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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK


No sex please, we're skittish

Office romance: What's it got to do with the boss?

Movie stars are expected to do it, politicians seem to meet future spouses doing it - and we're all aware of at least a couple of colleagues doing it ...

But romance in the workplace, by and large, tends to be tolerated only if everyone, especially those making eyes at one another over the photocopier, pretend nothing at all is going on.

Not so in America - there, an increasing number of companies are urging employees to sign Consensual Relationship Agreements, more commonly referred to as "love contracts".

This means that people working for the same firm have to declare to their managers whether they are involved with anyone from work - and to keep them up to speed as the situation changes.

[ image:  ]
And one of the UK's biggest legal firms, Eversheds, is in the process of drawing up a similar document which could be used by firms on this side of the Atlantic.

In some of the 1,000 firms in the USA where the agreement has been introduced, all forms of flirtation in the workplace are outlawed.

And some managers want to be told of any romance between employees, right from the first date. (Which really rules out sheltering behind the ambiguity of just meeting up for a drink.)

Sexual harassment

The idea is to protect employers from the possibility of being sued for allowing sexual harassment in the workplace.

The reasoning goes that if a relationship breaks up, and person A begins to treat person B - who may occupy a less senior position in the hierarchy - badly, then the employers might be liable for person B's poor treatment.

In abiding by the terms of the contract, employees provide potential evidence of their lack of credibility should they ever go on to make a claim.

[ image: TV show Ally McBeal recently featured a Consensual Relationship Agreement case]
TV show Ally McBeal recently featured a Consensual Relationship Agreement case
A recent episode of the TV comedy lawyer series Ally McBeal, featured the fictional case of a couple fired for keeping their office romance secret.

Casy Cooper, the BUPA Professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says that people are more likely to form romantic relationships with people at work than at any time previously.

According to research conducted in the UK at the time that Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was being put under the microscope, over half of all men have had sex with someone at work. Forty-one per cent of whom were married.

A further 72% admitted they fantasised about their colleagues.

Prof Cooper, himself a North American, said: "Americans always take things to the extreme, and I think UK employers would be wise to draw a line beyond which they do not pry into their employees' private lives."

Office romances can be 'beneficial'

He said that while relationships at work could be the source of problems, they could also be of great benefit to employees.

He said: "These agreements are like pre nuptial contracts for in the workplace. They limit the perceived risk taken by the employer.

"But should employers be getting involved in people's lives to this extent. I think the answer is probably no."

Guidelines, however, according to Prof Cooper, are a very good idea.

[ image:  ]
"If a company draws up a set of rules which it would like to be adhered to, then that is an entirely different situation.

"You can let people know that relationships between a boss and an immediate subordinate are a bad idea, and that should such a situation arise, it's probably better that one of those people move to another department.

"Because that kind of situation can result in a break down in team work and loss of morale, as one person might be perceived to have an unfair advantage.

"On the other hand, it can work the other way, where the person in authority does not want to be seen to be unfair, so actually holds his or her partner back."

Employees 'cannot sign away rights'

Advisor on employment relations at the Institute of Personnel and Development, Mike Emmott, says that companies cannot get an employee to sign away his or her rights.

He said that the "love contract" could be seen as a company's attempt to negate their duty to an employee.

He said: "In terms of health and safety legislation, a company is obliged to provide a reasonable working environment.

"If a person is being harassed or bullied, it really makes no difference if they were once involved romantically with their harasser.

"It may compromise their credibility, but bullying is bullying and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Just because you thought the world of a person at one time does not give them licence to treat you badly."

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