When John Prescott and Tracey Temple embarked on their inarticulate love affair after kicking it up at the office Christmas party, they became the latest protagonists in a long and ignoble tradition. One in 10 workers has had sex with the boss, and three-quarters have had a fling with a colleague, according to a 2003 poll. But many of these office amours have reason to be secret, and not only because one partner is a senior government minister or has an embarrassing secret relating to cocktail sausages. If you must re-enact Secretary, in which Maggie Gyllenhaal discovers her submissive side over a large wooden desk, do so with caution. Here is our definitive 10-point guide to surviving the office relationship. Nothing should be attempted in red leather trousers, or with a man whose bosoms are bigger than yours.
1. Know your law
What you see as an exotic dance move at the annual knees-up could be interpreted as a breach of employment law. Cpl Stuart Milligan was taken to court last year by a female soldier, after she claimed he had sexually harassed her by re-enacting the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. When Cpl Leah Mates, a special forces spy, sought £686,000 for that and other alleged incidences of harassment, Milligan said glumly, "I was really just being an immature joker." She was awarded £12,000. If you are the recipient of over-friendly advances, make notes. Take photos if possible. Or take a leaf out of Tracey's book and keep a diary. You never know when you might be short of £250,000.
2. Promotion prospects
Be honest - among those dirty fantasies you have about your boss is there the promotion you hope with follow? Then wake up. You are not Joan Crawford and his desk is not a casting couch. "If you sleep with someone who is more advanced than you, or anyone who can do you any favours, you can assume that you won't get credit for anything you achieve yourself from there on in," says the relationship expert, author and TV presenter Tracey Cox. "It will always be, 'Well, we all know why she/ he got the promotion, don't we?' And if you are sleeping with someone 'beneath you' you'll be accused of slumming it."
3. Avoid the photocopier
Do not be tempted to do it on the photocopier. Not even in an ironic way. The manufacturer Canon last year confirmed that it has had to increase the thickness of its glass to cope with an alarming number of bottom-related breakages. A third of Canon technicians say that they have had to mend machines that have been sat on. "It's so tempting, particularly if neither of you particularly likes the company you're working for," says Cox. "But not only will you probably break the thing, it's uncomfortable."
4. Beware email
If, like Bridget Jones, you spend the morning studying your boss's face through his glass-walled office as he receives your messages about your new lingerie, remember - email flirtation is fraught with danger. Check twice before hitting "send", then check again. Never "reply to all". Do not have an email to your beloved open at the same time as a global. A pitfall well-known to psychologists and those with burned fingers: if a person's name is in your head, the chances are it will end up in the send-to box. Remember this when gossiping with your beloved about others. Remember Claire Swire, whose saucy correspondence about her boyfriend's "yum" emissionswas forwarded all over the world? Lawyers were called in, six people faced disciplinary action and her parents were "horrified".
5. Getting caught
The idea of getting caught might add a frisson to a fading affair, but think carefully. Staff in the Deputy Prime Minister's Office may have made good use of civil service earplugs as the pair went at it with the door open, but would the reality of the tea lady walking in and finding you with your leather trousers around your ankles really live up to the fantasy? "Barry" was careering towards the end of his marriage and coming to terms with his sexuality when he pulled a man at a nightclub and took him back to his office nearby. The pair were so frantic, they had disrobed in the lobby when the proprietor walked in, wordlessly stepping over them and their clothes. "I crept in the next day convinced I was going to get the sack," says Barry, "but he never said anything." Barry left the company three years later.
6. Be nice to IT
Do not annoy the nice people in IT: they are wise and kind and infinitely patient - and can access company email. Or do you actually want them to know about those new knickers? "IT departments can access your emails if they want to," says one basement-dwelling friend, blithely. "They can screen your messages for words like 'secret', 'rendezvous' and 'stationery cupboard'. But why would they?" Hmmmm.
7. Only do it once
There is a limit to how many office affairs you can have without developing a reputation. Sleeping with the boss is one thing. Sleeping with the boss, her PA, her friend in Accounts and the boy who takes away the used printer cartridges will only lead to names like "Faria Alam" being whispered bitchily in your direction. "When Dan asked me out for a drink after work I thought he was sexy, powerful and tempting," says Annie, who, at 23, was an intern with a large PR firm. "But he had once been married to a woman who still worked for the company and there were rumours he had slept with several more. Who wants to be another notch on the swivel chair?" "Any more than one and you will be branded," confirms Cox. "If you are up to two and take your career even remotely seriously, leave."
8. Lunchtime trysts
"Sneaking off for a bunk-up in the park requires careful planning," says Jo, 28, who became a connoisseur of the office liaison after trying to keep quiet a long-term relationship with her line manager. "Most important is to make sure you both wear green. I learned the hard way, after my office paramour and I shuffled back for the afternoon almost completely covered in grass stains." The agony aunt Virginia Ironside advises: "Never, ever come into the office together. It's when people are seen together at 7am on the train that the gossip starts."
