Love at Work

For many, the workplace is the best place to find a partner, but office affairs can be dangerous career-breakers. Does that make it the company's business?

by Mark Vernon
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

For months, he watched her as she passed by his office. He started fetching his own tea in the hope of being able to say 'hello' en route to the canteen. She noticed and joined in the secret game to ensure their paths crossed. When one day she did not see him at all, she was surprised by how much she missed it.

Then came the e-mail announcing the Christmas party. He would have brought his wife, as was his habit, he told her, but this year he 'forgot' to tell her the date. She was thrown into a minor panic: they were going to be together in a place that was not the office; what intimacies would emerge in the informal surroundings?

The fateful night came and they were spotted by the MD embracing. He panicked - company policy stressed professionalism with subordinates. So he pushed her off, there and then, mumbling to his superior about a lapse of judgment and how it would never happen again. Later, she cried and cursed the inhumanity of the office. When a new job came up six months later, she took it and was gone.

This story is, of course, made up. But it has, we believe, a ring of truth. People do change their habits to pass each other during their daily routines, we assume. People do notice what others wear at work, we imagine.

And people most certainly do take advantage of the infamous office party, we suppose.

But do they? And if so, does it matter? Does sex at work inevitably lead to scandal? Or is the office the modern version of the 18th-century ballroom - the natural place for the eyes of contemporary Elizabeths and Darcys to meet?

The matter needs clarification - especially after Andrew Kakabadse and his wife Nada Kakabadse, professors at Cranfield School of Management and Northampton Business School respectively, became involved in a dispute concerning a distinguished middle-aged colleague and his thirty-something student girlfriend. 'They were entirely professional about their relationship, and yet when people found out, they were castigated,' says Andrew. The Kakabadses started to do some research.

The results of their project were shocking, if not surprising. They carried out more than 200 in-depth interviews with white-collar workers on both sides of the Atlantic. Sixty per cent of respondents said they had had intimate experiences at work of various kinds, while 40% were entirely unaware that such passion was going on around them.

The reasons why people are having workplace relationships - from flings through to affairs and even marriage - is obvious. 'With Britons spending more time at the office and socialising with colleagues, office romance has never been more on the cards,' says Paul Cushing, managing director of RPCushing, a specialist recruitment agency.

Add to that the growing equality between the sexes in the workplace (which means that men are more likely to meet women, and vice versa, of similar status and interests); the prevalent concern with the right work/life balance (which suggests that if you can't get enough time for life, you bring life to work); and the use of technologies such as e-mail (which makes flirting both easier and ostensibly more private) - and it's not surprising that romance blossoms among the filing cabinets and water-coolers.

Indeed, for many the workplace has become the best place to source potential partners. 'I spent most of my twenties single because I was spending so much time working,' says Zoe Smart, who fell for Dean Wading, a deputy MD, when she was interviewed by him for a job at TNS Media Intelligence.

He fell for her too - though he left the appointment decision up to his colleague. 'Work was the only place any guy was going to spend enough time with me to get my attention, and I thank my lucky stars I went for it,' she adds. 'We're buying a house together this year and planning the wedding for early 2007 - and I've never been happier.'

Others talk of how to manage a relationship in the workplace. 'I met my wife while working for the same publishing house in London,' says Nick Zea-Smith, a senior account executive at eclat Marketing. 'The fun part of the romance was keeping it from the office we worked for, as we weren't sure how they'd take it. When we got engaged we told the whole office and they hadn't got a clue, even though we had been more than a bit close at office parties and at a company award ceremony in London.'

Clearly, he doesn't regret his marriage, but does he regret its place of origin? 'No, the office romance was the best thing that ever happened to me, as I have been married for nearly two years and have a 12-week-old son.'

Now, some might think that is all very well in the short to mid-term, but what of the long-term viability of a husband-wife duo at work? Jackie De Vile met her husband of six years, Mike, at work and has been working with him on and off for the best part of 18 years at employer communications agency Market.

'Mike and I have always been very regimented about not taking our problems at work home or bringing our personal lives to the workplace,' she says.

Even when they are working together on the same projects, it rarely causes problems. 'Conversely, the fact that we live and work together means that we are equipped to work more intuitively than you would with a colleague you didn't live, eat, work and sleep with.' Perhaps there's a novel suggestion for the offsite away-day there.

Not all attractions have a happy ending, though. One of the Kakabadses' respondents, a female doctor, tells of not realising what a colleague felt for her until one day he suggested going to his house and doing what they had been 'waiting to do for ages'. She freaked and froze. He was angry and devastated - not least because he had uprooted his home and career to follow her to a new job. It took her 10 years to recover.

Another respondent, a senior project manager, says: 'When he and I met, we were both married to other people and I, for one, had seen enough of the hurt and damage done by infidelity to have sworn to avoid it.' However, she continues: 'This relationship broke all my rules.' It ended her marriage.

Others believe simply that intimacy in the workplace is wrong.

Nevertheless, the incidence of abusive relationships or harassment is so low, according to Andrew Kakabadse, that it is hardly visible. 'My gut feeling is that if you took 1,000 workplace relationships, less than 0.5 could be called entrapment and less than 0.5 would be the result of drunken office parties,' he says.

In other words, people have affairs at work for the simple reason that they fall in love; mostly, the relationships are conducted with the best of intentions and the highest of ideals. And the effect on their work?

Their efficiency and productivity improves.

