Some companies don't allow it, but some people just can't help it: falling for a colleague can be a bad career move. Margaret Regan reports
When I started my new job I was told: 'Don't even bother looking at the single females in this company. It's not allowed'," says Roger, a 27-year-old sales company rep. In the workaholic 1990s more and more people are meeting their partners at work, especially now there are more women in the workplace than ever before, but many companies take a dim view of office relationships . If a couple take their "domestics" to work, or one leaves for a job with a rival company, that is considered bad for business.

The issue has been highlighted this month with the publication of a report by Income Data Services, specialists in industrial relations and employment law, which looks at the implications of workplace affairs. According to the report, it is legal for a company to have a rule against office relationships, but it should be a "clear policy so all employees know where they stand".

For fear of favouritism, employers may encourage one half of a couple to leave or take up a position in a different department. In this situation a woman can often lose out, because statistically she is more likely to be the one in the lowlier position.

"Despite 25 years of intense feminist activity, the old double standard is still alive and well," says Rosalind Miles, a writer for Cosmopolitan. "Women lose status by sexual activity, men don't. Unless the couple become a recognised item, the woman will be perceived as less serious about her work. Also men usually have higher status than women in the workplace, and unless it's a strong attraction with the opportunity of going somewhere, women have to ask themselves seriously 'do I want this?' "

Lola, 30, now a successful producer, recalls a disastrous experience a few years ago when she was working as a researcher in a television company. She had a whirlwind affair with one of the producers and married him. "Problems began to surface after we were married. Work to him was one long party, with social life and work life mixed in. He was happy to carry on living like that, but my expectations were different. Once the relationship broke down, I found it hard to disguise it at work. I'm mortified that I did the girly thing of rowing with him there and bursting into tears. It's better to be called 'brave' than an incontinent asshole."

While men can vent relationship tensions in a more socially acceptable way, by going to the pub with workmates, women at this point often feel isolated. "The worst thing was our boss took me out asking for the gory details," continues Lola. "I suggested that I should cut my losses and move on, and he rubbed salt in the wound by saying: 'To be frank, it doesn't matter what you do'."

Women are vulnerable, too, if they're having a relationship with someone who is responsible for them, as in the doctor / patient or lecturer / student scenario. When Mike, a university lecturer, first started seeing Ann, a student 16 years younger to whom he is now happily married, he sensed strong disapproval from other staff. "I was carpeted by the vice- principal. The main problem the college authorities had was not so much the moral issue, but whether she would gain some advantage from it. To stop seeing her, though, would have been untruthful. If it had just been a fling, for the sake of my job I'd have thought twice. But I knew this would be a long-term relationship."

While men are judged less severely if they blur the boundaries between sex and work, too public an affair, or a string of liaisons in the same office, can compromise a man's position. "I was seen as the Don Juan / Casanova figure in the proceedings," recalls Mike.

Gay relationships, too, come under pressure if the couple work together. Tim, who worked for the same airline as his boyfriend David, found the other crew members didn't take their relationship seriously. "The stewardesses felt they could flirt with one of us outrageously with no regard for the other partner, while the flight deck, and the captains especially, felt uncomfortable with it and never really accepted us." Work romances require constant vigilance, because, certainly in the early stages, they can be the focus of office attention. Now married and working separately, Suzanne and Rory were both in the same engineering firm when they met. "I poured scorn on friends of mine who had affairs at work, I thought it was a sad thing, like shitting on your own doorstep," says Rory. "But with Suzanne I realised that it need not be an issue, it need not affect our careers. We both made a conscious effort to stay away from each other at work to avoid hassle."

Suzanne, though, shudders at the memory. "I'm a private person and I didn't like everyone knowing my business. We tried to conceal it initially, but the more we denied it the more interesting it became to gossip-mongers. I'd say it's best to come clean from the beginning." Rory and Suzanne were lucky in that their relationship was accepted by the company; a husband- and-wife team might be great running a hotel, but in many professions they're still viewed as a potential threat.

