital (vs. non-extramarital), and the sexual
harassment was quid pro quo (vs. hostile work environ-
ment). Immorality of the superior’s sexual harassment
predicted third parties attributing more responsibility to
him and less to the complainant. Attributions of
responsibility, in turn, were associated with third par-
ties’ endorsement of various personnel actions.
Responsibility attributed to the accused resulted in
stronger recommendations of counseling and disci-
pline, whereas responsibility attributed to the com-
plainant was associated with stronger recommenda-
tions of no action and weaker recommendations of
counseling and discipline.
J. Workplace romance motives and
sexual harassment
Perceived romance motives are also linked to
perceptions of sexual harassment (Pierce & Aguinis,
1997, 2001; Pierce et al., 2000). Subordinates who had
a job motive for entering a hierarchical workplace
romance may be especially likely to accuse their supe-
rior of sexual harassment post-break up to seek
revenge for the dissolution (Pierce & Aguinis, 1997).
Other research shows that both the accused and the
complainant were attributed the most responsibility
for the sexual harassment when they had an ego
motive and their former workplace romance partner
had a love motive (Pierce et al., 2000). Furthermore,
perceptions of the complainant’s responsibility were
weaker when both partners had love or ego motives as
opposed to the complainant having a job motive and
the accused an ego motive (Pierce et al., 2004).
K. Workplace romance status dynamics and
sexual harassment
Third parties indicated it was more appropriate to
discipline an employee accused of sexual harassment
by his former romantic partner when the workplace
romance had been hierarchical versus lateral in nature
(Pierce et al., 2000). The type of hierarchical work rela-
tionship also played a role in sexual harassment beliefs,
as the accused male superior was perceived to be more
responsible for the sexual harassment and the female
subordinate complainant less responsible when the
workplace romance had been a direct versus indirect
reporting hierarchical relationship (Pierce et al., 2004).
L. Legal considerations and responses
Pierce et al. (2008) reviewed federal and state sex-
ual harassment court case summaries spanning almost 25
years to determine whether judges considered the same
factors that employees did in evaluating sexual harass-
ment complaints. Overall, judges were influenced by the
very fact that a workplace romance had occurred between
the plaintiff and the accused. In cases involving a prior
workplace romance, judges ruled in favor of the accuser
only 33% of the time, whereas in cases in which no
romance had occurred, judges ruled in favor of the accus-
er 53% of the time (Knapp & Heshizer, 2001), a statisti-
cally significant difference. Pierce et al. (2008) did find,
however, that in cases involving dissolved workplace
romances, judges tended to rule in favor of the accuser
when the harassing behavior was both severe and wit-
nessed by others. Factors shown to influence employees’
ethical evaluations related to sexual harassment, such as
whether the partners were in a direct reporting relation-
ship, the organization’s tolerance for sexual harassment,
and the extramarital nature of the workplace romance,
did not predict judges’ decisions as to whether sexual
harassment occurred.
M. Technology and sexual harassment
A relatively new development in understanding
and planning for workplace romance-sexual harass-
ment challenges is the use of communication tech-
nologies among employees. Mainiero and Jones
(2013a) discussed the practical, legal, and ethical dif-
ficulties posed by the proliferation of these technolo-
gies, especially social media. They defined textual
harassment as the use of cell phones or the Internet to
send offensive, inappropriate, or salacious text mes-
sages or photos to coworkers (“sexting”), as well as to
pursue coworkers for unwanted romantic liaisons.
This newer form of sexual harassment leaves a perma-
nent, retrievable record, which can easily be produced
as evidence in a court of law. Questions, however,
abound regarding organizations’ jurisdiction and
employees’ recourse regarding social media contact
that occurs outside the workplace. This is yet another
complexity involved in blurring the work/life bound-
ary (Mainiero & Jones, 2013a).
N. Workplace romance policies
Whether an employer has the power to legislate
employees’ romantic relationships through workplace
romance policies must be considered. Researchers
have long been interested in how organizations seek to
control employees (e.g., Hoffman & Cowan, 2008),
and the borders between work and life, but can organi-
zations actually do this? Regarding workplace romance
policy, ethical questions revolve around the organiza-
tion’s right to pry into employees’ intimate relation-
ships, to define the appropriate population from which
employees may draw their romantic partners (e.g.,
employees can date organizational peers but not supe-
riors), and to decide the types of personal workplace
relationships that are more or less harmful (e.g., work-
place romances vs. close friendships or work spouses).
