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Office Affairs
by Peggy Vaughan

"Affairs" at work are not new, but more women are having office affairs than in the past.
Here are comments about 7 questions related to this situation.

  1. Why are more women having office affairs than in the past?
  2. What are the risks of office affairs?
  3. What about the woman who has an affair with her boss?
  4. Why don't these risks prevent office affairs?
  5. What's so appealing about men at work? (Are they more thoughtful and communicative than husbands or boyfriends?)
  6. Does sex actually take place in the office setting?
  7. How does the company deal with all this sexuality in the workplace?

  1. Why are more women having office affairs than in the past?

    More women are having affairs in all areas of life than in the past—and the office is no exception. We live in a society that is preoccupied with sex and this sexually—charged environment doesn't end at the office door. As long as we have the current fascination and titillation about affairs—as well as the intense commercialization of sex in the media—we can expect to continue to have sex in the office.

    Today, there are more women in the work force than ever before, and professionals spend an average of 52.5 hours a week on the job. The new working situation means that women often spend more time with their co-workers than with their friends or family.

    Of course, it's not just the shear amount of time that women spend at work; they also spend their work time in different ways. More and more women are traveling in conjunction with their jobs. This additional opportunity for close relationships to develop outside the normal work environment simply expands the opportunities to build close relationships with men at work.

    Since women are more likely to associate feelings of closeness with sexual feelings, these friendships provide a fertile ground for eventually becoming sexual relationships and developing into office affairs.

  2. What are the risks of office affairs?

    While the risks associated with office romances (between two single people) may be diminished by being discreet and relating in a professional way at work, office affairs (where at least one of the partners is married) carry far more risks. And these risks are much greater for women than for men.

    The double standard for judging sexual behavior that exists in society as a whole exists in the office as well. Both men and women are likely to be more harsh in their judgment of the woman than the man when it comes to an office affair. Even if co-workers bring no moral judgment to her actions, they're likely to make a professional judgment that she's not really serious about her career.

    There's also the likelihood that others in the office will have concerns about being personally affected. These concerns cover a wide range: having to "cover" for an affair, the amount of time an affair might take from a focus on business, special treatment or privileges that might accompany an affair, unfair distribution of labor by virtue of time spent on an affair, or just being distracted by an affair.

    There's also the risk, of course, that a woman involved in an affair will be distracted by it herself. While most men have learned to compartmentalize their lives and separate their feelings from their ability to focus on other things, women may experience some problems in blocking out the dynamics of an office affair while trying to concentrate on their work.

    When an affair ends, or if it becomes a problem in the office, it's the woman who is likely to lose her job. Even if she is able to keep her job, her peers' assessment of her as a worker will probably be lowered.

  3. What about the woman who has an affair with her boss?

    This is the most volatile situation of all—but one that is still very prevalent. Women are generally the ones who are penalized when an affair becomes a problem, and this is especially true when the man is her boss. When the affair with her boss ends, her job is likely to end as well.

    Even though the risks of an affair with the boss are higher, there are other complicating factors that cause a woman to lose sight of the risks. She is likely to have a great deal of admiration for his ability and success and come to value him not only as a boss, but also as a friend and mentor.

    In addition, the boss often has a lot of control over a woman's future in terms of her economic well-being and her opportunities for advancement. This is not to say that women are trying to "sleep their way to the top." Most ambitious women today recognize that this is clearly not the best path to success. But their boss may play such an important part in their lives that they have difficulty separating their professional relationship from their personal feelings.

  4. Why don't these risks prevent office affairs?

    Part of the explanation for why a woman takes the risk of having an office affair is simply that she ignores or denies the risks. When caught up in the emotional "high" of the relationship, she focuses only on the pleasure and excitement involved, not on the potential consequences.

    Having an office affair is not a smart decision for a woman, but most women never actually make that decision; they simply fall into an office affair. Avoiding an affair at work requires deliberately deciding in advance not to get involved and continually reinforcing that decision by focusing on the risks.

    The awareness of the need to avoid office affairs is not new. In fact, there's a long list of quite colorful expressions admonishing against affairs at work: "Don't mix business with pleasure," and the symbolically male maxims, "Don't fish off the company pier" and "Don't dip your pen in the company ink." Nevertheless, many men and women who know and believe in this advice still succumb to office affairs.

  5. What's so appealing about men at work? (Are they more thoughtful and communicative than husbands or boyfriends?)

    It's not that they are particularly "special" in their ability to relate to women in a satisfying way; it's the circumstances that make the difference. For instance, a man who seems so thoughtful and communicative at work may behave very differently at home. His wife sees a different side of him and may complain about him in much the same way as the woman he's having an affair with complains about her own husband or boyfriend.

    At work, people present a side of themselves that is not representative of the whole person. They're usually committed to looking their best and being on their best behavior. Also, when people work together on projects involving large budgets or high stakes, the work environment becomes filled with a sense of vitality and importance, making the office setting a very sexy place. Given this potent atmosphere, it's no wonder that the office has become the most popular source of contact for extramarital affairs—as well as romances among the unmarried.

  6. Does sex actually take place in the office setting?

    When two unmarried people at work are having an affair, they have plenty of choices of time and place for sex without resorting to using the office setting. But the furtive nature of an affair involving at least one married person presents a different dilemma—often resulting in stolen moments of passion in the office.

    The heady nature of an extramarital affair can cause otherwise sane and responsible people to behave in rather bizarre ways. For instance, they may go so far as to have sex on a desk (after hours) or in a locked storage room (during working hours).

  7. How does the company deal with all this sexuality in the workplace?

    Very few companies deal directly with the issue of sex in the office. If at all possible, they ignore it. In small companies, where it may be more difficult to ignore, there's more likelihood of action—but it's usually based on reacting to a given situation, not on having a clear policy. In most instances, it's simply not on the company's agenda as an issue to be dealt with.

    One reason companies tend to avoid this issue is that monitoring people's personal lives is not generally seen as the responsibility of business unless it clearly interferes with productivity. It's only when other employees officially complain and demand that something be done that the company is likely to take action.

    Basically, the company only addresses whatever sexual problems it is forced to deal with. Whatever effort the company makes toward curtailing sexual activity is usually in response to a specific demand from one or more individuals within the organization. And most of these demands take the form of complaints about sexual harassment rather than about affairs between two consenting employees.

    Perhaps the most subtle, but most pervasive, reason companies don't take action in dealing with office affairs is that there is no separate entity called "The Company;" there are only individuals (usually men) in positions of authority. And many of these men are either involved in affairs themselves or are close personal friends with other men who are involved. Either way, they're less than eager to "rock the boat."

    Clearly, this is a sensitive issue that most people in business prefer to avoid. Since they feel there's no way they can win in dealing with it, they simply do nothing.

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