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Uncomfortable Chemistry

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

A friend recently told me about some colleagues who seemed to have started a relationship. If you've ever been the third wheel, then you'll know how my friend feels. Every time they're at lunch, the sexual chemistry gets incredibly uncomfortable.

You can tell when they're on the phone together, because their voices get soft and husky. If they text or instant message each other, and you walk by, they click off the screen surreptitiously. You might catch them talking at the photocopier, and they quickly move apart when they see you.

Maybe they've started carpooling, and they arrive at work together. Or worse, pretend they're not arriving together! It really looks obvious!

Is there anything wrong with starting a relationship at work?

Certainly, people often meet someone special at work. I remember a print magazine for psychiatrists, years ago, that had an article about it. The article suggested it was a good idea to shack up with a fellow psychiatrist, because they understood the pressures of the job and had similar vocational aspirations.

I've known many colleagues who have married and had children together. But I've also known a few to end the relationship after a time, and that's the period that has always worried me. What if you both like your jobs and where you work? If the split is respectful, it might not be a problem. But if it's an acrimonious ending, everyone could suffer.

Not only do the families feel the separation, all the co-workers feel like they're treading on egg shells too.

But then there are all the inappropriate workplace relationships.

I had a colleague who pursued me every day for 18 months. I loved the attention. The frisson of anticipation and the hope of an eventual merger kept me going that whole time. What can I say ... I loved the chase. But, he had a girlfriend back in his home country. As much as I could have succumbed to his unrelenting charms, and gotten away with it, I didn't want to be the one to betray his girlfriend. And frankly, he should have behaved more respectfully - to her, to me, and to himself.

Mary-Claire in her blue dress
His view, at the time ...

He also shared an office with a married woman. I don't think his boss, or hers, showed much foresight in putting them in close proximity ...

In my first job in Sydney, I worked as a receptionist-clerk for a construction company. I, together with a few others, reported to a supervisor, and we all reported to the accountant. Another clerk, who was in her first romantic relationship with a guy from her home town, became involved with the accountant. He was married, had children, and was more than ten years her senior. He should have known better, and he should have been a better leader. And, let's be blunt: he should have been a better husband and father!

But let's get back to my friend's predicament. Should she say anything, and if so, to whom? Well, if it makes her uncomfortable enough, why not?

Sometimes, it just depends on all the circumstances together.

In this instance, the relationship is between a supervisor and a temp. There is a clear conflict of interest, because he is in a position of authority and power.

If he recognises that he has feelings for the temp (idealistically romantic, or sexual), he has a responsibility to distance himself from the temp, without it being detrimental to her position in the organisation.

He should not engage in any behaviour that would lead her to think she has a chance with him. He should not be alone with her; but instead, he should direct her to seek mentoring from another (more appropriate) member of staff.

What are the possible consequences, if he doesn't act appropriately?

If nothing else, they could make other members of staff uncomfortable. But, it could get worse. One could become a stalker. One could break it off, and the other might take it badly. Allegations of harassment could ensue. You just never know how bad it can get.

Maybe I'm a pessimist in all this. But, a workplace relationship is not the time to wear rose-coloured glasses.

It brings to mind the various relationships portrayed in the film Love Actually. As much as this film has been a favourite of mine, it has many examples of inappropriate comments and behaviour, conflicts of interest, objectification, and poor choices. See how many you can count, and feel free to send me your list!

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