Intersecting with these ethical issues are practical con-
cerns such as when human resources should be alerted
to a workplace romance and when employees should
be required to sign a love contract. For example, should
action be taken when the relationship is made public or
becomes exclusive, when sexual contact has occurred,
when the couple has gone on three public outings?
Given that much communication research does not
include physical/sexual activity definitional criteria for
workplace romances (Chory, 2019; Chory & Gillen
Hoke, 2019, 2020; Horan & Chory, 2009; 2011; 2013;
Malachowski et al., 2012), do non-consummated affec-
tionate workplace romances qualify? If so, are other
non-consummated affectionate relationships (e.g.,
close friendships, work spouses) held to the same stan-
dard? If not, why not? Naturally, then, there are ques-
tions about the ethicality of organizations’ roles in
workplace romance. Nevertheless, there are certainly
organizational implications of this life-based commu-
nication that occurs in the work domain. Therefore,
organizations have created policies to manage it—this
work is subsequently discussed. These strategies can be
considered proactive and reactive, and often employees
are not aware of said policies (Horan & Chory, 2009).
O. Proactive workplace romance management
Establishing and communicating workplace
romance policies is the primary means by which man-
agement proactively seeks to address workplace
romances. Experts recommend workplace romance
policies state and justify the types of romances that are
prohibited and allowed, the consequences for violating
the policy, and a justification for the policy and its
enforcement (Pierce & Aguinis, 2009). Experts also rec-
ommend that the policies be realistic (Pierce & Aguinis,
1997), legal (Pierce et al., 2008), and reflective of the
organization’s values and ethical codes of conduct
(Mainiero & Jones, 2013a; Pierce & Aguinis, 2009).
Furthermore, Mainiero and Jones (2013a, 2013b) advo-
cate coordinating the firm’s workplace romance policy
with its sexual harassment policy and social media use
guidelines. For instance, they recommend these policies
alert employees that company-owned cell phones, com-
puters, and other communication devices are legally
discoverable if sexual harassment complaints are made
(Mainiero & Jones, 2013b). Mainiero and Jones
(2013a) suggest a comprehensive approach, recom-
mending that sexual harassment policies extend to all
types of social media applications, instant messaging,
and email, and that the policies cover communication
inside and outside the workplace.
Another proactive approach to managing work-
place romances is to require romantic partners to sign
love contracts. Love contracts are written contracts
specifying mutually agreed upon terms regarding the
workplace romance, such as how it will be managed
while it is ongoing (e.g., dispute resolution procedures)
and (if applicable) after it dissolves (Mainiero & Jones,
2013a; Pierce & Aguinis, 1997). Both parties sign and
affirm that their romance is consensual and that either
party can end the romance for any reason without coer-
cion or workplace retaliation (Mainiero & Jones,
2013a). Mainiero and Jones (2013b) propose that, in
conjunction with the organization’s ethical code of con-
duct and sexual harassment policies, love contracts
should acknowledge rules regarding social media use
and consequences for violating these rules. One poten-
tial problem with calling these agreements “love con-
tracts” is that doing so may dissuade causally dating
employees from broaching the subject of such con-
tracts, as they may not yet associate their dating with
“love” or they may not have expressed love for or
exclusive commitment to one another. What remains
unknown, too, is what role such agreements play in fre-
quent uncommitted episodes of sexual activity (friends
with benefits, perhaps), acts of ongoing infidelity with a
colleague, and other types of workplace romances that
do not fit neatly into the traditional love category. This
is further complicated by relationships that terminate
prior to the expression of love.
Training employees to thoughtfully initiate, main-
tain, and disengage from workplace romance is a third
proactive means of managing workplace romance and
avoiding sexual harassment complaints. Mainiero and
Jones (2013b) recommend training employees to clear-
ly state whether or not they welcome romantic interest
expressed by coworkers, to consider how their commu-
nication may be [mis]interpreted in the workplace con-
text, and to recognize and consider the types of social
media use the organization believes is acceptable.
