Focus: The truth about office affairs

The boss of Boeing was sacked for it, the TUC says employers shouldn't ban it, and Jilly Cooper thinks that it's the only reason to go to work. Katy Guest on the emotions stirred by workplace romance
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For years it has been accepted as much a part of office life as sucking up to the boss and terrible dancing at the Christmas party. Boy meets girl; boy buys girl coffee in staff canteen; boy sends girl febrile emails about knicker elastic and weekends in Filey; boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. But this week, the office affair got dirty.

For years it has been accepted as much a part of office life as sucking up to the boss and terrible dancing at the Christmas party. Boy meets girl; boy buys girl coffee in staff canteen; boy sends girl febrile emails about knicker elastic and weekends in Filey; boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. But this week, the office affair got dirty.

On Monday, Boeing's married chief executive, Harry Stonecipher, was fired after his affair with a colleague was exposed. Whereas the FA's sacking of Faria Alam and the ritual humiliations of the Spectator sirens also made headlines, this was different. This time the senior of the two miscreants, and a man, had to resign. Things had changed.

On Thursday, Dr Diana Henderson added further controversy to the debate. In a lecture at Bath University, Dr Henderson, who spent 33 years in the Army, demanded an end to the ban on relationships across the ranks. "It is unrealistic, impractical and in some cases illegal to allow these attitudes and rules to persist," she said, adding that the Army's thinking is "old-fashioned".

The TUC has added its powerful voice to the murmurs of disapproval about stuffy employers. "The TUC fears that some employers are trying to copy their counterparts in the United States, where relationship bans and 'love contracts' [which monitor relationships] are already commonplace," the union warned. "Heavy-handed rules and blanket bans fail to understand human nature and may very well be illegal." It looks like the office affair has been dragged out of the stationery cupboard and into the open.

In the past, the workplace romance only made the news when it went hideously and publicly wrong. An Army warrant officer, Angela McConnell, found that out when forced out of her job after a fling with a cavalry major. She launched a sex discrimination case against the Ministry of Defence - and lost.

Readers of the otherwise dry-sounding Industrial Relations Legal Information Bulletin also know the drawbacks of the office affair and the embarrassment it can cause. In the case of Newman vs Almarco, it reported: "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."

Dr Terry Kellard at the University of Warwick is an organisational psychologist who has studied this phenomenon. "I think [love contracts] are ludicrous," he says. "The organisation is a natural arena for romance. Men and women are brought together and encouraged to form close relationships. And if people have a relationship, they work better together and have higher motivation. Trying to prevent that is just one of those unenforceable laws."

Many employers who do make rules about workplace relationships say they are doing so for their employees' own good. At NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland, where staff are asked "to inform a line manager if there is any potential [for a relationship] to cause a conflict of interest", security is cited as a reason.

"We have 130,000 staff globally and there's not always going to be a conflict of interest where there is a relationship," says a spokeswoman. "But it's in everybody's interest to err on the side of caution in telling their line manager. The code of conduct mentions any relationships - 'from playing football or squash with a customer to marriage to a colleague'."

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, agrees with that - to an extent. "Organisations should have guidelines so you can let your boss know. It's best if you can be totally transparent," he says. "But I've heard that lots of companies across the financial services industry are forbidding any relationships at all. I'm appalled by what happened at Boeing and what that implies.

"Even if a person is married, it's their own personal and moral decision to reach. I find the corporate world's imposition of a moral value system amazing. Anyway, where else are you going to initiate, develop and sustain a relationship when we have the longest working hours in Europe?"

The Federation of Small Businesses' team of lawyers advises employers against love contracts. "They're not illegal and they are becoming more common, but they're just not workable here," they say.

But those still beaming across a crowded photocopier might prefer to take the advice of Jilly Cooper, the novelist and author of How to Survive from Nine to Five. "The reason we all wanted to go to work in the first place was because that's where all the men were - and if they were lovely they became one's boyfriend," she wrote, sensibly. "Nothing can equal the excitement of the office party. Everyone getting ready together in the loo and putting on new tights."

'I lost my job after a complaint'

Andrea, 30, worked for an advertising agency in London. "I started work at the company in a junior position and I thought he was quite attractive. To start with, we went on a few dates. Then somebody spotted us having dinner. Thereafter we were very discreet. Our line manager didn't know we were seeing each other for another two or three months.

"I'm not quite sure how the information filtered through but it became apparent we were an item. Then the line manager had a word with my now husband, who was a long-standing employee. He told him neither of us could ever be promoted because then one of us would be in charge of the other.

"There was a precedent for this. My line manager had had an affair with a colleague, and he was in a position of power over her. The company moved her to another department and what was perceived as a lesser job. He'd been a victim of this so he was applying the same rule to us.

"A year later, a disgruntled former employee made a series of complaints about the department, including that a married couple was working there together. Her complaint wasn't upheld but my contract wasn't renewed and I lost my job as it was perceivedthat it was awkward for me to work with my husband."

'She sent me a Valentine's card I thought was spam'

Jo and John, 32, met at Oxfam's base in Oxford. "Oxfam had a lot of enthusiastic younger staff and volunteers who shared a lot of interests, so it naturally ended up as a bit of a dating agency for some people," says John. "She tried to announce herself by sending me an email Valentine at the office, which I thought was just some weird spam and ignored. We didn't try to hide from our colleagues. It was a very friendly place to work (read 'well-established office gossip network') so it would have been nearly impossible to keep it quiet.

