A photograph in the Times business section of a tense and purposeful chief executive of an insurance company, framed by his office view of the City, suggests a motivational piece about coming through the recession leaner but more competitive, etc. But it turns out to be a report of an affair between Andrew Moss, the married chief executive of Aviva, and a member of his human resources department, Ms Deidre Moffat, now known as Deidre Galvin. What complicates matters further is that Ms Moffat's husband is the head of HR for Aviva in Europe.
My first thought is whether this would have happened if the company had hung on to the respectable old name, Norwich Union. My second is that Alain de Botton's literary interest in the role of human resources is well founded. A department devoted to enforcing company rules turns out to be at the heart of office steaminess. Ms Moffat had been working on a "project" with Mr Moss. Clearly.
A curiosity noted by de Botton in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is that sex is at its most rampant among spreadsheets. It is because sex is so obviously out of place – the wrong setting, the wrong language – that it is so potent. De Botton says that offices and the church are the institutions where repression excites desire. During an Intelligence Squared debate last week entitled The Catholic Church is a Force for Good, Stephen Fry – who argued, along with Christopher Hitchens, that it is emphatically not – accused Ann Widdecombe, defending the church, of being obsessed by sex. She countered that it was the church's critics, such as Stephen Fry, who were obsessed. Hitchens drawled that he was the only one willing to admit that he was obsessed by sex.
Many companies have become so alarmed by the number of office sexual relationships that they have introduced official guidance. The lengthening of the working day has only enhanced the atmosphere of simmering lust. The "Phoenix Four" Rover directors were up in the early hours hammering out deals for themselves, so no wonder Nick Stephenson found it more convenient to turn in with the comely Rover consultant, Dr Qu Li. Worse, office culture has become simultaneously more ruthless and sentimental. Human Resources demand bonding sessions and group psychology for those who are not being sacked. Yet evidence shows that all away conferences end in sex. In fact, any office socialising ends in sex.
Tracing the fate of the hospital consultant found guilty last week of poisoning his secretary's latte, we find that Edward Erin's moral descent began at the staff Christmas party. He was so cheered by starting an affair there with his secretary, that he embarked on a second, with a fellow doctor.
If proximity and booze were not bad enough, technology is the final undoing of office relations. The hospital consultant sent a text to the wrong mistress suggesting a dirty weekend, which he explained, panic stricken, was intended for a climbing friend in Wales. How many private reflections on sexual performance have been mistakenly shared through the global distribution email account?
I think that vigilance is the only answer. When the editor of the Evening Standard, Geordie Greig, was appointed this year he was warned by the former mayor of London Ken Livingstone that the Evening Standard was a hotbed of sex. I have found absolutely no evidence, but I sweep my finger along desks and peer in stationery cupboards just in case. And when I see the signpost to the HR department, I shudder.Reuse content