P. Reactive workplace romance management
Despite the presence of proactive workplace
romance management strategies, workplace romance
disruptions are nevertheless likely to occur. Reactive
strategies for managing workplace romances include
no action, partner counseling, oral and written repri-
mands, transfer to a different department or location,
and separation from employment (Karl & Sutton,
2000; Pierce & Aguinis, 1997). In deciding how to
respond to a workplace romance, organizational deci-
sion-makers (e.g., human resources professionals) and
employees lean heavily on legal and ethical/moral stan-
dards. They are influenced by the illicitness of the
romance (extramarital or not) and the relational status
dynamic (Pierce & Aguinis, 1997; 2001; Pierce et al.,
2000, 2004, 2008). For instance, Mainiero and Jones
(2013b) offered a communication ethics model to help
human resources professionals address workplace
romance situations that do not reach the legal standard
for hostile work environment sexual harassment, but
may be disruptive, nonetheless. They cite an ethical
imperative for human resources to apply this model in
discussions with workplace romance partners.
Q. Perceptions of organizational workplace
romance interventions
Management intervention, however, is not always
welcome. Third party coworkers’ perceptions that the
workplace romance results in a conflict of interest or
unfairness (Foley & Powell, 1999), disrupts or will dis-
rupt the team (Foley & Powell, 1999; Mainiero, 1986,
1989; Mainiero & Jones, 2013a; Powell, 2001), or neg-
atively affects the romantic partners’ job performance
(Karl & Sutton, 2000) are associated with stronger
preferences for managerial intervention, especially
punitive action. When these effects are not present,
coworkers prefer either no managerial intervention or
positive action (Cole, 2009; Foley & Powell, 1999;
Karl & Sutton, 1999; Mainiero, 1986). Although organ-
izations take action more often than not when alerted to
potential sexual harassment (Pierce et al., 2008), until
fairly recently, the most likely organizational response
to workplace romance was no action (Cole, 2009;
Foley & Powell, 1999; Mainiero, 2020). The #MeToo
movement, however, has caused some organizations’
policies to become more restrictive (Veciana-Suarez &
Tribune Content Agency, 2019).
The perceived fairness of workplace romance
policies and interventions is an important factor in their
overall effectiveness. Foley and Powell (1999) theo-
rized that coworker perceptions of the fairness of office
romance managerial interventions would be positively
related to favorable workplace attitudes (e.g., job satis-
faction) and behaviors (e.g., productivity). In addition,
Pierce et al.’s (2012) research suggests that fair work-
place romance policies may enhance employee recruit-
ment by indicating a climate supportive of work/life
balance. They found that hypothetical job seekers’ per-
ceptions of workplace romance policy fairness predict-
ed perceptions the organization would be a fun place to
work and that its values would match their own. In
turn, these beliefs predicted job seekers’ attraction to
the organization, which was associated with stronger
intentions to pursue employment there (Pierce et al.,
2012). Empirical research indicates that workplace
romance interventions are judged to be fair when the
romance negatively impacts the workplace (Cole,
2009), the partners work in the same department (Cole,
2009; Karl & Sutton, 2000), and the organization has a
workplace romance policy (Cole, 2009). In general,
counseling the partners was found to be the fairest
response, followed by taking no action, then repri-
mands/warnings and transfers, and finally, termination
(Karl & Sutton, 2000). Similarly, employees viewed
organizations with no workplace romance policy or a
lenient one as fairer than organizations with a restric-
tive policy (Pierce et al., 2012).
Because the courts generally only consider legal
factors and whether the parties were involved in a
workplace romance when passing sexual harassment
judgments (Pierce et al., 2008), organizations with
workplace romance policies and human resources prac-
tices based on extralegal factors (e.g., workplace
romance illicitness, status dynamic) may be seen as
unfair by employees (Pierce et al., 2008). Furthermore,
in only 4% of cases did the courts note whether an
organization had a workplace romance policy. As such,
organizations primarily concerned with avoiding work-
place romance-related sexual harassment lawsuits may
wish to rethink the resources they spend on ethics-
based approaches (Pierce et al., 2008). Pierce and col-
leagues assert they should be most concerned with dis-
solved workplace romance sexual harassment com-
plaints that are severe and witnessed, as these cases
tended to move forward in the legal process.