But the matter does not stop there. 'The vast majority of relationships are not a problem, and yet we see policies being developed against them that are entirely misplaced,' Kakabadse continues. The result is that while most relationships are kept hidden, and successfully so, those whose affairs come out into the open can have a very hard time of it. 'Most bosses would prefer to close their eyes to the matter, but when they don't, they are very punitive.'

Kakabadse's objection to this is not just the inhumanity but also the bad management. Research shows that when the dust has settled, it was not the relationship that caused management concern but issues about the employee's work. In other words, the sex was just an excuse for the failure to do what a good manager would have done before: offer an appraisal.

So, the work of the Kakabadses points a finger at the conventional wisdom about work and pleasure. This assumes that it happens - even quite often - but then goes on to say that not only does it matter, but that companies should have clear policies against it: work and pleasure do not and should not mix. Indeed, there's a veritable anti-sex industry among employment lawyers drumming up concern.

'Work relationships have always been an issue,' says Caroline Walker, employment partner at commercial law firm Sprecher Grier Halberstam. 'It is a growing concern, perhaps due to the personal texts and e-mails that make the issue more noticeable than it used to be. Statistically, too, there are more women at work now, so potentially there are more couples meeting in this way than ever before.'

Her advice: wherever there are employees who are likely to breach office rules, a policy setting out clearly what is considered as unacceptable work conduct is a good idea.

Some companies, mostly in the US, have taken this to extremes with so-called love contracts that ban affairs at work. Says Damian Kelly, employment lawyer at Eversheds: 'The love contract was initially designed in response to requests from companies for a specialised legal mechanism that could be used to protect businesses from unfair sexual harassment claims, especially involving a higher-level executive and an employee under his/her direction.

Unfortunately, there have been many instances of office affairs coming to a natural end and the employees later deciding to pursue claims against companies for their own financial gain.'

But the effectiveness of love contracts is doubtful. 'In the US, there is lots of concern about relationships in the workplace,' explains Hanah Reed, senior employment rights officer at the Trades Union Congress, 'with some companies even drawing up contracts outlawing them. We think it is bad practice, and perhaps not legally enforceable in the UK.'

Says Professor Joanna Grossman of Hofstra Law School, New York: 'My guess is that they are very seldom used in practice. Some employers ban sexual relationships either entirely or within supervisor-subordinate relationships, so love contracts are not necessary. Others permit such relationships and would not think of demanding that those involved either admit to the relationships or sign something in writing about it. Some employers might like their employees to enter into such contracts, but most employees involved in office romances would be loath to sign such a thing.'

So, where do you stand? Perhaps you are one of the 40% who have never seen the action and fancy that it's time to loosen your necktie. Or perhaps you dropped neckties, and several other items of clothing, ages ago and are reviewing the wisdom of so doing.

Finally, just in case the righteously chaste are feeling left out, here's one tip they should heed. Do not seek to catch others out. If you see the boss with the print boy exchanging more than an ink cartridge, pretend you didn't or it will be held against you for ever.

HARD AT WORK OR HARD AT IT?

10% of UK employees confess to having had sex in the office

15% of people admit to currently having a crush on someone in their workplace 66% have indulged in sexual fantasies about a colleague 17% have had a one-night stand with a colleague

25% have started longer-term relationships in the office

Source: RPCushing Recruitment

CONCENTRATING ON THE JOB OR ON YOUR COLLEAGUE?

40% of UK workers look for love in the office

50% have already had a romantic liaison with a colleague>/p>

33% of men would take a job if they saw someone attractive at an interview

36% use e-mail to flirt with potential partners

Source: jobsite.co.uk

MIXING WORK WITH PLEASURE

10% of people have set up a business meeting to see a lover

43% of people have set up a business meeting to have a night away

Source: Genesys Conferencing/Vanson Bourne

Gender difference

WOMEN

41% of women have dated a work colleague

36% of women have had a fling at work

15% of women have had an affair with a work colleague

MEN

46% of men have had an affair with a work colleague

41% of men have had a fling with at work

20% of men have had a long-term relationship with or married a colleague

Source: totaljobs.com

To play or nay?

Judi James, author of 'Sex at Work' and a relationship expert at dating agency Match.com, offers advice on the pros and cons of close encounters in the office. Here's MT's summary...

THE PROS

1. Work is boring. Sex is not. Say no more.

2. Work saps the juice out of you with its long hours and productivity demands. When you get home, you can barely stay awake for the telly and a take-out. So go with the flow (of juices, that is) and add another dimension to your workplace performance.

3. James' 'Starship Enterprise argument'... 'The star ship is your company and once on board you become an alien to everyone else.' So don't get lost in translation: pair off with someone who understands what fills your day.

4. It's only fair. You can get everything else in the modern workplace - nice sandwiches, fabulous gyms, even desk massages. So it's just part of the progress to be able to get a shag, too.

THE CONS

1. Work is boring. So for those not having the sex, office sex becomes their soap. And guess who is starring?

2. Affairs fail. With someone you meet in a bar, you can send a text and never see them again. With someone you meet over the photocopier, there is no clean break.

3. 'This now gets more serious,' James explains. 'Basically, my research shows that it will affect your career. At one level, it is hard to make long-term decisions when sat across from your Romeo or Juliet. At another level, work is a jealous guy who does not like to vie for your commitment.'

4. Don't get entangled with a superior. In James' words: 'All your future successes will henceforth be thought to originate in the bed, not your brain.'

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