Jenny had been living in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks when she fell “head over heels” in love with Christine, the creative director of a small fashion company. But there was a problem: Christine already had a girlfriend. And another problem: Christine was interviewing Jenny for a job at the company at the time. “The first thing she did when she came in was to sit in her chair and say to me: ‘So you’re the English girl,’” Jenny recalls. “She was very direct – it wasn’t something I was used to. It felt strong.”
Jenny, whose parents are from Hong Kong, had decided to move there after graduating from university in 2018, to learn more about her culture. She was 22, and describes herself as extremely shy. She applied for a series of positions at creative companies, but Christine’s firm was the first to invite her for an interview; Jenny landed an entry-level position, reporting directly to Christine. Her new boss wasn’t like anyone she’d met before. She was powerful and direct in business meetings, but playful, disarming, even confessional one-to-one. She worked out and channelled a masculine, minimalist style: white shirts, blazers, black turtlenecks. She seemed to take a special interest in the English girl.
“There was one moment early on when we were going through some props for a shoot together,” Jenny says. “I was just an intern then – it was a menial job for a director to be helping out with, but she was so caring. She wanted to know more about me.” Within two weeks, Jenny was questioning her whole identity. “I never realised that I had feelings for women before I met her,” she says. “I was surprised that I could feel that way about anyone. I started to think back to all my previous experiences with men and realised there was something lacking. But with my boss – it was different.”
Jenny was one of hundreds of Guardian readers who responded to a call-out for tales of workplace romance. The intention was to find out how the business of coupling up at work has changed. According to surveys, about two-thirds of British workers are open to dating colleagues – but human resources and human emotions aren’t always in alignment.
Since 2017, the #MeToo movement has helped bring to the surface a series of stories about harassment and misconduct in workplaces, including American Apparel in the US and the Arcadia Group in the UK. In 2018, Monica Lewinsky revisited her workplace affair with Bill Clinton, when she was an intern and he was president, in an essay for Vanity Fair. She wrote: “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
The more recent case of the British former McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook – fired from a $15.9m-a-year position last November for having a consensual affair with a colleague – highlights just how far some companies are prepared to go to guard against potential abuses of power and troublesome lawsuits, particularly in the US.
“Non-fraternisation policies” and “love contracts” are common, typically requiring both parties to declare the relationship, agree that it will not interfere with their work, and potentially move departments in the event of any conflict of interest.
There had been no complaint against Easterbrook from his lover, only from the McDonald’s board, who argued that his affair “violated company policy”, which bans employees with “direct or indirect reporting relationships” from having sexual relationships. Easterbrook’s dismissal wiped around $4bn from McDonald’s share price overnight. In December, BlackRock Inc – the world’s largest asset management company – dismissed Mark Wiseman, a senior executive tipped as a future CEO, for a similar breach. “This is not who BlackRock is. This is not our culture,” said an internal memo circulated at the time.
The situation in Britain is different. European workers are – in theory, at least – protected from such dismissals by the European convention on human rights, article 8, which grants us the “right to respect for private and family life”. In other words, your company’s shareholders don’t have the right to tell you who you can have sex with, as they do in America.
Nonetheless, says Jonathan Rennie, employment partner at the London law firm TLT, business is increasingly international. US conventions are drifting across the Atlantic – and what will happen post-Brexit is unclear. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries from firms about what is and isn’t appropriate, particularly since #MeToo,” he tells me. “Larger companies in particular have identified this as a potential trip hazard.” The compensation is unlimited in sexual harassment cases, he notes, so it’s in companies’ interests to put some kind of policy in place. Even if it is not rigidly applied, the company’s lawyers can then make a “reasonable steps” defence in any potential employment tribunal.
He points to Facebook’s Relationships at Work document as an example of a typical US policy, which theoretically applies at a global level. The firm stresses that workers aren’t banned from dating each other – but there are “simple rules” to prevent “unwanted invitations” or “unwelcome flirting”. “If you ask a co-worker out and that invitation does not result in a date, do not ask again” is one rule. Another: “If you do start a relationship with someone in your management chain, it must be disclosed to HR.” People who are in relationships must remain “professional” with one another while at work. And so on.
But, as Rennie notes (and he helps to draft this sort of thing) such rules are nigh on impossible to enforce. “There are infinite ways that a relationship might develop,” he says. “The idea that you can cover them all in a policy is a bit heavy-handed.” For instance, when should you disclose your relationship to HR? After you share a fumble at the Slug & Lettuce? When your stomach turns to butterflies at the photocopier? “Theoretically, if you fail to disclose, you could be fired,” Rennie says. That sounds dystopian, I remark. “Well, modern life is dystopian!” he laughs.
Still, Dame Heather Rabbatts, chair of the anti-harassment campaign group Time’s Up UK, stresses that context is always important when it comes to consensual relationships within the workplace. “Harvey Weinstein has argued in court: ‘There was always consent,’” she says. “Well, how was that consent made? If the senior individual has power, and consent is given in a context of bullying, that is harassment.
