Lust among lecturers and lectured

June 12, 1998

Whether it is in the corridors of power or those of academia what is wrong with romance blossoming between two colleagues, asks Mark Griffiths

THE Industrial Society reported recently that 40 per cent of office workers have had an affair or romance with a work colleague and that 50 per cent of people meet their future partners at work (Robin Cook is a good example).

Whether the statistics would be any different for academics is anybody's guess, but I suspect not. These latest findings are not surprising, yet most managers (even in higher education) would prefer these sorts of relationships not to take place. Is this because managers worry that there may be fall-out in the office if intimate relationships break up or that work productivity will in some way be affected? Or is it because, for many people, relationships at work are a moral issue, seen as being almost as bad as infidelity.

I have never been unfaithful with a work colleague but I have had monogamous sexual relationships with colleagues at every university that I have worked in. Some have been short-lived "flings'' while some have been very serious, but every one of them has been justifiable and (as far as I am aware) has had no lasting negative effect on either me, ex-partners or work colleagues.

It may be that I have been lucky or just blind to the situation but I do not think I have done anything morally wrong by having a sexual relationship with a work colleague and I am sure my experience is not untypical.

Any social psychologist can tell you why people have relationships with each other. The main reasons are familiarity (such as seeing people on a regular basis by sharing the same social space), reciprocity (liking somebody because you know they like you), similarity of attitudes (such as the sharing of political and religious views, cultural tastes, outside interests etc.) and physical attractiveness.

Apart from physical attraction, all these other factors can in some ways be "facilitated'' or "stimulated'' by the work environment. Working in the same environment (for example, a university) may be indicative of core values held by many like-minded individuals.

It is therefore not surprising that someone who works as (say) a psychology lecturer ends up having a relationship with another psychology lecturer. Although there is a belief that opposites attract, in general people engage in relationships with like-minded people who share values and interests.

Relationships at work are on the increase. Why? I think it's because more and more people are working longer hours and time for socialising and leisure activities has decreased. The United Kingdom has the longest working hours in Europe, so it should be no surprise when office relationships occur.

Long working hours may also partly explain why dating agencies and "lonely hearts'' columns appear to have more respectability than they ever have done and why more and more people are engaging in on-line affairs via the Internet. Many people simply do not have time for an outgoing social life (particularly if they spend non-work time relaxing indoors).

Mixing work and pleasure can certainly be risky in some situations. When I was an undergraduate I had (what turned out to be) a four-year relationship with a member of staff in the department at which I was doing my degree. Our relationship was not a secret but when it became "serious'' we were told by university hierarchy "to take (our) relationship off campus'' and not to be seen together in student bars.

Although this was ten years ago, I do not think attitudes have changed. Staff-student relationships are frowned on. Since then, every relationship I have ever had within a workplace setting has been discreet. When one does occur, some forward planning is advisable - with both people involved examining all the possible scenarios. Anyone with any doubts should keep their work life and sex life separate.

In academia there are obviously certain taboos about relationships at work. As I discovered, the one that appears to cause most friction with the university hierarchy is lecturers having affairs with their students. Although this is something I would never do myself now that I am a lecturer (particularly because of arguments over actual and/or perceived abuse of power), staff/student affairs still go on.

Some institutions appear to be accepting that such behaviour is common. For example, some places ask staff at the beginning of assessment boards for "declarations of interest'' so that lecturers who are having relationships with students are not present when that student's case is discussed.

It is my contention that wherever people interact in a social space, relationships will sometimes occur. Monogamous relationships with work colleagues are socially acceptable and should not be seen as anything but normal behaviour.

Mark Griffiths is a reader in psychology, Nottingham Trent University.

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