The notion of the workplace as a dating agency has been surprisingly slow to enter the popular consciousness in Britain, particularly since research suggests that three in five employees have had at least one affair with a colleague, and 40 per cent of couples are believed to have met at work. Some organisations, anachronistically, still frown on such activity. Workers at a large merchant bank recently received a memorandum requiring them to ask permission before embarking on an in-house affair. (A potentially odd scenario, surely. How to begin? 'Sir - when a Mummy banker and a Daddy banker love each other specially much . . . ?')
However, current revelations about the sexual hotbed which is the Dudley branch of the Child Support Agency are doing much to change all that and, given the CSA's role as national moral policeman, can probably be seen as something of a green light for workers tempted by the trans-office frisson.
Those who have missed the exquisite detail that emerged from the CSA case at the industrial tribunal in Birmingham would need a series of diagrams properly to understand it. Suffice it to say that Stephen Davies, an executive officer, claims he was sexually harassed by Mrs A and denies he sexually harassed her. Her husband, Mr A, told Mr Davies he was having an affair with Mrs C, in order, he says, to protect Mrs C from Mr Davies. Mr Davies denied he laid a bet that he would sleep with Mrs C. It was claimed he cornered her for kisses at two CSA Christmas parties. Mr Davies denies having an affair with a Miss D but admits dropping his trousers at a CSA launch party and kissing Miss E afterwards, though denies that, as Miss E claims, he touched her breasts. They all, with the exception of Mr A, worked for the beleagured CSA.
'There's an argument that if a given group or species feels under pressure, that simulates a threat to the species and stimulates the need to procreate in order to protect the species,' explains Dr John MacUre, author of the BBC's medical drama series Cardiac Arrest, which explores similar, though more muted activities in the medical profession.
In-breeding is becoming well established in ever widening areas - politics, law, medicine and even computer software: Douglas Hurd, Nigel Lawson, Margaret Beckett, Lord Hailsham, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates have all married professional colleagues or employees.
'There are more women in the workplace now,' says Professor Cary Cooper, author of The Workplace Revolution. 'Combine that with stress, and the pressure to work longer and later, and it is not surprising that workplace affairs should be increasing. People, whether single or married, are likely to seek out someone at work who understands their issues. You could call it rampant sex, but it is more likely a question of seeking support in a relationship which can easily become sexual.'
Quite so. Solace and survival were undoubtably what the CSA protagonists were after but other factors, too, come into play. Antony Marsh runs Allegiance Review, a Relate- style counselling service for companies, and finds sorting out office affairs forms an increasing part of his workload. 'People working together naturally have a high level of compatability. When you combine that with the fact that people are often at their most attractive best at work - confident, competent, sparkling - the outbreak of romance is not surprising at all.'
Neurotic, shambling, inept and hungover might be a more familiar perception to many but, as Marsh explains, a strong element of fantasy is usually present at the start of any affair. What does surprise him is not the amount of sexual activity going on (a survey by the Strathclyde Business School in the mid-Eighties, revealed that those questioned had observed an average of six workplace affairs each) but the unwillingness of companies to address the situation.
Few British corporations have a stated policy on in-house romance - a survey of 50 companies by Director magazine in 1991 found only two, who wished to remain anonymous. But, according to Marsh: 'There is a shadow-side to many companies which clearly disapproves.'
Is any disapproval justified? Are office affairs a bad thing or not? In America, of course, the whole matter has been dissected to the point of utter boredom, the office affair broken down into helpful sub-categories - True Love, the Utilitarian Relationship, the Fling.
Verdicts vary. The anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that just as parental taboos are necessary for the safe upbringing of children, taboos against sex at work are necessary for men and women to work effectively together. But some employers claim that romances actually increase productivity, greatly enhancing the working atmosphere and cutting down absenteeism. 'The bottom line is deceptively simple,' claim Amercian business academics Gary Powell and Lisa Mainiero. 'Managers must act when a romantic relationship becomes disruptive to work.'
Here in Britain, an Industrial Relations Legal Information Bulletin illustrated various forms of possible disruption. There was, for example, the case of Newman v Alarmco (a general manager and a secretary): 'She had chased him into his office, where someone else was working, and they had fallen on the floor in the course of her efforts to put jam on his face'; and Cassidy v HC Goodman Ltd, where Mr Cassidy, having promised to 'put his private life in order' was discovered to be living with his fiancee and another woman employee and 'seeing' a former employee at the same time. Disruption and division of other employees, deterioration in job performance, damage to the employers image and divulgence of confidental information were all cited as potential trouble areas.
A survey on 'Romance in the Office' by the Alfred Marks employment agency was more encouraging, however. It concluded: 'Very few people let relationships affect their work and most companies appear to let them run their course with no interference, providing work performance remains consistent. This Christmas could be a very happy one for some]' (One in four office romances, apparently, begin at the Christmas party).
Last Christmas a discussion on sex in the office, held by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, produced, according to the organiser, Cindy Gallop, 'an overall consensus that, although casual flings are best avoided, if you do feel strongly towards a colleague then you should follow your heart. In the end relationships are what matter.'
One who spoke there from a position of some authority was Carol Reay. 'I had an affair with my teacher at school, my lecturer at university, lived for five years with my account director and at the moment I'm living with an ex-client of mine,' she told me, adding, 'I remember I married a copywriter at one agency and my boss told me it was a mistake.
'Lots of companies don't like it,' says Reay, now a partner in her own company. 'They don't formally discourage it, they make it clear through attitude. But I've always been open and never had any trouble.' Too much openness, however, can lead to a need for backtracking. There was an oft-recounted incident in one of the TV companies, where two employees saw no reason not to make love in an office during the Christmas party. When they were interrupted by another colleague, the woman, regretting her earlier abandon, found the only way out was to put a waste paper bin on her head.
Apart from problems which will exist anyway if either or both partners are married to others, Marsh finds the main difficulties occur during break-ups - another argument against the casual fling.
He stresses the importance of keeping romantic activity - phone calls, lunches, personal chat, jam fights - out of the office, both for the well-being of colleagues and the relationship. 'It's amazing how often an unhealthy relationship can fade when there's no filing cabinet to hide behind. Remember, too, how easily proximity and fantasy can convince you that a dickhead is not a dickhead. Don't rush in, wait till you're sure.'
Secrecy is a difficult area, particularly since, for participants and the rest of the office alike, this provides much of the fun.
'Any affair which depends on clandestine frissons of delight is unlikely to become a meaningful relationship,' warns Marsh. 'The number one rule is to assume that everyone knows - they almost always do. But whilst you should try not to give colleagues incontrovertible evidence that an affair is going on, if a couple feel that unwelcome discovery might harm their career paths they should behave in an adult way, declare the situation and negotiate how best to deal with it.'
Adult behaviour is the key, for employers and employees alike. 'However, it is deeply unhelpful for companies to behave like controlling and directing parents. Many would do well to stop pretending that when people come to work, they leave their normal feelings at home.'
Some companies are already showing signs of going the other way. An issue of the Legal & General company newlsetter in 1990 enthused: 'The office can often be a tender trap where love can grow and even blossom into marriage.' Then it ran rapturous accounts of the courtships of three hapless L&G couples. The corporate arranged marriage may not be too far away.
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