“It’s really worth stressing that sexual harassment is still endemic in the culture of many, many companies,” she adds. “The women at McDonald’s have been campaigning around sexual harassment for some time.” (The company has defended its anti-harassment efforts.) Rabbatts doesn’t see relationship contracts as a priority; making employees aware of their rights and ensuring they have access to confidential advice is more effective. “At some of the production companies we are working with, the anti-harassment policies are printed out and pinned to the door. I’d welcome that.” Even if the companies are more concerned with their own reputations than the welfare of their employees? “Well, it’s hard to interrogate the mindset of a corporate entity, isn’t it?” she says. “But what is important is the outcome. Employers are rightly concerned with their reputations. There was a time, not that long ago, where sexual harassment wouldn’t have been a reputation issue. Now companies feel they have to address it, and that is to be welcomed.”
But while larger firms are becoming more cautious, many startups operate a looser, more informal culture. A former employee of the US startup WeWork, who claimed she was sexually assaulted twice while working for the company, filed a lawsuit in 2018 citing an “entitled, frat-boy culture that permeates from the top down”. The company vehemently denied the claims, which were partially upheld under New York City law. One reporter described WeWork, which at its height managed more than 800 co-working spaces across the world, as a “flirting utopia”. Few smaller companies have policies in place, for the simple reason that they have other priorities. But last year the Financial Times reported that investors were starting to seek “#MeToo clauses” in investment agreements with startups, in order to guarantee that there have been no historical sexual harassment complaints – with an obligation to report any complaints that do arise.
One difficulty is that so much of our lives now take place in the grey area between work and non-work, says Michael Ryley, a partner who specialises in employment law at Weightmans. Are work parties work? If you work from home, is your own home the workplace? “And what happens if, for example, I’m in a relationship with someone in the office? If I pat her on the bum and she’s my girlfriend, that’s potentially fine. But if she’s defined as another employee, I could get sacked. And what if the relationship breaks down? Have I harassed a fellow employee, for which my employer is liable? The potential for toxic fallout is considerable.” Nonetheless, he sees McDonald’s-style sanctions as “aggressive”: “I don’t see why an employer should dictate who you can go out with any more than they should tell you what you can eat for dinner or watch on TV.”
And there’s a broader shift, too. Esther Perel, author of Mating In Captivity and perhaps the world’s most in-demand relationship therapist, has turned her attention to workplaces in her new podcast, How’s Work?. As she notes, we increasingly ask our employers to take care of our emotional needs – terms like “trust”, “authenticity” and “belonging” have now entered the business sphere. Businesses organise mindfulness sessions; your boss wants to know how you’re feeling. Meanwhile, romance is increasingly subject to the logic of the marketplace: we’re more inclined than ever to treat dates as job interviews.
Judging from the responses of Guardian readers, romance is very much alive, lustful and complicated in 2020. “I can’t remember who emailed who,” reports Polly, 39, an account director from Sheffield. “But an email was sent, waters were tested and within a couple of days we were snogging round the back of the office by the smoking shelter.” (The affair fizzled out after a couple of months: both were in other relationships.) Academia would appear to be a hotbed of brooding intensity: “My baby is the only positive thing to come out of it,” says Elisabeth, 27, an administrator from Manchester. City law firms (long hours, small teams, high pressure) sound particularly steamy. “When they installed a sleeping pod in the office it really got quite bad,” reports a former employee of one eminent firm.
The majority of respondents told heart-warming stories that began with something like: “He made me find the dull drudge of each day amusing” (Rachel, 26, a researcher from London), and concluded along the lines of: “That was 40 years ago and next year we celebrate our ruby anniversary!” (Michael, 64, a retired civil servant from Chesterfield). There was plenty of heartache, too. “She worked for the sales director, I was in marketing, and every time I saw her my stomach turned somersaults,” says Andrew, 60, from Wales, who managed to keep his affair secret. “Never had that before or since. She was the love of my life.” She transferred abroad and Andrew considered jacking it all in to join her, but in the end chose his career. “I hope she’s reading this,” he adds.
Then there are those for whom the sheer messiness of office romance is the whole point. Abigail, 48, a civil servant from Oxfordshire, reflects that her “romantic dalliances” have made for the happiest times in her work life. “No, I never got the big promotion or any recognition for how awesome I am, and more than once someone else has taken the credit for the work I’ve done,” she says. “I really don’t mind, because while they’ve been focusing on their careers, I’ve been preoccupied with infatuation, love and heartbreak.” She tallies one unrequited “major crush”, two stray snogs, three sexual relationships, two serious long-term relationships, one marriage and one broken heart from her civil service career. “These are the people I spent most of my time with – of course I’m going to develop real feelings for some of them,” she reasons. “The secret to my success? A friendly smile and a key to the stationery cupboard.”
