I have been thinking about office romances of late. This is largely due to Lisa (her real name) who is a throwback to an earlier era of office life, with a sense of fun and unguarded humour. She loves talking of romance, pairing up unlikely colleagues and speculating on burgeoning love affairs in a way that is frankly silly, and a wonderful diversion from thinking about work. She inspires others to engage in pranks (ah pranks, how I missed them) and I love watching the tired and frustrated come to her desk for cheering up, which is mostly found through teasing her mercilessly. This kind of effect on morale is never written up in academic journals, but it should be.
I am relieved that we’re not working in a culture where this would cause people to rush to complain. The instantly outraged are not represented in our workplace. Employees are respectful, but they have not become humourless. They can, as rational adults, separate harmless flirtation and humour from abuse and one-sided humiliation.
As someone who has had to deal with the problematic fall out of bad behaviour, I do understand the setting of rules and standards. I am the boring person who reminds managers to call a time on social events so there is a clear signal as to when it is no longer a work function. And I have smacked my head occasionally over the years and had to ask someone, ‘what were you thinking?’ when a valid complaint was made.
But I also had my share of fun at work before I was married, and I believe office romance was one of the more engaging aspects of life in large companies. Drinks after work was full of risk, but if no-one was hurt, and no crimes were committed, we understood that the hangovers and regretted liaisons were our own responsibility.
In the 1990’s, nearly one in five US couples met at work; that figure has dropped to one in ten. This is according to researchers from the University of New Mexico.
Zoe Strimpel, clearly a kindred spirit, recently wrote in the in the UK’s Telegraph, “Am I the only one who misses the thrill of office romance?”
“Employers have begun puritanically policing the libidinousness of their staff to make office liaisons as difficult as possible. At Netflix, workers are prohibited from asking each other out more than once and have been warned that ‘if you stare at someone for more than five seconds, its creepy and inappropriate.’ One in 20 employers have sought to ban workplace romances. It’s hard to think of a drearier, more bureaucratically sexless world than this, with everyone cowed into keeping well way from each other by threats of being branded a predator, of public humiliation, and of course, sacking. In fact, all the beady-eyed watching out for rule-breakers, knee strokers, bum-grabbers, off-colour compliment-givers rather puts me in mind of a repressive communist state.”
Strimpel is putting her neck out here, but not with me. I think it is highly inappropriate for an employee to grab another colleague’s backside. However, in the scheme of things, many worse things can happen to a human being. Where is our sense of proportion?
Thank goodness for the common sense of a Fair Work Commissioner in Australia recently, (yes, there are some wise ones) who ruled that a dismissal was unfair after a woman tried to proposition a co-worker at a drinks event. Said Commissioner Cambridge, “If one act of inoffensive drunkenness at an after-work function provided valid reason for dismissal, I suspect that the majority of Australian workers may have potentially lost their jobs.”
What was her crime? She sexually propositioned a manager, while drunk, and said he could ‘take advantage of me if you like.’ There is something almost touching and old-fashioned about that proposition, but her employer argued that her conduct caused a serious risk to the reputation of its business. Really?
The employee was clearly mortified by the incident and said ‘this is a wake-up call for me. I won’t be needing assistance or vomiting at functions in the future.’ I wish I had her contact details. I might ring and say, ‘we’ve all been there, love.’
Am I alone in thinking it sad that the propositioned man didn’t just laugh it off and say, ‘well, that’s tempting, but oh dear – is that the time?’ That’s what most of us would do. Perhaps he was not the complainant. A witness will suffice for bullying and sexual harassment in our legal system and increasingly there is a reverse burden of proof on the employer.
I could write endlessly about the many not-so-old fashioned propositions that I and other women have endured. I can discuss a lot of behaviour that crossed a line. I’m not condoning grossness, but may I just say a sincere ‘thank-you’ to some of the funny people I have worked with, who flirted with impunity, made jokes without getting committee approval and came up with so many creative ideas to make us laugh during work hours. You have made my working days so much fun.
Lisa, keep up the romantic speculation and the jokes. I can only hope there is a great love story in the office for you. And by the way, it was me who left those tiny male dolls wearing Speedos on your desk.