R. Further considering workplace romance
policy recommendations
Despite the rational formulation and implementa-
tion of workplace romance policies and interventions,
we juxtapose the policy recommendations against the
complicated, uncertain, and ambiguous nature of flirt-
ing, dating, and relationship escalation. That is, flirting
and courtship have a degree of ambiguity and forcing
an employee to state whether romantic advances are
welcome while uncertainty is high is challenging.
Speaking to this ambiguity is Henningson’s (2004)
research on flirting motives, which revealed that not all
flirting is sexually motivated. Comparing students’ and
working adults’ motives for flirting, Henningsen et al.
(2008) found that both groups identified fun as their
main flirting motive. Reflecting on findings, the
authors opined that “sex is less likely to be the motiva-
tion for flirting in the workplace than in social flirting
interactions” (pp. 497–498). Moving from flirting to
first dates, one goal for this date is friendship
(Mongeau et al., 2004)—further complicating the
courtship process. Comparing the previously reviewed
findings on flirting and ambiguously undefined first
date encounters between people who work together
introduces some practical questions regarding love
contracts and policy implementation for newly forming
and/or undefined courtship.
Despite the uncertainties and ambiguities in
romantic relationship initiation and development, organ-
izations are increasingly pressed to address workplace
romance and sexual harassment. Following the #MeToo
movement and in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rul-
ing that civil rights protection applies to LGBT employ-
ees, decisions by the courts may be quite different today
than they were from 1980 to 2004, the span covered by
Pierce et al.’s (2008) review. Furthermore, even though
research showing organizations with no workplace
romance policy were seen as more attractive to potential
job seekers (Pierce et al., 2012) and claims that younger
employees may, in fact, be more savvy blenders of the
work and life domains (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019),
workplace romance policies remain legally and reputa-
tionally important. Workplace romance is said to be a
“stealth poison” that does not, on the surface, seem to be
harmful, but eventually causes problems (Berdahl &
Aquino, 2009, p. 44). As such, attitudes toward work-
place romance policies during the pre-hire and early
career stages may become more positive over time as
organizational members come to appreciate the protec-
tions the policies afford (Chory & Gillen Hoke, 2019;
Pierce et al., 2012).
Although workplace romance policies and human
resources practices may help to prevent sexual harass-
ment, or at least, to absolve organizations from legal
responsibility for it, they also raise legal and ethical
questions concerning freedom of speech, privacy, and
organizational overreach. From a legal standpoint, social
media policies must not violate the National Labor
Relations Board’s stance on employees’ freedom of
speech in discussing work conditions. In addition, some
states offer employee protections from discrimination
based on their lawful behavior outside the workplace,
creating challenges for organizations attempting to regu-
late employees’ off-the-clock social media contact.
Ethical concerns exist, too, over whether an organization
has the right to legislate someone’s personal life in this
context (e.g., Boyd, 2010).
Finally, organizations may be seen to send contra-
dictory messages regarding employee relationships and
sexuality. Contemporary management and leadership
philosophies encourage camaraderie, connection, and
teamwork among employees. Organizations promote the
use of email, instant messaging, and other digital plat-
forms among employees outside of the office to accom-
plish work tasks (Mainiero & Jones, 2013a). The man-
agement discourse of love and happiness at work pur-
ports that employees should love their jobs and be happy
with their work to increase motivation and productivity.
Happy employees who love their job are seen as sources
of contagious positive energy (Weeks, 2017). It is no
wonder then that sexual attraction and romantic entan-
glements among employees are common. Some indus-
tries and organizations go as far as to co-opt their mem-
bers’ sexuality for the organization’s benefit (Pizam,
2016; Riach & Wilson, 2007; Warhurst & Nickson,
2009). At the same time, these organizations attempt to
control employees’ intimate, and at times, sexual rela-
tionships. These contradictory messages weaken the
organization’s credibility in the eyes of employees,
threatening the effectiveness of any organizational
attempts to “rein in” the human relational elements they
have deemed to be inappropriate for their purposes.
6. Future Considerations
Fisher (1978) argued that “The phenomenon of
communication is a constant. It does not change. Only
our understanding of it changes” (p. 9). Our review of
research focused on communication, a stable construct,
demonstrates how our understanding of communica-
tion in personal workplace relationships has changed.
