When a colleague becomes a lover

Office affairs are a fact of life. In the concluding extract from her new book, Judi James sets out the rules of engagement

IT HAS been estimated that up to half of us meet our future partners through or at work, which makes it a significant venue for budding romance.

There are obvious plus points to meeting your partner at work:

1. You know you will have at least one thing in common, as well as an informed ear to bounce all your troubles off when you get home in the evening;

2. You will probably have had the opportunity to study this person quite closely before starting to date them. Work is a way of test-driving a potential partner (ie getting to know them) before taking the plunge and asking them out. Better still, you'll be seeing them during the day, rather than just propping up a bar with them in the evening. This system obviously has advantages over night-time pick-ups in darkened clubs, holiday romances, (notoriously short-lived), or blind dates arranged by friends.

3. The convenience factor. Work together during the day, pop out for a quick drink after work, Bob's your uncle. High-powered City workers of the Nineties are accustomed to using the office as a complete life- support system. Food is brought in to them. Drinks are on tap. Everything is in order, from stress-busting massage at the desk to on-site counselling, so why not pick a mate there too?

Making a pass is a dangerous manoeuvre in the workplace. If your interest is not reciprocated you could be accused of sexual harassment or - at least - end up looking sad and sleazy once the office gossips have done their worst.

The Chat-up: Fancying someone you work with is not a criminal offence and neither is asking them out. It's always wise to keep in mind, though, that in the workplace you should think and plan before you act. Prior to making a play for a colleague, work out the following - however hard it is to be coldly rational under the circumstances:

1. Do either of you have attachments - are you or this other person married/living with one another? Do either of you have a steady partner? Does that partner work in the same company?

2. What are your positions in the company pecking order? Are they compatible?

3. Are you in any danger of being accused of favouritism if you start to see each other outside work? Will the charge of confidentiality come up?

4. How highly do you value this person as an employee/ colleague/ friend? Will a relationship compromise that situation?

5. What if you see one another and then break up? Will that affect the business relationship?

6. What do you expect the company will think about a romance between you?

Etiquette: Dating a work colleague requires a good amount of old-fashioned social etiquette, not because it will make you any more attractive but because it will make the whole process a lot more comfortable and a lot less difficult, if and when the whole thing ends.

Subtlety is not the wisest ploy. Working with someone means forging an effective relationship. Hinting that you would like to take things further but never being specific can make the whole relationship uncomfortable, especially if it's a boss/employee situation.

Trying to blur the lines between business and pleasure will appear sleazy. This would entail getting someone to work late at the office and then taking them out for a meal "because it's too late to go home and cook" or taking them away on a business conference and making sure your rooms are next door to one another. Hedging your bets in this way is mean. Working well with someone means being relaxed with them - and that is impossible if you're not sure whether they're trying to seduce you or not.

When someone operates in this manner, it is difficult to know when to say "no, thank you". If you do tell this colleague you're not interested in them as a partner they may claim - unfairly - that that was never their intention in the first place, craftily extricating themselves from the area of conflict, leaving a sour taste all round.

Being positive: Surely the best move if you fancy a colleague is to ask them out on a good, old-fashioned date. Let them know it's a social thing too, or they may be unsure whether it's a meeting to discuss business. Be light in tone but clear about your intentions (not all of them, of course). Allow them to see that you want to put the relationship on a social footing, thereby also allowing the courtesy of letting them turn you down too.

Plan your next move if they do turn you down. Take no to mean no and never cajole, push or ask for an explanation. Don't skulk, sulk, or become bitter or sarcastic. Plan a semi-jokey line that will immediately alleviate the atmosphere between the two of you and restore normal working relations.

Simple is best, as it avoids too much blush inducing-babble. So how about "that's okay, no hard feelings", or "wise girl/chap"(whatever), or "no, you're right. I enjoy working with you, so why complicate things?" (put your own tone and inflection onto these). On paper they read a bit like Noel Coward out-takes).

And at all costs avoid the following: "That's okay, no hard feelings - as I hope you won't have when I tell you your pay rise has just been cancelled." Or: "So Quentin in accounts was right after all, you aren't lesbian/gay".

