Work suffers as office romances flourish in 'playgrounds' for lust

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British companies are creating a "perfect playground" for rising rates of office romances, research shows.

Employers are causing problems and contributing to decreasing performance levels by refusing to recognise that workers are falling in love - or lust - while at work, the researchers said.

Rather than banning workplace affairs, companies should offer help and support to workers, both during their romances and, more importantly, in the aftermath of any break-up.

Chantal Gaultier, an occupational psychologist at Westminster University in London, has conducted one of the first studies in the UK into what she has termed the "workplace romance phenomenon" .

She presented her research at the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology conference in Glasgow yesterday.

Little research has been done into the scale of the issue in Britain, although a survey by the employment law company Peninsula in 2002 found that 79 per cent of its 1,274 employees in the UK had experienced a workplace romance.

Ms Gaultier interviewed people across a range of industries, including investment bankers, flight attendants and IT workers, who had enjoyed an affair with a colleague. She found that while the employees said that their productivity had not been affected during the affair, all admitted that their workplace performance had decreased after their romance broke up.

Those interviewed in depth for the study included a university lecturer who began an affair with a student. When she later dumped him she threatened to expose the relationship. The lecturer left his job voluntarily rather than risk being exposed.

In another case, two flight attendantsformed a relationship after being rostered on the same journeys, but split up by mutual agreement and did not tell anyone about the affair.

A dancer at a strip club began an affair with her manager but, when the romance came to an end, she was sacked by the owner.

And when a woman with an IT recruitment company fell for her married boss, he transferred her out of the office against her will after he split up with her.

Finally, a hotel receptionist in London started a romance with the manager and became pregnant by him, but had an abortion after they split up.

Ms Gaultier said: "What was interesting was that, although all of the couples split up, none of them regretted the affairs. Most said they would do it again if the occasion arose.

"While some of them were married, they did not express feelings of guilt, which shows the fact that people are going to be having these romances whatever companies do.

"The problem is that, after the split, these people often have to work together and see each other every day. This can have problems especially when there is no support or help for them from their employers."

She added: "Organisations are no longer able to turn a blind eye and ignore the workplace romance phenomenon. They may be responsible in the creation of perfect playgrounds for fraternisation to take place.

"You have a culture of people working longer hours and more women entering the workplace. Together with that, organisations often tend to recruit similar people because they want people who will fit in to their organisation. This all adds up to creating an atmosphere where people are bound to be attracted to each other and romances are going to take place."

While many firms in the US have written policies banning employees from having relationships, Ms Gaultier feels that outlawing romance will only drive problems underground and cause lower productivity levels among lovelorn couples in the office.

"We have to change the culture and accept that romances are going to happen but create policies to support people, particularly in that aftermath," she said.

Ms Gaultier, who was herself sacked from a job after a romance, now plans to conduct a large-scale study of British companies and employees in order to assess the true extent of inter-office affairs.