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Monday 30 May 2016

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Staff relationships should be nobody's affair but their own

By John Walsh

Published 24/05/2014

Private matters: has Ipswich Council taken its directives too far?
Private matters: has Ipswich Council taken its directives too far?

Are you now, or have you ever been, conducting a raging affair with somebody in your office? If you're lucky enough to work for Ipswich Borough Council, from this week you'll be expected to tell your bosses all about it.

Staff have been told they must disclose any "close personal relationships" they have with colleagues, where such closeness might cause "a conflict of interest".

I think the idea is that department managers don't want to run the risk of putting passionately connected staff members into positions (oh, don't be so childish) where one has to report to the other.

Can you imagine how complicated it would be if Sandra and Giles, whose relationship is already precariously balanced on a dominant/subordinate knife-edge, were to find their whole dynamic shifted because Giles has to supervise Sandra's rethinking of council parking-permit strategy in the central Ipswich area?

Declaring a close in-office relationship to your senior manager isn't simple, is it? Do you do it together, or singly?

How mortifying for Alison from Accounts to have to sit there alongside Will from Bought Ledger and tell her scrofulous boss Eddie (who's always had a crush on her) that she's engaged in regular hanky-panky with his hated rival. Will that make a happy office? I don't think so.

And what if the guilty couple do it singly? What happens when Colin admits, "Yes, I have been having sex with Joanna every Tuesday lunchtime in the stationery supplies office, but it's not serious", while Joanna explains, "Colin and I are emotionally entwined as two human beings have seldom been entwined and we're probably going to marry in the autumn"? Do the bosses have to take corrective action?

More worrying is that Ipswich Council isn't interested only in serious, grown-up relationships. It wants to know about the furtive snog, as well.

It insists that staff should also report "short-term relationships" of a "sexual, or romantic, nature". You mean, like a random snog between George and Belinda (or, indeed, George and Bill) in the car-park of the Swan pub after Abigail's leaving party? Does that count?

Perhaps they should extend their disclosure mandate to take in staff members' chronic, hopeless longing for each other. It'll obviously be counterproductive if you put Tara and Tim together on the same feasibility committee looking into dog licensing, if one of them has been nursing a years-long desire to rip the other's clothes off the minute they're seated together. But can you seriously demand that every council staffer reveals the object of their mid-afternoon fantasies?

I was especially intrigued to read the council's helpful advice, that anyone who's not quite sure whether their "interaction" with a colleague amounts to an actual "relationship" should seek to clarify matters by "discuss[ing] this with your line manager".

What bliss – and I never thought I'd ever type these words – to be a line manager, if it means encountering the kind of inquiries you'd once have found in a Victorian agony column.

"Sam from Marketing's knuckles lightly grazed the front of my cardigan yesterday, as he reached across me to the watercooler. Does this mean he cares for me?" "I'm unable to take my eyes off Phoebe from Human Resources's rear when she walks across the canteen with her tray of coq au vin. And I think she knows it, judging by the way she never looks in my direction. Are we having a relationship? If so, could you tell her?"

The crunch will come when two people are seeing each other illicitly and neither has the slightest intention of telling a soul, let alone a line manager (and, through him/her, the entire office).

Their secrecy will be all-important. And we should be able to say that our privacy is equally all important to us and that we shouldn't have to compromise it for the smooth running of an office.

Ipswich Council is looking for trouble if it really imagines it can supervise human feelings in the workplace, or micro-manage flesh-and-blood relationships in the boardroom.

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