Ed and Stephanie both work as editors for the same publishing company. "Our boss said that they were asking 'upstairs' about 'how it was going'. That makes me paranoid. It didn't make me paranoid until Ed and I got married, but now I sit in meetings worrying what they think of us, whether they have respect for us," says Stephanie. Taking a more sanguine view, Ed remarks that he has no intention of their relationship becoming the Blue Peter pet. "After a while a relationship can become part of the office fabric, a defining characteristic. But we've done all we can not to make an issue out of the fact we're a couple."

While work couples have a lot in common, in most cases one or both end up working elsewhere in order for the relationship to grow. "To tell you the truth we're afraid of what we'd do if we worked apart, we're so used to each other," says Stephanie. According to Jenny Beddington, of the British Association of Psychotherapists, the couple at work encounter problems when they don't have enough space. "It can get claustrophobic. If there's change, or envy, when one gets on and the other doesn't, that could cause problems." Newspaper designer Yasmin was bereft when her partner, Pete, a section editor, went to work for another paper, but then found that their relationship improved. Working separately brought them closer together. "I missed him a lot when he left, and it took me a month to settle down. Now though, I can see the benefits. It's better. It's special when we see each other. I liked him being there at work but just as important is that I know I'm an independent person, and I want to hold on to that."

'IT WAS ONLY WHEN SHE WAS MADE REDUNDANT THAT THE RELATIONSHIP REALLY TOOK OFF'

Angela, nurse, 30: John and I had always got on extremely well, so it was easy to keep our affair secret, in fact work colleagues used to suggest we should go out together. When we made it "official" it was like living in a goldfish bowl. I had to lie constantly about my feelings. If I was depressed or particularly jolly, people would assume it was because of our relationship and they'd ask John about me. It was a real battle trying to keep an even keel. If I went out for lunch with a male colleague it would invariably get back to him as a bit of salacious gossip, and if I saw him chatting to another woman, I would think he was having an affair. When John got a job somewhere else, things became easier.

Stephen, company director, 38: My affair with an employee turned out to be disastrous. We went on holiday together very soon after our relationship started, so it was obvious from the word go. It's a small business, so I expect everybody knew, but most of them kept out of it. Diane made it obvious she wanted preferential treatment. During our relationship I would confide in her about the businesses and she had a certain amount of influence, which I'm sure she enjoyed. When I found out she was seeing someone else behind my back, I ended the relationship. She started running me down, taking days "off sick" when she knew I was really busy and accusing me of picking on her. After months of hell she got a job somewhere else. A year later she's asked if she can come back part-time; she was good at her job so I've accepted. We've both changed - she's married now and I'm in a happy relationship, but if she's after preferential treatment it won't work.

Stephanie, Personal assistant, 30: I met Martin at an office party, but as soon as I found out he was married I wasn't interested. I work for a large company and my closest workmate acted as a go-between, telling me his marriage had broken down and encouraging us to get together. When we decided to come clean, I kissed him at a party in front of the office gossip so word got around pretty fast! At first, my boss was anxious. As his PA I have access to confidential information and he was worried about pillow talk, but I'd never do anything like that.

Jennifer, waitress, 27: We got together on the quiet. Working in a restaurant is very gossipy and my workmates soon found out. It didn't bother me, in fact I found the attention exciting. He was very volatile, so I never knew what to expect from him. I got all glamorous and spent a fortune on clothes and make-up. When he went back to his ex-girlfriend I was relieved. The whole relationship was very emotionally charged - and expensive!

Stephen, financial adviser, 32: We got together socially and it gradually got more serious. I decided quite quickly that I wanted a more on-off relationship because I felt smothered seeing her 24 hours a day. People knowing about us at work never bothered me. After two years she was made redundant and then the relationship really took off.

Jonathan, actor, 23: Michael made it clear that he was interested as soon as I met him at a work party. Showbusiness can be very bitchy and we didn't get together for a long time because someone told him I was married which was a complete lie. When we hit it off he dumped his boyfriend who also worked there. He had a nervous breakdown as a result and had to leave. I worked as a lowly usher and Michael was a dancer. The two areas are separate and when I started socialising with the cast my colleagues got very sniffy about it. It was an extra-stressful time because I was "coming out" with this relationship. Everybody at work thought I was straight until they found out about me and Michael.

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