Sure, let’s be wary of abuse of power, but do we really want to outlaw office romance? | Stephanie Merritt

The news that one more prominent man in the world of media has been forced to resign over a sex scandal barely warrants the raise of an eyebrow these days, but it is noteworthy if he resigns because there was sex with no scandal. This was the case for Jeff Zucker, now ex-president of CNN, who stepped down last week after it was revealed that he was romantically involved with a colleague, Allison Gollust.

While Zucker’s resignation has prompted speculation about political machinations behind the scenes, it’s hard to see what he actually did wrong. The relationship was consensual; both Zucker and Gollust are divorced and of a similar age (he’s 56, she’s 49). By Zucker’s own admission, his fault was the failure to disclose the relationship when it began, in line with company policy. Much as it pains me to agree with Fox News host Bill Maher, he had a point when he remarked: “This used to be called discretion.”

So is the office romance now a resigning offence? According to one 2017 study, 11% of people met their long-term partner at work, compared with 19% in 1995. There are generations coming of age now that will find it impossible to imagine a world before the advent of dating apps, but for those of us of Gen X and older, work was one of the places you might reliably hope to meet people with similar interests, abilities or outlooks.

It’s a staple of sitcoms: the tentative flirtation between Tim and Dawn in The Office struck a chord with millions of viewers because there can be few adults who have not sought to leaven the tedium of another work day with an exchange of glances, in-jokes or “accidental” encounters at the coffee machine with an attractive colleague. Perhaps it’s still a generational thing; season one of And Just Like That…, the reboot of Sex and the City, ended with 55-year-old Carrie snogging her boss in the lift at work. Even if it doesn’t lead anywhere, the office flirtation can offer a welcome bright spot in a long day; one more harmless pleasure the pandemic has stolen from us.

Or is it harmless? Perhaps more than any other intimate relationship, the office romance is open to abuse because of the implications for careers and livelihoods. There were those, mostly men, who lamented that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements sounded the death knell for office flirtations, as companies increasingly tightened their policies around workplace relationships, a move welcomed by many women weary of their male bosses’ and colleagues’ inability to distinguish between compliments and harassment. Facebook and Google now have a rule that employees can ask a co-worker out only once; if they’re turned down, any subsequent attempt could be a disciplinary matter.

Maybe the office romance has become so fraught that it should be consigned to history. After all, home-working, Zoom and the recent dearth of work parties everywhere except Downing Street have more or less killed it off entirely. For many Britons, the idea of “love contracts”, as implemented by some US companies, would be excruciating; most of us would rather be celibate forever than sit in front of an HR manager with a colleague we’ve started shagging to sign legal disclaimers about professional behaviour and declarations that neither party was coerced.

I confess that I’m on the side of workplace romances: I owe my existence to one. My parents met teaching at the same school and continued to work happily together as colleagues until they both retired. Of course, policies that protect younger and more vulnerable employees from exploitation are a necessary step towards equality and respect, but it’s also important that companies trust workers to manage their professional and personal lives as consenting adults.

I’m wary of any policy that would force people to choose between their relationship and their job; in the case of Zucker and Gollust, he took the rap, but it’s easy to see how women could end up disproportionately affected by such rules. And if the history of art, literature and human behaviour has taught us anything, it’s that attempting to forbid romantic liaisons only makes them more attractive.

Stephanie Merritt’s books include While You Sleep

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