REALITY BITES - Accepting that love and sex are part and parcel of office life does not mean, of course, that sexual harassment should be tolerated at any level.

by Richard Reeves, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Accepting that love and sex are part and parcel of office life does not mean, of course, that sexual harassment should be tolerated at any level.

Sigmund Freud believed that a well-balanced psyche was built on two pillars: work and love. Given a capacity to undertake useful activity and the ability to form deep emotional relationships, you're OK. (As the Institute of Directors would say, dead easy, this psychology stuff, eh?)

What Freud did not anticipate was a blurring of the line between the two spheres. In his day, the workplace was filled with whiskery-mustachioed, hyper-rational men, and any loving was confined to the warm, feminine home. Nowadays half the workforce is female, most couples are dual-earner ones, and at least half of us meet our spouse or long-term partner under the romantic fluorescent lights of an open-plan office.

And that's without counting the office flings. Shere Hite, in her study Sex and Business, found that 62% of women, and 71% of men, have been involved in a love affair at work. (The gap between these figures has been troubling me for some time.) Given that most people probably don't count a bonk on the copier during the Christmas party as a 'love affair', the bottom line is that everyone is at it at work.

The rise of the workplace as dating agency has caused headaches for firms.

Some desperately force staff to sign 'love contracts' banning intra-firm liaisons or waiving rights to sue for sexual harassment if they succumb to the charms of Alan from accounts. Others have policies that discourage romantic connections. This is like trying to stop the tide coming in. As Judi James rightly says in her book Sex at Work: 'Sex at work is one of life's great inevitables.'

Many of the trends in the contemporary workplace increase the likelihood of Cupid firing his arrow into the staff canteen. The nature of work has become much more personal and interactive; most people now work in teams, and the amount of time we spend talking to each other at work has roughly doubled in the past couple of decades. Add in 'bonding away days' in country hotels, ever-longer working hours and interpersonal skills courses, and it quickly becomes clear that the true miracle is that anyone at all is resisting their hormonal tugs. As work becomes more social, it becomes more sexual.

Some of the firms that have difficulty with love affairs or sexual relationships are the same ones that urge their staff to bring the 'whole person' to their work. But the whole person includes a large serving of sexuality; you can't switch it off as you swipe your ID card at the front desk. Firms have to trust their employees to deal with the complexities of mixing business and pleasure - rules and regulations are no use here.

In any case, a ban is counter-productive - after all, forbidden fruit is the sweetest. James lists her top six most popular places for sex in the office itself: on the desk, in the stationery cupboard, on a photocopier, on the roof, in the boss's office, in the lift (surely not!) and in the carpark. But she has missed the venue that, in one company I know, had to be ticked off before you could assume full membership of the office community: the boardroom table. As she points out, the naughtiness factor is an important aphrodisiac.

It might be thought that CCTV cameras would be a deterrent, but there are apparently plenty of people who get a kick out of being filmed. They should perhaps pause for a moment, however, and consider how famous they want to become: footage from office cameras is now highly prized in the illegal porn market.

Accepting that love and sex are now part and parcel of office life does not mean, of course, that sexual harassment should be tolerated at any level other than precisely zero. Accepting that sex at work is here to stay is light-years from permitting unwanted attention. Hite found that most women had suffered sexual harassment of some kind at some point in their careers. And there is also evidence that women are regarded differently from men if they have an affair at work: of those who had, 61% of men said it was a 'positive experience', compared to 27% of women. The challenge for all of us, but especially for men and especially those in positions of authority, is to have sex without the sexism.

In the heady climate of what's left of the US 'new economy', there are those who urge still more lovin'. In a Fast Company cover article, Yahoo!'s Tim Sanders perfectly blended the hippy and geek elements of the boom by declaring that 'Love is the killer app'.

He believes that 'when you help others grow to become the best people that they can be, you are being loving - and as a result, you grow'. His view is that we should love not only our clients and suppliers, but competitors too.

It's an attractive thought: that love, rather than money, could one day make the business world go round. But for the moment I suspect we will mostly be dealing with our baser instincts.

As Woody Allen once said, love may be the answer, but in the meantime sex poses some pretty good questions.

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