Still, decades from now, readers will look at reviews
like this and observe how understanding has evolved
even further. In the spirit of this conceptual evolution,
we discuss future research possibilities.
A. Avoiding close(r) relationships at work
This review has represented a robust body of
research, spanning disciplines, that explores personal
workplace relationships. That said, there are certainly
employees who do not have personal workplace rela-
tionships, likely falling into one of three categories.
First are those who willingly choose not to develop
them. Though we have a fundamental need to belong
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995), individuals may prefer
strong work/life borders and, therefore, have social
needs met outside the work domain. Consider, for
example, a study of working adults in their 20s that
revealed the “use of the strategies of psychological sep-
aration and time management [that] suggests a desire
for a less permeable border between work and life. . . .
One participant response in particular illustrated the
intertwined nature of these strategies: ‘Balancing work
and life would mean being able to perform both without
one interfering with the other’” (Schultz et al., 2012, p.
48). Thus, future research should examine how and
why individuals avoid personal relationship formation
at work.
A second group of individuals who do not have
close(r) personal relationships at work is likely com-
posed of individuals who either lack the social skills
needed to form these relationships (which may stem
from traits such as communication apprehension) or
lack the options for forming them. That is, despite a
desire to blend work and life, an individual may lack
the communication skills (e.g., McEwan & Guerrero,
2010) or competencies (e.g., Duran & Kelly, 1988) to
form close(r) relationships with colleagues.
Alternatively, individuals may seek to have personal
relationships at work but lack options or opportunities
to do so due to telework, organizational structures, or
limited homophily among peers.
A third group of individuals who do not develop
close(r) relationships at work are comprised of those
who work in toxic environments. Perceptions of toxic
environments are likely based on perceptions that oth-
ers are troublesome (i.e., associated with “unpleasant or
negative experiences,” Fritz, 2002, p. 415), verbally
aggressive (e.g., Solitto & Cranmer, 2019), backstab-
bers (Malone & Hayes, 2012), unfair (e.g., Chory &
Hubbell, 2008; Kennedy et al., 2004), bullies (e.g.,
Tracy et al., 2006), lack civility (e.g., DeIuliis & Flinko,
2016), or have a variety of other qualities. Relevant
here is the exploration of the employee-abusive organi-
zation (Lutgen-Sandvik & McDermott, 2008).
B. Sexual activity with coworkers
Researchers examining relationships at work
have typically studied friendships and romances, but
less understood is consensual sexual activity among
organizational members. Though we have discussed
policy issues surrounding workplace romance, it is
ever important for practitioners and researchers to
understand that sexual activity occurs in relationships
without clear commitment boundaries or relationship
definitions. As researchers interested in the topic of
sex have explored hook-ups (e.g., Paul & Hayes,
2002), friends with benefits (e.g., Hughes et al.,
2005), and various other terms to describe sexual
activity outside of an exclusive, committed relation-
ship, it is only natural to begin to explore this type of
sexual activity between organizational members. We
propose two ideas.
One topic of interest to workplace romance
researchers is that of the illicitness of the relationship
(e.g., Dillard et al., 1994)—that is, workplace
romances that constitute extramarital affairs.
Consider an example in which two coworkers, Jamie
and Chris, are engaged in a sexual relationship.
Employees know that Jamie is married and Chris is
single. To outsiders (third parties), Jamie and Chris’s
relationship is likely to be perceived as controversial
and likely to be viewed negatively due to Jamie’s
being married. What individuals do not know, though,
is that Jamie’s marriage is one that adopts consensual
non-monogamy (e.g., Haupert et al., 2017).
Consequently, Jamie and Chris’s sexual relationship
represents no infidelity. This once again underscores
the importance of relationship insider versus outsider
perceptions (Duck & VanderVoort, 2002), the com-
plexity of studying workplace romance, and the chal-
lenges around attempts at policy development. Future
research examining these types of organizational sex-
ual relationships is encouraged.
