UK: ON THE WAY UP - Office romance just might work - If half of us meet our partners in the workplace, it is ...

UK: ON THE WAY UP - Office romance just might work - If half of us meet our partners in the workplace, it is ... - ON THE WAY UP - Office romance just might work - If half of us meet our partners in the workplace, it is futile to try to stifle pairing ov

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

ON THE WAY UP - Office romance just might work - If half of us meet our partners in the workplace, it is futile to try to stifle pairing over the paperwork. But we can take care that it won't hurt our careers.

Once upon a time, companies tried to stop sex from rearing its seductive head at work. Young employees were warned never to 'dirty their own doorstep', or less refined words to the same effect.

Bosses believed that lust in the office caused intolerable complications and frequently resulted in hostility - partly because breaking up at work is hard to do.

If a couple went on to enter holy matrimony, company rules often would force one of them to leave. Usually it would be the female - surprise surprise - in order, as one of the older books on my bookshelf coyly says, 'to bring the joyful patter of tiny feet into the family homestead'.

This overhanging threat of career interruptus was seen as another disincentive to those unwise enough to be tempted by an office fling.

Despite the arm-twisting, sex at work has been as common as little green apples since Adam and Eve. About half of us meet what Californians call our 'significant others' at work. So, well in excess of 50% must engage in workplace entanglements.

If love among the filing cabinets is here to stay, how can you make sure that it does not harm your career? Nowadays the first hurdle is the opening gambit. Whoever makes the first move must ensure they cannot be accused of sexual harassment. A survey by The Industrial Society showed 54% of working women and 15% of working men claim to have been sexually harassed at work. That means there are an awful lot of lawbreakers about, because harassment has been illegal since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The Act does not define harassment in detail but the courts have taken it to include unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct. The key word is 'unwelcome'. Almost everyone is flattered by gentle invitations.

Almost no one likes to be pressurised. And importantly, while harassment is normally a result of persistent behaviour, it can occur in a single incident. The basic rule is: if in doubt, leave it out. Being taken to court for alleged sexual harassment is unlikely to be a smart career move.

Having successfully leapt the first hurdle, what next? Should you be open about involvement or try to keep it under wraps? If the former, does it matter in today's permissive society if you occasionally snog a bit in public? Should you encourage your work colleagues to treat you as 'an item' and invite you to events together or should you continue to pursue independent roles?

(If either is married, all these questions are irrelevant, since secrecy will inevitably be the order of the day - and the night).

As few companies now consider in-house liaisons between unmarrieds to be a hanging offence, it is usually wiser to go public, at least to your close friends. You can then rely on them telling everyone else. (Don't waste your breath telling them it's a secret because that will only ensure that they and their confidants will say it's a secret when they pass it on.) The advantage of going public is that once everyone knows, they will soon get bored gossiping about you - whereas a clandestine intrigue is an endless source of juicy tittle-tattle.

Anyway, if you try to keep it hush-hush, odds against succeeding are longer than on winning the lottery. You will be given away by body language, or be seen out together, or you will inadvertently say something that will help others put two and two (or in this case, one and one) together.

Nor are e-mails confidential, although most office gigolos cavalierly use them as though they were.

Coming out, however, should not lead to snogging around the workplace - unless you happen to be employed in one of those sections of the media or the arts where luvvy-hugging and kissie-blowing are de rigueur.

(If they are, you can safely engage in them, since other people will think that they imply envy rather than affection - as they usually do.)

Colleagues will start to join you together in office events once they perceive the affair is serious. But some of them will always be ready to criticise if there is any hint that the romance is getting in the way of work. Keeping yourselves at a distance, publicly, will offer malicious critics fewer opportunities to cast such aspersions.

If the office romance breaks up, never trust an ex-lover to keep mum - especially if you were the senior partner in the partnership. Whether it was a one-night stand or a long and loving relationship, I'll bet a diamond ring to a bent paperclip that once it's over your ex will boast or blab. People who have kissed the boss always tell.

Remember Monica Lewinsky, the classic case of a boss and employee dalliance that went horribly wrong.

While most companies traditionally disapproved of staff flirtations, one legendary movie mogul was all in favour.

'It means they carry on talking about work when they're in bed,' he averred.

From my own experience (I married a workmate), he was dead right. As to whether or not it was a smart career move on my part, the jury's still out.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of Bozell UK, the advertising group.

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