Managing the ethics of the office fling

12 April 2012 -


Are office affairs really that bad? They needn’t be. In fact, many are rather fruitful, finds Agatha Sutcliffe

Everyone loves a bit of scandal and gossip; everyone likes a love affair. But the office romance is equivalent to the 3pm cake lapse: you know you shouldn’t but you just can’t help yourself. You feel guilty and weak but there is something thrilling about the mischief. No matter what you promise yourself, you know that before too long you will be back for more.

A survey carried out in 2011 by found that 59% of respondents had had an office romance. Of those, a quarter said that the relationship had been with a subordinate. Some 18% had had an affair with someone in a higher position. Furthermore, 63% of those that have had a relationship with a colleague say they would do it again. This is perhaps because office-based relationships are remarkably successful: a third of them make it all the way to the altar. By contrast, only one in five of romances that begin through online dating become sustained relationships.

So why all the fuss? Office romance has an ethical stigma. Perhaps this is because the restrained emotions, reactions and suppressed sexuality that the office requires are the antithesis of how we behave when in love, and it makes us nervous when the two are combined. Or maybe it’s more prosaic – office flings tend to be associated with distraction and decreased productivity.

Most likely it is to do with the fact that whether the relationship is carried out with an equal, a subordinate or – most controversially – a superior, treatment and perception between the colleagues inevitably changes, for better or for worse. The lovebirds are no longer just “one of us”. The figures show that 38% of people feel they have seen a colleague gain a professional advantage because of a romantic relationship with a superior and 31% admit to feeling uncomfortable due to an ongoing romance in the office.

But isn’t it time we changed our attitudes? We spend longer hours working than ever before, which leaves very little time to meet old friends, let alone make new ones. We would expect the people we work with to share our values and passions to some extent and, if you work in close proximity with someone for 40 plus hours a week, you are going to know a lot about them, what makes them tick and how they operate. Half the job of working out if they are really for you is already done. If we eliminate the possibility of dating a colleague we are significantly draining our own resources – why throw legitimate fish out of the net?

Many reports also show that office romances actually lead to increased productivity and decreased absenteeism. There are scare stories of sexual harassment cases and legal battles. But can’t we give ourselves credit and believe we are a bit more mature than all that? If your office has a policy (and it probably does – although my research shows that most employees are unaware of it) then adhere to that. Don’t use office emails to communicate, be open and honest with your boss (but wait until you are confident that the fling is going somewhere), continue to socialise with your other colleagues the way you used to. And, whatever you do, don’t do public displays of affection in the office or surrounding coffee shops. If you are sensible and respectful, then it’s more than likely your colleagues will take your lead and give you the same respect back.

Sometimes there will be casualties. Tears and tantrums may ensue. There are policies to adhere to; there are social stigmas and ethical conundrums to navigate. But we make our own rules when it comes to love – and that may well mean breaking someone else’s along the way.

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