The new rules of office sex

They tried to ban it, but why fight human nature? Cayte Williams reports on how business has come to terms with love at work

FOR DECADES, there's been a cast-iron reason not to get involved with your "line manager", however sexy: when it all goes wrong, it's not going to be the boss that gets fired. If your boss is a man and you are his female junior, the above is even more likely to hold true. No wonder sensible girls didn't fall in love at work and companies regarded office romance as a time-wasting disruption.

This week, however, a new directive from IBM's American HQ bespeaks a change in attitude. The company has given up its Canute-like stand against love at work and invited senior executives, not their hapless juniors, to move to a different position in the company should they become involved. Back in 1994, the manual read: "A manager may not date or have a romantic relationship with an employee who reports through his or her management chain, even if the relationship is voluntary and welcome." Instead, IBM have now substituted: "If they want to pursue a relationship with a subordinate we ask them to step forward and transfer to another job within the company. The onus is on them to transfer, not the subordinate who may have less flexibility."

The impulse to fire the less senior employee has lessened as employers realise that they may be losing valuable staff - both male and female - to old-fashioned, patriarchal attitudes. As women move up the chain of command, it is less likely that they will be the junior in the relationship; and if they are, they are more likely to be a valuable part of a thriving team than a disposable Ms Jones with a notebook.

The old rules date from a period when offices were mainly composed of men, many of them married. The attractive, younger secretaries were a dangerous sexual distraction and arguably needed protection from executive predations. One woman had a relationship with her boss 35 years ago and still remembers it with remorse. "I worked as a PA for a small company, and he was one of the owners," she says. "It went on for three years. Even though he wasn't married, the relationship was treated as being somehow rather sordid, and I did feel ostracised by my colleagues. Nobody was outright rude to me, but while the relationship lasted I was never invited out on office girls' nights. Eventually we split up when he went back to his ex-wife. I was ignored by everyone and asked to work for one of the other bosses. He made it quite clear he thought my duties went far beyond the office so I left."

But times have changed. Now men and women work in equal numbers on a more equal footing. Frankly, it's hard to imagine where one finds a partner, if not at work. "Work is the most common place to meet a partner, with college a close second," agrees Angela Barren, policy advisor for The Institute of Personnel and Development, "so every case should be looked at on merit." We work longer hours than ever before and our work and social life are entwined. The conventional structures for meeting future partners, such as clubs, church or local communities have eroded as our lifestyles change. By 30, the thought of picking up at bars or parties leaves the average executive queasy. "It's not productive for companies to fight office relationships," says Neil Crawford at the Tavistock Clinic, which specialises in relationships. "If relationships are driven underground, you get major problems."

Other American giants are following a similarly pragmatic line to IBM. "In the UK we employ lots of people in their twenties and thirties," says Nial Murphy, spokesman for AT&T, "so office relationships are unavoidable. We tend to treat such situations with common sense rather than referring to a written manual. Previously it was very much frowned upon, but now we know how to retain good employees." But passion can stir up problems. Bosses worry that a relationship may become more important than work, that accusations of nepotism will come from envious colleagues, and that it will all go sour in the end. At the BBC there may be complaints of modern, American-style management, but when it comes to relationships, it's stuck in the dark ages. "In the guidelines issued to all managers," says a BBC spokeswoman, "it says that no member of staff can be in authority over a relative or someone with whom they have close personal ties." On the other hand, when there are no written rules or guidelines on how to deal with office romance, companies can use it to their advantage. A liaison can be used by colleagues to further their own careers or by employers as an excuse to get rid of certain staff. "People take sides," says Neil Crawford. "If one of the couple has to go, your job may well depend on whom you back."

The trendier professions have never been particularly squeamish. At one thrusting young TV company in the Eighties, affairs with colleagues were positively encouraged. "Our leaders were rather sniffy about the chemistry between its employees, or lack of it," says one former researcher. "It was strongly suggested that we should all get off with each other like mad, and it was thought the static that this brought up would serve the creative ego. These things are never put down in writing, that is just the culture of television." It was a case of keeping the bone fide relationship a secret, rather than the office romance. "They didn't really like the idea of people having a life outside the project so if you had a relationship outside work," he continues, "you had to play it down. I didn't want to live my life like that. I valued my relationship too much and decided the situation wasn't for me." And then, of course, there is the golden rule of television: DCOL (doesn't count on location) where production crew treat out-of-town affairs as a perk of the job. This year Channel Four have even been hinting at a fling between presenters Denise van Outen and Johnny Vaughan to boost ratings for The Big Breakfast.

Whatever the company policy, work relationships will affect office dynamics. Richard Topping, a journalist who specialises in management issues, started a relationship with his boss within weeks of starting his job with a PR company. "I was interviewed by my now-wife," he explains. "She was on the associate board and I was a lowly executive. It started, predictably, at the office party about five weeks after I joined. We kept it very quiet even though we began living together very early on. Katie would drive to work and she would drop me off two blocks away where I would take a different route in. We were very discreet, but a colleague found out when he came over to visit and saw Katie's car outside. I worked for a very young, vibrant company with a single person's culture," he continues, "so nobody really knew what to do. I only really came across one hostile person who was my immediate boss but answerable to Katie. She felt sandwiched between the two of us, and in the end I offered to leave and got another job."

In the States, fall-out from the office romances that go badly wrong has led to new company policy in California. Companies are forcing employees who have affairs to sign love contracts, where they agree to a "mutually consensual amorous relationship" and accept responsibility if the romance turns sour. It is an attempt to stop wounded lovers from claiming sexual harassment or discrimination if the relationship bottoms out. However, it's not all bad news. If you want an office relationship, the best place is Japan. Companies like Hitachi run in-house corporate dating agencies which keep files of eligible members from a 400,000-strong workforce. If a lonely heart wants a partner, a meeting can be arranged with a suitable candidate through a Wedding Commander. Could this be the future for office romance?

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