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So the Olympics is over. That glorious festival of sporting excellence, made even more impressive because we ran it and won quite a lot of it, has finished. Not only is everyone feeling flat as a pancake, there’s nothing on television and we’ve all run out of things to talk about, apart from how brilliant it all was and how empty life is without it.

The Olympics meant there was, unusually for summer, always something decent to watch (or listen to) in the evening.  Where a week ago the only argument would be whether to go with the diving or the rhythmic gymnastics (diving, we’re ok at that and you can watch the latter on catch up), now we’ve reverted back to the reality tv versus soap versus current affairs programme debate, which invariably ends with me going to do the washing up.

And if it’s bad at home, it’s even worse at work.  What do you do to fill those dreary moments waiting for the kettle to boil or while snatching a sneaky fag on the fire escape?  How do you bond with colleagues who don’t have children and normally go out socialising every night?

No more water-cooler chats about how dressage is really rather beautiful and how you have been inspired to do a triathlon.  No more bonding sessions round a colleague’s PC as you illicitly watch a taekwondo medal bout nor any opportunities to raise a glass together in the pub after work while enjoying women’s football.

In this respect, the Olympics was a great unifier – we were all watching it and all taking about it.  What do we do now?  While the sun is out it’s probably ok because everything feels quite good in the sunshine.  But once it starts raining again, as it inevitably will, what on earth are we going to do of an evening?

There is no hope of anything even half decent being on television until at least October (the Paralympics notwithstanding) and we can’t possibly talk to each other, apart from the cursory ‘how was your day?’.  It’s a revolutionary idea, but maybe, just maybe, we could read books again?

Quite a lot of people do seem to have got this idea, although most of them appear to be reading the same book.  While some of us were transfixed by the site of elite athletes, admittedly many of whom weren’t wearing a great deal, straining every muscle and sinew for Olympic glory, quite a few were indulging in the guilty pleasure that is Fifty Shades of Grey.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is the tale of a virginal woman getting involved with a bondage-loving billionaire.  You can imagine the rest (and you’ll have to, because I haven’t read it and I don’t intend to).  I don’t have anything against it, although I find it unbelievably depressing that it is now the best-selling book in Britain since records began, but the bits I’ve seen suggest I have more chance of getting aroused watching Christina Aguilera on the X Factor final.

But whereas sharing your favourite moments from the Olympics super Saturday over a work quick coffee break are unlikely to offend anyone who overhears, it’s quite possible that doing the same with Fifty Shades could land you in trouble.  If the contents are as lewd as I’m led to believe, discussing them too explicitly while you are stuffing envelopes could lead to charges of sexual harassment.

This may seem harsh, but what may seem a bit of harmless, even faintly hilarious, mild titillation to one person could be deeply offensive to someone else.  Which is why you don’t just need to be careful about books regarded as the ‘acceptable face of porn’ at work.

Most of us wouldn’t dream of watching pornography at work, and not just because it’s probably prohibited.  However, an awful lot of us are thinking about sex on company time and quite a few are doing something about it.  According to a poll for earlier this year, two out of five employees are looking for love at work this year and 35% of employees admitted they indulged in daily ‘e-flirting’.

Given most people spend over 40 hours a week with work colleagues, perhaps this isn’t surprising.  All the same, flirting with and dating colleagues is fraught with difficulty and most employers, more than two thirds according to online employment law specialists XpertHR, don’t have a clear policy to deal with it.

You may think what you get up to in your own time, even if it is with a colleague (or, god forbid, the boss), is none of your employer’s business, and in many cases it probably isn’t.  But for every workplace tryst that results in marriage and a work outing to the wedding, many will end in embarrassment and awkwardness.

In the US it is not uncommon for affairs between workers to be banned, largely because employers fear being dragged into a sexual harassment case after an affair breaks down where they can end up being liable for massive levels of damages.  I would imagine such rules are pretty unworkable and in any case here they could well interfere with your right to a private and family life under the Human Rights Act.

Fortunately, the American-led trend for insisting employees sign ‘love contracts’ to regulate office affairs hasn’t got much of a hold in the UK.  A bit like pre-nups for the office, these set out how you will behave at work as well as confirming your relationship is consensual and that you understand your employer’s sexual harassment policy, the implication being that your employer is no longer liable for your conduct.

In the UK you can’t be made to sign away your rights to protection from sexual harassment in this way.  All the same, it’s worth treading carefully if you do find yourself irresistibly attracted to the general counsel or the guy who does the photocopying.  However much you are entitled to a private life, you don’t want accidentally to send your saucy email to the whole legal department or to be caught in flagrante in the stationery cupboard.

If you want to find a new way of bonding with your colleagues post-Olympics, you’re probably safer sticking to the book club.

Posted in: Employment law

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