Loving dilemmas: office romance and dangerous liaisons

One of the greatest legacies of Bill Clinton’s presidency might turn out to be the way he has brought a whole new meaning to “current affairs”.

Nightly TV bulletins about the reported predilections of the presidential penis have brought a wicked frisson to gossip around the water cooler in American and Australian workplaces.

If it’s OK to talk in detail about oral sex on the news, then it must be OK to laugh about it at work, mustn’t it? And who could feel harassed by harmless jokes about a politician’s “smoking trousers”? (Apart from their owner, of course.)

Some American commentators claim the Monica Lewinsky affair has turned the tide against political correctness in the workplace. It has certainly reignited debate about appropriate behavior for male and female colleagues. Is there any harm in the mutual enjoyment of blue humor? If it comes to that, is there any harm in the mutual enjoyment of each other’s bodies?

According to US opinion polls, Americans are far more concerned by the possibility that Mr Clinton lied or conspired than they are by allegations of sexual encounters with underlings.

In Queensland, the claims of illicit sex and financial rorting by Government ministers are controversial largely because at least one of the gentlemen concerned is alleged to have indulged his pleasures at the public’s expense. That age-old phenomenon, the office affair, seems to have lost some of its scandalous cachet.

It is, after all, the way many people find their life-long partner. According to Rosalie Pattenden, a senior counsellor with Relationships Australia, it is the second most common way Australians meet their future spouses (the first is through friends and family). She believes office affairs have become more prevalent as women have joined the workforce and as work practices have changed.

“People are working longer hours and they are working, often, on intense projects with a small number of people or one other person,” she says.

“Sometimes, when they get very involved, when they need to meet often and understand each other’s feelings about an issue, the excitement can be mistaken for something more romantic, and the relationship slips into intimacy.

“There are also all sorts of extra-curricular activities in the workplace: people go to conferences together, to rural meetings. They have more time out of their real world and can start having romantic fantasies. It’s particularly likely to happen if one person is unattached or attached but unhappy.”

Psychologist Dr Janet Hall, who has made a study of sexual politics in the workplace, says that colleagues are most likely to fall into each other’s arms after office Christmas parties or conferences for which they are away overnight: “They have a few drinks and stay up until two in the morning and end up sleeping in the wrong beds.”

Dr Norman Rees, a Sydney-based clinical and organisational psychologist, says the typical woman who embarks on a workplace affair has an impoverished personal life and is rather lonely. She has invested a lot of time and energy in work, so that is naturally the place she tends to meet romantic prospects.

The typical man, he says, is aged between 45 and 50, is experiencing problems in his marriage and is possibly also shaken by challenges to his position at work. An adoring acolyte boosts his flagging self-esteem.

Office affairs can become nightmarish for the lovers, their colleagues and the corporation if the sexual dynamic becomes entangled with the power dynamics that swirl through every workplace. Dr Rees says: “If people are from different departments, or have relatively similar levels of status, it’s much less complicated. If it’s a relationship between a subordinate and a superior, particularly if it’s a younger woman and an older man, that brings in the whole question of advantage and control.”

Dr Rees believes that companies should educate managers about their responsibilities towards younger staff and encourage them to make mature assessments when juniors seem attracted to them.

Some relationships are built solely on the difference between the lovers’ workplace status. In mediaeval times there was a brutal custom known as droit du seigneur (the right of the lord) or jus primae noctis (the right of the first night). The lord was entitled to ravish the bride of any of his servants on the wedding night. Ms Pattenden says some businessmen still operate on this principle.

“The values in our society are changing, but there’s still a percentage of men who are very patriarchal and believe that men should be the dominant sex,” Ms Pattenden says. “They believe that they have every right to whatever they want and that women should fall in with that.”

Many Americans believe that any sexual transgressions Mr Clinton might have committed while on the job (so to speak) are solely a matter for himself and his wife, Hillary. Certainly personal morality is just that – personal.

But Attracta Lagan, the director of consulting services with the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney, argues that every workplace affair has the potential to cause professional conflicts of interest. Her bottom line is one that many would baulk at: ethical employees should reveal their relationship to the employer.

“Ethics are about considering how your actions affect others,” she says. “Where you put your own interests before the company’s, you are in a potential conflict of interest. Colleagues might be concerned about what they see happening – will the secret they confided to one be revealed to the other during pillow talk? Organisational life becomes less transparent. Despite the best will in the world, partners will support each other when in a group, such as a committee.”

And what happens, she says, if one party is assigned the task of nominating redundancies – will a current partner be unfairly protected or an ex-partner be punished?

Ms Lagan practised what she preaches. Ten years ago, she found herself bonding with the CEO of her company. They both acknowledged the attraction, but she refused to allow it to go further until she left for a job elsewhere. “The idea of anyone thinking that I got anywhere because of someone else was anathema to me,” she says. “I felt that my career progress would be compromised. Women can’t afford to let anyone cast doubts on their ability.”

Acording to Dr Hall and the chief executive of the Equal Opportunity Commission, Diane Sisely, neither women nor men can afford to let Clinton-inspired steamy e-mails and suggestive remarks become the new office norm. Dr Hall says: “Once the tone is lowered, you open up opportunities for sleazes to take things too far. Two women I know who were seriously sexually harassed say it started with dirty jokes that everyone condoned.”

Ms Sisely warns that people who engage in such banter should be certain that they know the person they address extremely well; if the other party is offended, it becomes sexual harassment.

But neither supports the idea of a formal ban on office romance. Human nature cannot be utterly constrained, and nor should it be. Remember Ms Lagan? She’s been happily married to that CEO for 10 years now.

First published in The Age.