Leading Article: A risky prospect of perpetual propinquity

Monday 16 May 1994 23:02

PG WODEHOUSE summed it up crisply when he observed: 'Nothing propinks like propinquity.' Yet even he might have been amazed by the amount of propinking apparently going on at the Dudley branch of the Child Support Agency. The current industrial tribunal case has produced allegations of sexual shenanigans more reminiscent of a bedroom farce than of a tax-funded agency dealing with the effects of broken relationships. Office parties, notorious generators of remorse the morning after, seem to have been a CSA speciality.

Though most places of work generate a rather lower level of sexual activity, it is at work that many people meet their mates. A recent survey by the Alfred Marks employment agency suggested that 60 per cent of employees have had a relationship with a colleague. A similar US study put the figure at 70 per cent. It is popularly believed that about 40 per cent of couples meet through their work.

The advantages and temptations are clear. Most employees spend more waking hours at work than at home. It used to be the girl or lad next door who was suddenly viewed with new eyes. Now it is more likely to be someone at a nearby desk. Working together can be a powerful bond, especially in a large organisation rife with office politics such as the BBC or the Palace of Westminster. Many an MP has married his secretary, personal assistant or researcher, including Lords Hailsham, Lawson and Wakeham, Douglas Hurd and Bryan Gould. Margaret Beckett, for a change, married her agent, while Tony Blair, like Bill Clinton, married a barrister colleague.

The snags of an office relationship are also evident. Wives are famous for saying when their husband retires: 'I married you for life but not for lunch.' Couples that work together are uninterruptedly in each other's company: fine if the relationship operates at a rare level of love and tolerance, otherwise risky.

A dwindling number of corporations disapprove of office relationships, which can lead to favouritism, conflicts of interest and, if not reciprocated, accusations of sexual harassment. The biggest danger is that the proximity effect will boomerang when feelings turn cold or hostile. The only way then to avoid a no longer welcome propinquity is for one party to change jobs. It's a high-risk activity.

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