Be polite, open, honest, and assertive, not furtive. Don't drop hints or come on too heavy. And never be lewd (good, old-fashioned word) or make a pass. How about: "Would you like to come out for a meal with me tomorrow night? Purely social, no work to be discussed." If you don't like that, then write your own script, but make sure it's something along those lines.

Breaking-up without tears: If you find this person is not the man/woman of your dreams it would be cruel to keep things going beyond the first date. Now, remember all those nasty little tricks people use to ditch someone will be absolutely no use in the workplace. You cannot stand them up or forget to phone. The phrase "I'll call you" won't apply because you'll see their smiling face next morning in the office. and because of that there must be a rule:

Sex on the first date is OUT! Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Think anything that will scare you enough to persuade you to wait until you are in a serious and stable relationship. This isn't talking killjoy, this is just being practical. Do what you want on the social scene, but in business do not be too eager. It is difficult jilting anyone you have to work with, but once you have had sex it is a million times tougher and more complicated.

Be discreet: Never welch on a date. Don't tell even your closest workmates what went on. There's no need to keep the whole thing secret, but never, ever spill the beans about what was said and what was done. Be gallant. Never tell anyone you work with what a disaster/rave it was. Don't discuss details of moles, birthmarks or size of body parts. the excuse you present to your date for not seeing them again should be the same you give to everyone else.

Word always gets back. Be charming and never inflict unnecessary suffering. If you are asked out by a co-worker and turn them down, keep that quiet too. Don't boast about your pulling power and don't mock the afflicted.

Sex At work: A Survival Guide by Judi James, published by the Industrial Society, is available in bookshops from 3 April, price pounds 8.99, or call 0121 410 3040

The office bromides

Modern working environments have, to a certain extent, evolved their own checks and balances to counter workplace passion

Sad cladding:

The business suit. Smart it may be, but revealing it ain't. Head and hands are the only flesh visible.

Stress:

The most effective way of stopping all those hormones and testosterone in their tracks. Stress levels in business are high and rising. Good stress-surfing brings about the old adrenalin rush that can engender frisky behaviour, but negative stress can make you too tired and anxious even to notice the sex of the person working next to you, let alone fancy them.

Downsizing:

Which means added workloads which equals "too busy to even think about it".

Bad habits:

Unattractive office behaviour like knuckle-cracking, foot tapping, slurping coffee too loudly, whistling, loud yawning or noisy eating are all common practices in open-plan offices and can constitute a great turn-off.

Control those passions

There is a strange mental phenomenon that can overpower even the most serious-minded and conscientious employee when they embark on an affair with a colleague, and that is that they suffer a barely controllable urge to get down to having sex at work. Why? (you may ask). The only possible answer is: it is very naughty.

For anyone thinking of indulging, I will add only five words at this point: open-plan offices; security cameras.

Need I say more?

If you must indulge, though, here are some of the favourite office spots for consummating that torrid affair.

Desktops:

A prime naughty spot on account of the fact that what would normally host hour after hour of sweated slave labour should also be permitted to induce the odd bout of more fun-filled perspiration.

Desktops inspire the ultimate fantasy as business accoutrements are knocked to the floor with one fell swoop of a worsted-clad arm (difficult with all the PC equipment, I know - all those leads and plugs and mouse-mats), buns are unpinned, spectacles torn off, plus all that ice-cold laminated chipboard stretching out beneath you with just the odd unseen paperclip or stapler to mar the magic of the moment.

Stationery cupboards:

Or any cupboards come to that - and the more cramped the better.

Photocopiers:

For all those happy couples wishing to send their friends visual souvenirs of their intimate moments.

The roof:

Fire drills a deux tend to be popular, with the happy couple tripping furtively up the fire escape to the relative privacy of the roof (flat roofs are safer but the more adventurous will swear by the sloping variety). The added advantage of using the roof is that you can get a sun tan at the same time.

The boss's office:

For members of the Dangerous Sports Club only - unless one of the participants happens to be the boss.

The lift:

For speedy practitioners only - unless you enjoy being interrupted by firemen.

The car park:

Basement car parks are usually badly lit, which could be an advantage, although stories abound of couples getting stuck.

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