9. Flirting in the office
You have just spent the night with your office paramour. Your eyes meet across a crowded photocopier. You collapse into endearing giggles. Yeuuch. "All that dripping over each other is even more nauseating in a work environment because your colleagues can't walk away," says Cox. "Save the soppy stuff for when you're in private. Which of course doesn't mean that you have licence to be late back to work and others have to cover for you. They'll only hate you."
10. The breakup
He breaks your heart. You never want to see that man's cheating face again. He expects you to bring him coffee. With biscuits. Do not make a scene. Do you want your colleagues to find out that you cared about the scumbag? "It is awfully difficult in an open plan office," says Ironside. "The only thing you can do is to keep your head down andbehave as if nothing has happened." Bite your lip. Then cry on the shoulder of that foxy new guy in IT. At least, that way, you know who's looking at your emails.
NAUGHTY BUT NICE
Sarah , 40, works as a PA at a media company in London.
I have had four affairs with colleagues. I wouldn't have looked at any of them twice if I hadn't been working with them. But when you spend time with people in an office, these things happen. The illicit thrill from having a secret affair is great fun. On one occasion it was with a married man. I was working in Nottingham as a PA and he was an account director. I would never have imagined we'd end up having a relationship: not only was he 10 years older than me, he was married with three children.
We got on very well but nothing happened until one night at a leaving do. There was a moment at dinner when we looked at each other - and that was it. He came back to my flat, he kissed me and the affair began. We fell for one another hook, line and sinker. We were madly in love. It was a huge, passionate affair. We were both besotted. We had to keep things very quiet in the office and the only person I told at work was a girlfriend. I had to tell someone. Looking back, I'm sure people gossiped about us, but it never became a problem. He lived in Nottingham during the week and returned to his family in the south at weekends so it was the perfect set-up for an affair. I loved it because I could have romantic dinners with him in the week and go out clubbing with friends at weekends. He totally spoilt me, as he was very wealthy. One time, I saw a leather jacket in a shop window for £800 that I loved - and the next day it was on my desk. He always hid gifts for me in my office, mostly Chanel presents. I loved the illicit nature of our relationship. When something is kept secret, it adds to the passion and romance. It was naughty but fun knowing that the person you were talking to in front of your colleagues in a meeting had been in your bed the previous night. But there were moments when I felt guilty. The worst times were when his wife rang the office and I had to speak to her before putting her through to him.
Normally, I felt fine about things, particularly as he spent more time with me than he did with his wife. I suppose we knew we were doing something wrong, but we genuinely cared about one another and you cannot control these things sometimes. One day, he said he was leaving his wife for me. We'd been together for two years at that stage but I was not prepared to break up his family. I ended it immediately. I felt it was the only solution.
It was terrible working together after that. We saw each other every day and people started asking questions. They wanted to know why we weren't talking to each other, what had happened - they knew something was up. I left the company the following year. He is still with his wife.
I do feel guilty about my behaviour when I look back. But affairs happen a lot at work. I recently had an affair with someone much younger in my office. My boss would never have approved but it was worth it - it was so much fun.
A FORM OF ABUSE
Lucy, 37, an art exhibition organiser from north London.
I'm not that keen on looking back. Having an affair with the boss, what a cliché! I suppose it doesn't have to be, if there really is love involved but it wasn't in my case. I was very young - only 20. This guy wound down the window of his Jag and said I must be famous, and when I said I wasn't he replied I should be. Initially I was wary but he told me he worked for a fashion group and arranged a meeting at his office. It all turned out to be kosher and he offered me the job of PA and in-house model. I still had my doubts, but my parents really encouraged me and thought it was a brilliant opportunity. They told me to go for it.
There was always an undertone to our work relationship. I might have to try on outfits and waltz up and down for him, and there was a lot of wining and dining at the Ritz. About a month or so into the job he started getting me to massage his shoulders because he had a cricked neck. All above board, but you could see he was getting incredibly excited, and in a way that gratified my vanity. The massages got lower and lower down his body until they reached the small of his back.
He was about 40 and married but obviously have fancied himself as a bit of a lothario. Despite all the signals I was still taken by surprise when he suddenly leant over and snogged me, and I just let it happen. At some point we finished up in his flat. I remember there were smoked glass mirrors on the ceiling, what looked like a mink bedspread and a sunken bath with gold taps. He was going the whole hog in the playboy image department. I found it all quite foreign and exciting, but at the same time the expensive tackiness was vaguely depressing. I would definitely suffer whiffs of post-coital gloom, but I had a lot of fun, too, being generally sugar daddied.
It was meant to be a secret but colleagues knew. That made me feel uncomfortable, and I would always wonder what they thought and how they judged me. But I did revel in the attention I admit - although in retrospect I see that the whole thing was really a form of abuse. I would definitely call it more of an abuse than an affair. It's only now I realise how young I was, even though I felt grown up. The fun stopped at the Christmas office party when his wife turned up. Seeing her in the flesh brought home to me what I was doing and I didn't want to ruin things for this nice, unassuming woman. When the canoodling stopped so did the job. I got the sack pretty swiftly.