Ins and outs of sex in the workplace

Long hours at the office can spark staff relationships. How should you handle them?
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The Independent Online

When the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, was reported to have had sex in his Whitehall office, some observers insisted that, in the business world, he'd be fired. But a new survey on workplace relationships shows that, while British bosses remain uncomfortable with a kiss on the cheek, one in eight has had sex or "intimate relations" in the office.

The Aziz Corporation survey, which polled 505 senior business managers and directors, also found that 35 per cent had had a fling at work. And, worryingly, just over half believe it's not an abuse of power to have a relationship with a junior colleague, as Prescott did, even when they could directly influence their lover's career prospects.

"Things are fairly straightforward when it comes to a relationship between colleagues of equal status," says Professor Khalid Aziz, the chair of the Aziz Corporation. "But if it's a managing director having an affair with an 18-year-old office junior, that is clearly an abuse of power."

There's no doubt it's going on. One London IT specialist - who doesn't want to be named - says workplace relationships are rampant. He cites two senior managers who have been having clandestine affairs with the same secretary for the past year. A solicitor colleague says he's yet to hear of a City law firm where senior partners aren't sleeping with trainee solicitors.

Denise Knowles, a counsellor with Relate, says it is a concern if bosses imagine that they can have a relationship with a junior without it impacting both on the workplace and on the person concerned. She says that, whenever there is an imbalance of power, there is a potential for the junior partner to feel inferior and even coerced. "If the couple are not on an equal footing then one of them can feel obliged to do what the other asks," she says, "It can be born of fear. They think, what will happen to my job if I don't?"

Aziz attributes sex at work to the "shared intensity of the workplace" and the culture of ever-longer working hours, which means people spend more time with work colleagues than with family or friends. He singles out law firms and the hospitality profession, including one country-house hotel where "the manager says the staff are at it like rabbits. They work long hours, they rub up against each other, excuse the pun, for a long time."

Knowles says that the workplace is now where most people meet their partners, and there has been an increase in socialising with colleagues - going to a bar or café after work - which means people are extending their relationships with fellow workers. Numerous polls have reported people admitting to sexual liaisons at work, especially at the Christmas office party. In one survey, a quarter of respondents claimed to have had sex in a meeting room; other settings included the boss's desk and the car park.

In a current online survey on careers and recruitment website www.mon, completed by 3,749 people, 45 per cent said they had never had sex in the office but that they wouldn't mind, while eight per cent said they did regularly. The site offers five tips when it comes to office romances, including to think twice before starting a relationship with your boss, and to think 10 times before starting a relationship with the person you report directly to.

While office sex may have become more common, there can be serious repercussions. Aziz says a quick fling may not communicate a professional attitude and could stifle career progression. A short-lived office affair could threaten the reputation of a company, and have a serious effect on office productivity - you don't get much work done if you're busy clocking your colleagues' antics. One public servant in London who recently finished her office affair says she can no longer use the lift because she doesn't want to run into her ex, and she's also come to work late to avoid him.

In the USA some firms now ask romancing employees to sign a "Cupid contract", agreeing that they have entered into the relationship voluntarily and that it won't interfere with work, especially if the affair is between a supervisor and subordinate. Aziz is unsure if such a contract could be legally enforced in the UK, but says "our survey indicates a ticking time bomb. The attitude that an affair with a junior colleague is not an abuse of power could expose a business to litigation in the future."