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Canoodling by the copier? Stigma of office romance fading

Carrying on a romantic relationship with someone at the office used to be a target for gossip at best, a human resources violation at worst. But that mentality is becoming as dated as the power suit.

Experts say the more-relaxed attitudes of millennials are exerting a greater influence on corporate culture, and the growing expectation of constant digital contact with the office has blurred the lines between professional and personal. People no longer see a problem with sharing commutes and coffee breaks along with chores and childcare.

Office romance coffee machine
Fuse | Getty Images

"I think the younger generation is going to be more inclined to do this and be OK with it," said Tim Eisenhauer, co-founder and president of HR technology firm Axero Solutions.

According to a new study from CareerBuilder.com, 37 percent of workers have dated a co-worker, and nearly a third of those have gotten married. That number has stayed pretty consistent over the past few years.

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Sharing a workplace with a partner can have its perks, especially in demanding fields like technology. Divya Ramaswamy met her now-husband when both were working for Google in India.

In an online chat, the marketing specialist said Google's culture was accepting of their partnership. "[It's a] young crowd, so there's bound to be relationships happening. … And, enough trust that people will be professional and upfront about it," she said.

"We were just the people who used to share lunch all the time," she said in a separate phone interview.

Shortly after getting married four years ago, Ramaswamy and her husband landed work with the same tech company in Canada, where sharing a commute, coffee and lunch breaks helped make the job more enjoyable, she said.

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"Most people spend more time at work than they do at home," said Deborah Muller, CEO of HR technology firm HR Acuity. "It becomes a very social thing. … For the younger generation, that's their group, that's where they meet."

Positive response

People who have gone on to marry co-workers say other colleagues respond positively.

"It was actually very well accepted," said Jessica Wyatt, a San Antonio resident who met her husband when they shared a cubicle wall while working in sales at a technology company.

Wyatt, who celebrates her second anniversary in April, says they kept their relationship so low-key that many colleagues didn't realize they were dating until after they got married, a decision she said was more about personal preference than professional pressure.

"We're both kind of private people," she said. "It's not necessarily like we went out of our way to keep things hidden. People who knew us knew we were dating." She also said the company's liberal work-from-home policy meant that fewer co-workers noticed them spending coffee and lunch breaks together.

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CareerBuilder found that 36 percent of workers in a relationship with a colleague had to keep the relationship secret. When the jobs site first asked that question in a survey a decade ago, 46 percent of respondents said they hid romantic relationships with co-workers.

"Workplaces in general are becoming a lot more flexible," Mary Lorenz, CareerBuilder spokeswoman, said via email.

HR experts tend to agree that relationships between underlings and bosses are a potential minefield of performance issues and litigation. Amanda Alderman, COO at a consulting and training company, said it was awkward having to let go an employee who was seriously involved with someone much higher up the corporate ladder, albeit not their direct supervisor.

"It was a little difficult," she said "I think, honestly, the reason why she wasn't let go earlier is because she was dating him."

But Alderman acknowledges the difficulty of trying to regulate workers' affections, especially because she met her husband of five years on the job.

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"I think that if you work nine hours a day with somebody, you spend more time with them than you do with anyone else, so I think it's natural for people to be attracted to each other and start dating," she said. "I just don't think you can tell people how to feel about other people," she said.

HR comes around

More HR pros are coming around to the idea that a less-is-more attitude is better when it comes to policies.

"When companies empower their employees and trust them to make these decisions, it helps build this trust, it builds morale, it builds culture," Eisenhauer said.

Over-policing what's left of people's personal lives can erode morale, Eisenhauer said. "If you're working those long hours, when do you find the time to go meet other people?" he said. If bookstores, bowling alleys and even bars are closed by the time employees call it a day, that doesn't leave many other places for finding a romantic partner, he pointed out. CareerBuilder's survey found that 11 percent of respondents met their partners while logging in long hours.

"Employees are only going to resent the company they're working for," Eisenhauer said.

But that permissiveness means that workers themselves have to be more proactive about setting boundaries. Alderman said she and her husband agreed not to talk about things like their two children at work. Ramaswamy and her husband gave themselves a half-hour limit for work-related chat at the end of the day.

"It is a place to meet somebody, but you still have to be smart and practical about it," Muller said.

One drawback of working with your significant other is that, if the company falls on hard times, a couple could lose both sources of income at once. Alderman described a big round of layoffs at her former employer as "nerve-wracking" when she and her husband realized they essentially had all their employment eggs in one basket.

Another, potentially thornier problem is when those relationships lead to breakups instead of marriage. While most workers soldier on, some people can't handle seeing their ex on such a regular basis. "The number of people who report leaving a job as a result of a workplace relationship tends to hover between 4 and 7 percent," Lorenz said.

For some, though, the risks are worth the rewards. After a year of marriage, both Ramaswamy and her husband took jobs with the same company — this one in Singapore — and shortly afterwards, she moved to a new employer.

She said she misses the day-to-day interaction. "Now we're seeing much less of each other," she said. "If I have the chance to work in the same company with him, I wouldn't think twice."