Second, consider the concept of pillow talk,
which is “the communication between two individu-
als after they engage in some form of sexual activity
with one another” (Denes, 2012, p. 92). As Denes
(2012) described, “when individuals engage in inti-
mate behaviors with relational partners, feelings of
comfort, security, and trust may counteract the risks
of expressing their feelings and result in greater rela-
tional disclosures” (p. 92). This post-sex communica-
tion between organizational members could involve
disclosure of confidential information or the expres-
sion of opinions or feelings that may jeopardize the
partners’ or other coworkers’ jobs or organizational
standing. Chory and colleagues noted that third-party
organizational members protect themselves from the
potentially harmful impact of workplace romance
partners’ “pillow talk” by self-disclosing less honestly
with workplace romance partners (Chory & Gillen
Hoke, 2020; Horan & Chory, 2009; Malachowski et
al., 2012). Denes (2012) observed that individuals in
casual relationships reported more post-disclosure
regret compared to participants in committed relation-
ships—a finding particularly important given that not
all sex between organizational members occurs in
committed relationships. Therefore, future research is
necessary to better understand pillow talk—that is,
examining topic avoidance, deception, and regretted
disclosure during pillow talk between employees who
have sex, both within and outside of a committed
exclusive relationship.
C. Dark side or (in)appropriateness?
Researchers across disciplines are interested in
the negative effects of personal workplace relation-
ships. Naturally, then, one approach to studying com-
munication in these close(r) personal workplace rela-
tionships involves a Dark Side of Communication per-
spective (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b). Spitzberg and
Cupach (2007a) have “restrained from formally defin-
ing the dark side” (p. 4), but have stated that it “can be
thought of as a function of two conceptual dimensions:
(a) normatively and morally appropriate versus norma-
tively and morally inappropriate, and (b) functionally
productive versus functionally destructive” (p. 5). They
have also offered a rich description of the subject mat-
ter this area of study includes and explores. Indeed, a
number of topics discussed in this review, such as
unfairness, infidelity, and indirect aggression, fall
under this perspective. Though the description of this
approach helps identify what is being studied, it is
important to note concerns that have been raised over
this label. Long (2016) specifically articulated such a
concern, explaining:
. . . I had some difficulty with the use of ‘dark’
side as a normalized term for negative deviant
behavior . . . Negative connotations associated
with the word ‘dark’ historically have had and
continue to have significant and vicious implica-
tions for people of color in America and world-
wide. The use of the term ‘dark’ has been reified
as a latent negative denotation, which many
view as troubling and problematic. The binary of
‘light’ equals purity and ‘dark’ equates to
deviance has been used to create and manipulate
human divisions for generations. The language
of color and the value placed on color need more
and deeper exploration. . . . We fully appreciate
and understand that language and words matter
and this could potentially serve as a pivot point
for us and others to consider our language usage
in the future (p. 318).
In support of this concern over labeling an area
of study, Horan (Horan & Bryant, 2019; Horan et al.,
2019) has argued for the use of Duck and
VanderVoort’s (2002) (in)appropriateness frame. This
perspective argues that researchers should evaluate
the (in)appropriateness of relationships and behav-
iors. For example, Duck and VanderVoort (2002) ask:
“can inappropriate behaviors occur in an appropriate
relationship or does the occurrence of those behaviors
immediately render the relationship inappropriate?”
(p. 4). They specifically referenced appropriateness
and status-differential relationships. Using their
approach, the expression of affection is not consid-
ered an inappropriate behavior, but the expression of
affection in a workplace relationship that is judged by
third-party coworkers as inappropriate (e.g., a hierar-
chical workplace romance) is (Horan et al., 2019).
Spitzberg and Cupach’s (2007a) conceptualization of
the Dark Side as partially a function of normative and
moral appropriateness suggests that framing/labeling
this area of study in terms of the (in)appropriateness
of verbal and nonverbal messages (i.e., behaviors)
and relationships would not only be more representa-
tive of what is being studied, but it may help address
concerns that we share with Long (2016).
As explained, personal workplace relationships
may be viewed by peers as resulting in unfair access
to resources, leading peers to engage in antisocial
behavior to restore the perceived inequity (Horan &
Chory 2009; Malachowski et al., 2012). We argue
here that the restorative behavior is motivated, at
least in part, by a judgment of inappropriateness con-
cerning the behaviors enacted in these relationships.
