The art of refereeing office love games

03 November 2011 -


Intimate relationships in the workplace occur for numerous complex reasons, writes GQ columnist Rebecca Newman, but if they are managed well, they can be a positive force

At work, as in life, there are few constants. But come rain or shine, boom or bust, put a group of go-getters in a dynamic work environment and romantic sparks will fly. A survey by employment law consultancy Peninsula found not only that 89% of UK workers have a secret crush on a colleague, but that 62% have acted on this urge and had an office affair.

This presents managers with an interesting problem. On the one hand, you seek to shape a team with close bonds; a degree of flirtation may well accompany, even promote this. On the other, an ill-starred liaison that jeopardises harmony and risks litigation is emphatically to be avoided.

Pressing buttons

To reach for the root of the issue, it is worth understanding what it is about the workplace that stimulates the libido.

“Basically, it’s familiarity,” says psychology consultant Dr Sandra Wheatley. “We spend so much time at work that we know the people around us better than we know our closest friends: we know how to press their buttons, how to get under their radar.”

Financial Times associate editor and management columnist Lucy Kellaway, who researched the topic for her book In Office Hours, agrees. “Proximity is the big one; people work fantastically long hours and have so much in common,” she says. “Boredom is important too. More than that it is terribly easy to have an affair at the office, and technology means you can start something at the click of a mouse.”

Throw in the clearly defined hierarchy of the office, the aphrodisiac nature of power and the well-trodden route of sleeping to the top (it may sound outdated but a 2004 MORI survey found that one woman in 10 has slept with her boss and one in five would consider it if it would boost their career) and you have yourself a sexual hothouse.

Storming and norming

From a managerial perspective, the first step is to recognise that all this sexual energy is not necessarily a bad thing. One long-standing newspaper editor condones affairs, reckoning they keep staff alert, energised and in the office. An entire international clothing brand sells itself on the horny frisson between its youthful and lissom employees – which, inevitably, the boys and girls often follow through into physical relationships.

Wheatley suggests affairs are a natural part of group bonding. “Famously, groups go through three stages: forming, or getting to know each other; storming, or figuring out how to interact; norming, when everyone settles in,” she explains. “Relationships can be seen very much as part of storming in this evolution. A manager would do well to think of them as a way to get to know their employees, by watching how employees comport themselves to learn how devious, selfish, amoral they are, whether they are characters you want to represent your company.”

Moreover, workplace romances often have happy endings. According to research done by the Industrial Society, half of all office workers meet their partner over a heated desk, with high-profile examples being Bill and Melinda Gates and Michelle and Barack Obama.

On the other side of the coin, plenty of people find the daydreams they had about their hot colleague in accounts would have been better kept the stuff of fantasy. Some 54% of UK employees regret having had an office romance. And research done by Human and Legal Resources found that one in five workers who have embarked on them ended up leaving their jobs.

Contractual obligations?

Three kinds of relationship fallout can be especially damaging to a company. The first is coercion or exploitation – particularly where one half of the couple is senior to the other. The second is scandal – which leads to disruption, mudslinging and prejudice. The third is litigation.

In the US “love contracts” try to protect companies from the latter. In the UK, while companies including HSBC and NatWest have guidelines regarding correct behaviour written into company policy, legislation itself has not caught on. This is partly due to Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which enshrines the right to a private life, hence rendering love contracts hard to enforce.

“Anyway, it’s daft to imagine you can ban this kind of thing,” says Mike Emmett of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD). “In trying to, you will reduce your credibility. Equally impractical is getting people to report the start and the end of a liaison. US lawyers are all safety first, but it is not even clear the degree to which legislation would help you in the event of a lawsuit. Our advice is to keep an eye on things and be willing to respond if necessary.”

Kellaway agrees. “The statistics are clear that colleagues are going to get together at work – and why shouldn’t they?” she says. “Besides, if you ask for disclosure, the instances that most need to be shared still won’t be, and you’ll discredit your policy. Far better to create a culture where people will share problems if or when they arise, and management are able to compose a pragmatic solution.”

Taking sides

Say the worst happens and a toxic relationship explodes in your workplace. What then? Andrew Pullman, managing director of conflict management firm People Risk Solutions, was called in to handle one such instance. A manufacturing firm in the north of England had been considering dismissing an under-performing managing director, Tom. They then received an anonymous tip-off that Tom was having an affair with his personal assistant, Sue. As Pullman launched an investigation it emerged that Sue was pregnant, and that many of her peers had strong views on the way that Tom had behaved in forming a relationship with such a close colleague. “In the end he was dismissed,” reveals Pullman. “Not because of the affair itself. Partly on account of his work and partly because of his lapse of judgement.”

Care in the investigation is paramount. “There can be a huge level of disruption if an investigation is badly handled,” says Dr Rory Ridley-Duff, a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University who explores management of workplace relationships in his book Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy. “People take sides, stretch the truth, gang up on each other – in severe instances it can become a kind of mob rule.” A survey published by Andrew and Nada Kakabadse found that only 2% of people in the UK felt that delicate situations were best addressed by formal procedures. “Instead, professional opinion is increasingly viewing mediation as a better answer, and arbitration service Acas now recommends it as a valuable way of handling allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct,” says Dr Ridley-Duff.

There is also general agreement that a central tenet of successful organisations is that employees are treated with respect. “There is a great deal to be said for treating people like adults to persuade them to behave as such,” adds passion coach Dr Vena Ramphal. “If you wish to give any kind of preliminary advice it might be to explain that often sexual attraction between co-workers can simply be a consequence of admiration for their skills at their job. If two people are sure of the profundity of their feelings, and ready to act in a professional way in the office, then they should not hold off on having a relationship. But if they are simply feeling sexual attraction, a shock of lust for a colleague they work closely with, the wisest response is not to fritter it in a fleeting sexual encounter but rather to harness it into working creatively together. It can make people extraordinarily productive.”

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