Still, the data suggests that workplace couplings are becoming less common. One of the most reliable sets of statistics on modern romance is collected by researchers at Stanford University. It shows that the number of US couples who meet at work is falling fast – from 20% of heterosexual couples in the mid-1990s to just over 10% today. One possible reason is that the 1970s and 80s saw a large spike in office romances as women entered many workplaces for the first time; it could simply be that the novelty factor has worn off. But the main shift is that more and more couples (39%) are meeting online – a process that the researchers call “technology-driven disintermediation”. We are less inclined to rely on intermediaries (like friends and family) to place potential life partners in our paths – and less beholden to circumstances, like going to the same university, or being put on the same shift pattern. To put it another way, we’re more likely to be updating our Guardian Soulmates profile in the hope of algorithmic bliss – and less likely to be meeting Abigail in the stationery cupboard. Perhaps there’s just less need for stationery in our paperless offices, too.
I was intrigued by the message that Jenny had left in response to the Guardian’s call-out – “[Christine] is the reason why I know I can love anyone and [she] made me start exploring and accepting my sexuality” – so I Skyped her in Hong Kong.
In those first weeks, she says, her rights as an employee were the last thing on her mind. Her main concern was spending as much time with Christine as possible. She took on extra work so she had an excuse to contact her over weekends. She took up jogging so she could exercise with Christine, and accepted an invitation to karaoke with her boss and her girlfriend. She enjoyed the status their closeness gave her. Best of all, they got to travel together: Tokyo, Beijing and Singapore. “We became reliant on each other,” she says. “Most of our work is in China, but I don’t really know Mandarin so I needed to stick with Christine to order food and get around. But she also needed me to help with filming schedules and castings and everything.” It was at these times that Jenny got to know “her secrets and fears”.
Then, last January, came the shoot in China. As usual, the two of them flew out before the rest of the team to make sure everything was in place. “We had been out for dinner at this hotpot restaurant, a very traditional place, noisy, busy, full of smoke. We were drinking beer, eating boiled pig intestines and talking about religion. Like: what do we think happens when we die? Do we believe in reincarnation? All these deep topics.”
Christine had told her that she had never instigated any of her romantic relationships – it had always been the other woman. Jenny took this to mean that she would have to make the move. But what if it went wrong? She considered resigning so that she could declare her love. But then she would lose her job and, potentially, Christine. Finally, they ended up at the hotel. “We were waiting outside the door and our eyes met and we just kind of stared at each other.”
Power is sexy, work is dull and other people are more interesting. The writers of romances have always known this. But what would a human resources director make of, say, the film Secretary, in which Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a woman whose boss subjects her to what, from a 2020 perspective, looks like a clearcut case of sustained workplace harassment: whips, manacles, spanking? The US author Mary Gaitskill, who wrote the story on which the 2002 movie was based, returned to its themes in her recent novel This Is Pleasure, in which a powerful New York publisher faces a lawsuit from a former employee. He thought their spanking episode was a bit of transgressive fun. Years later, the employee thinks otherwise. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Gaitskill defended her decision to tell the story from the perspective of the accused on the grounds that the media has been full of accusers’ stories. “The thing about the bigger story,” she said, “is that you see the currents, but you often don’t see people really feeling it.”
If you put any group of people together, pretty soon feelings will surface. “I’m a quiet and shy guy,” says Haroon, 35, from Bury. “I don’t tend to socialise much. I started my new job and on my first day this beautiful blond woman walks into my office and introduces herself. She is in her late 40s and married; she talks a lot and loves to socialise. We hit it off as soon as our eyes locked.” He describes how she brings him out of his comfort zone, makes him feel confident and sexy. She often comes into his office to chat. He hasn’t made a move – and nor does he intend to. “Instead she is relegated to a fantasy,” he says. “My wife roleplays her when we have sex, not knowing I have a real crush on her.”
Kimi, 51, a university lecturer from Scotland, says: “We got together in the most cliched circumstance – getting drunk at the work Christmas meal. We both had very young children and spouses who starved us of physical affection and intimacy. That was almost 18 years ago.” They are still together now – a “tacit couple”, long past the point of gossip. But they are also still with their respective spouses.
“We sometimes manage to go to the same conferences,” Kimi says, “but mostly we have lunch and do the crossword puzzle, or meet for a drink and a game of cards. Our love affair has been largely conducted in writing, but we still miss each other when we don’t see each other for a few days.” She says they are more in love than ever, the most loyal friends, but that it’s bittersweet, trying to make the best of things, waiting for their children to grow up and leave. “We furnish imaginary flats and talk about the future. But I fear that when it comes to it, I won’t have the nerve to leave my husband.”
Jenny and Christine didn’t kiss. Christine said something about the hard day they both faced in the morning, and Jenny said yes, and they went to their separate rooms. “And the next day we went back to work.”
Jenny has just marked her first anniversary at the company. Over time, it has become easier. “I have given it a lot of thought and decided that it’s better to stay friends for life then be lovers for a short time,” she says. But she maintains that it’s her boss who helped her discover her sexuality. “I’m at peace now, I guess. It’s not nice to obsess. But now I’m happy. I feel so much freer. I’m more willing to try new things and meet more people. I’ve started using Tinder and Bumble. And I’ve been to my first Pride – that was quite special.”