The frame of inappropriateness may also help
explain perceptions of workplace relationships as
unpleasant (Fritz, 1997b) or strange experiences
(Erbert, 2016), perceptions of incivility (DeIuliis &
Flinko, 2016), or changes in predicted outcome value
judgments in established workplace relationships
(Ramirez et al., 2010).
D. Organizational and occupational
context matters
Occupational culture and organizational culture,
climate, and the perceptions that underlie climate influ-
ence personal workplace relationships, perceptions of
these relationships, and their effects (Mainiero, 1989;
Powell & Foley, 1998; Sias, 2009; Williams, Giuffre,
& Dellinger, 1999). As such, it is important to under-
stand the context in which the research on personal
workplace relationships has been conducted.
Noticeable gaps occur, providing opportunities for
future research in organizational peer types, workplace
friendships, and workplace romances.
Regarding peer types, Kram and Isabella’s (1985)
piece that launched that study of peer types in organiza-
tions involved interviews with 15 employees (10 of
whom were managers) in a manufacturing company, yet
further research focusing on peer relationships in manu-
facturing or blue-collar/labor industries has not
occurred. In terms of specific industries, peer types
research has drawn participants from human resources
(Gordon & Hartman, 2009), educational settings (Odden
& Sias, 1997; Sias, 2005), and service and entertainment
(Wittenberg-Lyles & Villagran, 2006). Other work, such
as that by Fritz (1997a) and Myers and colleagues
(Myers & Johnson, 2004; Myers et al., 1999, 2018;
Sollitto & Myers, 2015), employed samples of adults
working in a variety of occupations and organizational
status levels.
Similarly, the majority of workplace friendship
research has sampled participants from a variety of
industries. For example, much of Sias and colleagues’
research has been conducted with employees working in
various occupations and organizations (Gallagher &
Sias, 2009; Sias & Cahill, 1998; Sias & Jablin, 1995;
Sias et al., 2004, 2012), as has research by Lancaster and
Chory (2013), Mao (2006), Morrison (2004), and
Westerman (2013). Somewhat narrower in focus are
workplace friendship studies that have focused exclu-
sively on professionals (Litwin & Hallstein, 2007;
Markiewicz et al., 2000; Sapadin, 1998).
We also see these two sample types, i.e., variety
of occupations/organizations and professionals only, in
studies of cross-sex workplace friendships, gay men’s
workplace friendships, and work spouses. An early
study to focus on cross-sex workplace friendships
involved interviewing professionals only (Elsesser &
Peplau, 2006). Later work by Gillen Hoke and Chory
employed more diverse samples. Their 2015 and 2018
studies were based on samples comprised of only 46%
and 50% professionals, respectively. Similarly, the
samples in Rumens’ research on gay men’s workplace
friendships were comprised of professionals only
(2008a, 2008b, 2011), and later, various occupational
types (2010, 2012, 2018). Likewise, participants in
work spouses research represented a variety of occupa-
tions (McBride & Bergen, 2015; Miller-Ott, 2019) or
professional fields (McBride et al., 2020a, 2020b).
There are, however, exceptions to this general
pattern of sample types. Specific industries or work-
places, such as advertising (Ibarra, 1992), insurance
(Methot et al., 2016, Study 1), direct sales (Grayson,
2007), research and development (Sias et al., 2003),
hospitals (Morrison, 2004, Study 1; Pedersen & Lewis,
2012), restaurants (Feeley et al., 2008; Methot et al.,
2016, Study 2), and educational institutions (Bridge &
Baxter, 1992; Sias & Perry, 2004, 2006; Winstead et
al., 1995) have been the focus of workplace friendship
studies. With the exception of Pedersen and Lewis’s
(2012) qualitative study of 18 employees drawn from
production companies and an automobile service com-
pany (as well as a hospital), no research has focused
exclusively on friendships in blue-collar/manual labor
Similar to workplace friendships research, most
workplace romance studies have involved samples of
working adults in various occupations and organiza-
tions. Dillard and colleagues’ (Dillard, 1987; Dillard &
Broetzmann, 1989; Dillard et al.,1994; Dillard &
Witteman, 1985) early work on workplace romance
employed such samples, as did later work by Horan
and Chory and their colleagues (Chory & Gillen Hoke,
2019; 2020; Chory et al., under review; Horan &
Chory, 2009, 2011, 2013; Malachowski et al., 2012). A
number of other workplace romance studies also sam-
pled employees in various occupations and organiza-
tions (e.g., Biggs et al., 2012; Chan-Serafin et al., 2017,
Study2; McLaren, 1994; Salvaggio, Streich, Hopper, &
Pierce, 2011, Study 2). As Chory et al. (under review)
noted, however, the subsamples in these studies have
been too small to test for industry differences. Their
study of 700 employees in various industries, however,
addresses this issue by examining workplace romance
occurrence and reputational beliefs across industries.
