Secretarial: Highly confidential

Many of us are tempted at some point in our working lives into relationships with our colleagues, and some can't resist. But does anyone survive them?
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The Independent Culture
Be they in Washington, Westminster or an office near you, sexual liaisons in the workplace, whether above or below board, are rife. A staggering 50 per cent of people meet their future partners at or through work, and a recent survey shows that 82 per cent of executives have had an on-the-job romance. But be warned: sharing a bed as well as office space with a colleague can have a detrimental effect on both your social and your working life, not to mention your career prospects. For when an office romance ends in tears, it can lead to humiliation, embarrassment and even resignation.

Susannah Martin, a 27-year-old secretary, began an intense but short- lived relationship with a colleague just days after she had started a new job.

"When I came back down to earth, it was a very big drop," Susannah recalls. "I realised I'd been so caught up in my new romance that I hadn't bothered to get to know anyone else at work, and hadn't given all I could to my job. I made a dreadful impression, and wound up moving jobs as soon as I could."

Susannah's experience is far from unusual, and is partly attributable to the emotional roller-coaster new recruits embark on when starting a job.

Paul Jacobs, Office Angels' director of customer services, has seen all too often the heartbreak that can result from rushing into the arms of the nearest charming colleague. "Studies show that people's emotions are particularly intense for the first three months of any new job." he explains. "They get over-excited by their achievement, but can very quickly feel extremely low when they realise what they've taken on."

Workplace dynamics can cloud your judgement to such an extent that the person you think you know and love can turn out to be quite a different creature outside the safe confines of the office.

Rachel Richards, a 31-year-old PA, experienced this distortion at first hand. "I started seeing Andre after a three-month flirtation. He exuded confidence, competence and coolness, which heightened his attractiveness to me. Despite the fact that he was younger than most of us, we all looked up to him. However, outside the workplace his work persona vanished, and he seemed a fish out of water."

Had Rachel allowed for the dust to settle, she might have seen Andre in a truer light. As it was, she was left with perhaps the worst workplace scenario of all - coping with breaking up with someone who was sitting just a few desks away. After all, it's bad enough catching a glimpse of an ex-lover just after a split, but to see him or her every day can be torture - particularly if the split isn't particularly amicable.

"The likelihood of one of you feeling vengeful is quite strong, and the workplace is the ideal place to trip one another up," cautions Knowles. And she adds: "If you haven't taken the time to establish yourself in your job, you'll undoubtedly be the one who suffers."

Counsellor Knowles's words of warning certainly ring true in the case of Rachel. "Andre started freezing me out and backing off," she explains. "It was extremely painful, because I couldn't get away from him, nor could I get close to him. I had two weeks of real heartbreak. Finally we agreed to try re-establishing a working relationship, but even now, I find myself getting hot and flustered and feeling off-balance when he comes near."

Paul Jacobs makes clear that settling down in your job makes a terrific difference to the likely success of a relationship with a colleague. "The dangers presented by an office affair will be less if you wait until you're more confident about your role. You're safer forming a good working relationship with colleagues about whom you have had a chance to make informed judgements."

Janet Gutkind, 29, dated Colin Philips, 31, three weeks after having met him, and seven years later they are planning their wedding. Janet feels it was a success because they both consciously decided to be level- headed from the start, as Janet explains. "I think our relationship stood a chance because we took it very slowly, and agreed that we'd be mature about it if it didn't work out. When it first got really serious, Colin applied for a transfer - which was something he'd been considering anyway."

"If it hadn't been for that, I think the pressure might have been too much." Colin agrees. Luckily for him, he was allowed to make his own decision about where he worked.

A number of companies already have policies in place that demand automatic transfer of a employee in the event of him or her developing a relationship with a colleague, warns Angela Barron, of the Institute of Personnel Development. "Banks, for example, often consider it a risk to have two people living together in the same branch, usually for security reasons."

But whatever your long-term intentions, if you do decide to pursue an in-house flirtation you will need to brace yourself for the inevitable office gossip. The best course of action, should you wish to preserve your dignity and privacy, is to act in a manner least likely to provide the opportunity for other colleagues' entertainment.

According to Denise Knowles, a counsellor for Relate, it's important to strike a balance between being completely open about your relationship, and clandestine canoodling beside the photocopier. "That way, most gossip will pass quite quickly," Knowles says. "But if it doesn't, and it becomes malicious, you should treat it as harassment and appeal to your personnel officer."

As the number of hours we work increases, the chances of getting intimate with someone across a desk become more likely. Thankfully, there are plenty of celebrated success stories demonstrating how partnerships with staying- power can be formed within the workplace. Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, met when they were both young lawyers, and John Prescott fell in love with Pauline, now his wife, in the local department store where they both worked. Even Robin Cook eventually made an honest woman of his secretary Gaynor (once he'd managed to extricate himself from marriage to the first Mrs Cook), and his fellow Labour MP, David Clelland, apparently intends to follow in the Foreign Secretary's footsteps.

But the golden rule to bear in mind, when falling for a colleague, is to keep your feet on the ground. Or, as 007 might have said to the infatuated Miss Moneypenny, remain "shaken, but not stirred".