"I tried to carry papers and look business-like whenever I dropped by her office at lunchtimes or after work, but her colleagues saw straight through it. North Oxford is a pretty small place, so wherever we tried to get away for lunch we'd always end up sitting next to half a dozen of our colleagues anyway, with them cooing and waving, which made romantic liaisons a bit awkward. If your company allows you to use it for personal matters, office email is really useful in retaining a shred of privacy.

"We were lucky; I guess it's not nearly so easy for people who work in a more formal environment. Now we're engaged and expecting our first baby in July. A direct debit donation to Oxfam's work every month is a tiny price to pay for introducing us!"

Jo says: "I sent him a Valentine's Day card, anonymously, and he came back with one of those packets of Lovehearts - but I was still too dense to cotton on to begin with. We didn't keep it secret. It was something to chat about at the office. If we had to sign a contract saying we wouldn't have relationships at work, that would be miserable. I'd think [contracts] would just put people off working for those companies."

'I was his boss so we kept it quiet'

Sonia and Jonathan, "both around the 40 mark", met while working on a trade paper in the late 1980s. She was his boss for the first three years of their relationship - but 16 years on, they're still very much together.

"I sat next to Jon on the newsdesk for about six months before realising what I felt about him. When you spend so many hours of the day in such close quarters with someone, you're bound to form close ties with them, unless you end up hating them, of course. But I only realised just how close we had become when another colleague targeted him at the office Christmas party.

"Not long after, we were returning to the same part of London after a works evening out, and I ended up going back for some opera CDs and the proverbial coffee. From then on, we went to great lengths to keep our relationship secret at work. Almost immediately I was promoted to editor and became his boss, so I became almost obsessive about not letting anyone know.

"Yet despite all this, everyone apparently guessed almost immediately. Most were very kind about it."

'We were discreet - to give it a chance'

Hannah and Mark, from Rugby, met at Peugeot and set up business together. "He was a graduate trainee and I was an undergraduate trainee," says Hannah. "He really helped me because it was my first experience in a workplace, and I had a huge amount of respect for him. We didn't start going out until nearly the end of my year there. Our colleagues didn't mind - one of our bosses was very keen on getting us together.

"We did try to be discreet - to give it a chance. Within three months we were engaged, and a year later we were married. I told my manager I'd have a different name, and he thought I was going to change it by deed poll - he didn't even know we were an item.

"Now we own our own internet business, we do sit in separate corners! Sometimes we don't see each other all day at work. We've had to come up with rules: no business in the bedroom. It is quite intense and it is hard work. But it's just part of achieving how we want to grow the business."

"I'm not sure why something didn't happen sooner at Peugeot," says Mark. "We did try to keep it quiet because of people's reactions in the office. The fact that we were an item had no bearing on our professional work.

"Now we are our own bosses, the one thing that is hard to manage is the work/home-life split. All of a sudden an idea will come into your mind and you can't not discuss it. But I can't think of anything that has ever caused a problem."

'If it ends, the fallout can be devastating'

Terry, 33, is a market analyst from Twickenham. "I had just broken up with someone and wasn't in the mindset for another relationship when I met a woman at work. We went out a few times and it seemed we were both in the same position - she had just broken up with a boyfriend.

"There was a mutual spark, and we ended up going back to hers after a drunken night out and sleeping together. We agreed we both just wanted something casual - but somehow we ended up falling into a relationship.

"I didn't think it would be a problem - we worked for different departments so our paths didn't cross, apart from occasionally in the canteen. We flirted on email and I got besotted by her very quickly, but about three months later she dumped me.

"Then, shortly after we broke up, she ended up sitting at the desk directly opposite me. Normally, when a relationship breaks up, I drop all contact. But now I was faced with her every day and there was no escape.

"My work suffered badly. I had to sit and listen to her phone calls, a particularly awful torture as she got another boyfriend a few weeks later. I dreaded going to work, lost half a stone and seriously considered leaving the company.

"It did eventually get better, but when an office relationship goes wrong the fallout can be devastating. I am wary, but I am still open to an office romance again. A lot of people meet at work, and there's a high likelihood you're going to meet someone broadly compatible: similar age, ideas and ambitions.

"A casual affair probably isn't worth the risk, but if you really like someone it definitely is. You just have to be discreet and professional."

'I couldn't get past the fact he was married'

Liz, 31, is a human resources manager at a telecommunications company in Surrey. "I was 27 and had been working there for a year when I went to a company event and met Jack. He was a few years older than me and, crucially, he was married. But that didn't stop us flirting and the chemistry was pretty strong.

"I didn't think it would come to anything. Most of our flirting was conducted on email, so I didn't think it was too obvious. However, after a few weeks my female boss did discreetly tell me to be careful, because he was married.

"We ended up kissing for a bet after a drunken night out with colleagues, which caused mixed feelings in me. I thought that having a work romance, and with a married man, would affect my status in the very male-oriented company.

"We embarked on phone sex - in fact, the accountant rumbled our affair because of our company mobile phone bills. After we finally slept together, things got very intense. But I just couldn't get past the fact he was married.

"When it came out in conversation that he and his wife were trying for children, I knew I had to break it off. I threw myself back into dating, but he began to bombard me every day with emails and phone calls. His persistence and proximity made me feel very awkward, but it didn't affect my work in a negative way. If anything, I worked harder to over-compensate.

"The hardest part of an office romance is the pain of ending it and still having to see the person daily. I think office romances can work if the people involved are single and sincere. But to hide a relationship over a long period is like leading a fake life, and pretty stressful - and that's just when it's going well."