Although Chory, Horan, and colleagues’ (Chory
& Gillen Hoke, 2019; 2020; Horan & Chory, 2009,
2011, 2013; Malachowski et al., 2012) samples includ-
ed organizational members in various job types, they
primarily featured employees in service industries
(30% to 57%). The service industry was also the pri-
mary field represented in Jones’ (1999), Riach and
Wilson’s (2007), Salvaggio, Hopper, and Packell’s
(2011, Study 1), and Pierce et al.’s (2012) samples. As
observed with research on workplace friendships, pro-
fessionals in education were relatively common in
workplace romance studies sampling professionals
(Doll & Rosopa, 2015; Salvaggio, Streich, Hopper, &
Pierce, Study 1). Furthermore, as is the case with
research on other types of personal workplace relation-
ships, blue-collar or manual labor employees have
been underrepresented in workplace romance research.
An exception to this trend is McLaren’s (1994) sample
comprised of almost 50% manual labor workers, and
Chory et al.’s (under review) sample that was 22%
blue-collar/manual labor. In contrast, Horan and
Chory’s (2009, 2011, 2013) and Malachowski et al.’s
(2012) samples were only 9% to 14% blue-collar/man-
ual labor. Other research has examined workplace
romance topics with individuals in specific organiza-
tional roles, such as managers (Brown & Allgeier,
1995) and non-managers (Cowan & Horan, 2021).
Studies of workplace romance in specific occupations,
such as physicians (Khan et al., 2017) or human
resources professionals (Pierce et al., 2004, Study 2),
have also occurred. Quinn’s (1977) classic study on
workplace romance motives had a professionals-only
sample. Finally, employed students (usually graduate
students; Azeez, 2016; Cole, 2009; Pierce & Aguinis,
2003; Powell, 2001), recent business school graduates
(Anderson & Fisher, 1991), and undergraduate students
in general (Barratt & Nordstrom, 2011, Brown &
Allgeier, 1996; Chan-Serafin et al., 2007, Study 1)
have also participated in workplace romance research.
In sum, the bulk of personal workplace relation-
ships research has been conducted with organizational
members representing a variety of occupations and
organizations, with employees in professional fields
figuring most prominently. Blue-collar/manual labor
fields have been relatively ignored in this area of study.
As such, the research reviewed here should be consid-
ered within this context and future research on under-
examined occupations and industries, such as blue-col-
lar work and manual labor, is recommended.
As a general note, it is important for researchers
interested in understanding personal workplace rela-
tionships to draw on theory and research from both
Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, as
well as from related disciplines such as Organizational
Behavior. Though largely studied from an
Organizational Communication/Behavior perspective,
these relationships represent both Interpersonal and
Organizational Communication that occurs both with-
in, and outside of, workplace settings. This is especial-
ly complex given the use of information communica-
tion technologies in connecting, working, and interact-
ing across a wide range of physical locations (e.g., at
home, in the office, at the gym) and psychological
domains (e.g., social, work, family). Consequently, we
encourage future research to resist working within sub-
disciplinary boundaries and instead draw on the vari-
ous Communication subdisciplines (e.g., Interpersonal,
Organizational, etc.) and read across disciplines
(Management, Organizational Behavior, Psychology,
Sociology, etc.) to gain a holistic understanding of
these relationships. As personal workplace relation-
ships are blended, the theories and research informing
studies of these relationships should also be blended.
Related, researchers should let questions drive methods
and remain open to the unique insights offered by var-
ious methodological approaches. This holistic
approach will only strengthen research designs, theo-
retical development, and subsequent evidence-based
recommendations for practice.
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