If you’ve ever fantasised about sleeping with your boss, you’re not alone. While national statistics on office affairs are hard to come by, 6.6 per cent of members of the “dating for marrieds” website AshleyMadison.com admitted that they would bed their supervisor.
Yet once the thrill of the secret liaison wears off, the fallout of a relationship between superior and subordinate can be gargantuan. QBE’s chief executive John Neal’s pay was docked $550,000 when he failed to disclose his relationship with his secretary, while former Channel Seven employee Amber Harrison was instructed to pay the network’s legal costs after she made the details of her affair with Seven CEO Tim Worner public.
Andrew Jewell, principal lawyer at McDonald Murholme, says that while such cases are unfortunate, there is no law preventing two consenting adults – regardless of their positions – entering into a relationship at work.
“Although many businesses may – and should – have policies in place outlining the behavioural expectations they have of their employees within this area,” he adds, explaining that fewer issues arise when the people involved are of equal standing in the workplace. “If one party is in a senior role and the other is a junior, there could be claims of conflict of interest, with other members of staff wrongly or rightly believing the junior is being favoured or benefiting in other ways from the relationship.”
If you lose your job as a result of your relationship with your boss, Jewell recommends considering your options. “Seeking legal advice should always be your first step,” he says, explaining such cases could be subject to unfair dismissal claims as well as other options such as gender discrimination and victimisation. “But these cases differ to most cases of employment litigation because at heart, there was once a relationship involved and that’s a tough one to get over.”
“Our affair hurt a lot of people, but for us the pain was ultimately worth it”
When Peggy*, 49, had an affair with her boss Steve*, 52, two marriages ended. Seventeen years on, they are happily married to each other and enjoy a modern, blended family.
“I didn’t feel a thing when I first met Steve,” says Peggy. “I was newly engaged and working at an award-winning advertising agency, so when he came on board as someone I would be working for, I didn’t think much other than what an impressive mind he had.
“In fact, as time wore on and we worked long hours on projects together, he’d actually annoy me – particularly on occasions when we desk-swapped and I’d come in to find an absolute pigsty. Although there were periods where we stayed together when we travelled for work, we simply didn’t feel an attraction to one another.
“When I married my fiancé, Steve and his wife came to our wedding, but even on my wedding day guests were wondering why I was marrying someone I was so clearly not a great match with. “Both Steve and I went on to have baby girls five months apart, so it often felt like we were living parallel lives, but by the time the girls turned two, our marriages had begun crumbling. We finally admitted we had feelings for one another 11 years into our working relationship.
“What happened next didn’t pan out the way you’d think most office affairs would. Steve began seeing a relationship counsellor to make sense of his feelings and he insisted I do the same so I did. “After counselling we realised we just wanted to be together so we each went home to tell our spouses – an experience far worse than I could have ever imagined. I was branded a ‘scarlet woman’ and he was the guy who led me astray and things turned ugly quickly.
“Colleagues and clients who worked with us were supportive, but things were turned upside down in our personal lives. My own family didn’t speak to me for two years after I left. Although the situation broke my heart, I knew that we were doing the right thing.
“It was a struggle in the beginning of our ‘official’ relationship, but we’ve been together for a long time and married for four years. We co-parent our children with our exes so we’re one big happy blended family. We get on so well that our daughters sometimes ask why we can’t all live together in the one house, which makes Steve and I laugh because we could think of nothing worse! “There’s no question our affair hurt a great number of people and I wish I had the power to change the way things happened, but I feel it has all been worth it. Steve and I were meant to be.”
“He saw to it that I lost my job”
Amy*, 29, slept with her boss after her office Christmas party. Five months later she lost her job in what she was told was an office restructure.
“When I think about what happened with John*, I don’t know that there was any thinking on my part. Although John was handsome, he also knew it, so he had that kind of arrogance that seemed to attract most of the women in our office. I thought I detested him until I got drunk at my first office Christmas party and found myself checking in to a hotel with him instead of going home.
“My first thought when I woke up was, ‘What a cliché! The CEO and the receptionist!’ But John worked hard to make me feel better about what had happened. In phone calls (never texts or emails, I later realised) he told me he thought I was wonderful and he wanted to keep seeing me, but that we had to keep our relationship quiet because it ‘wouldn’t be a very good look’ for someone in his position. I still don’t know why I agreed to that, but I did.
“In the beginning, I thought it was all a bit of harmless fun. We would grab small moments together whenever we could, but after a while I realised I needed more. I found it infuriating that he’d laugh it off when clients flirted with me in front of him.
“He’d flirt with other female staff in front of me, and his home was off-limits because it was his ‘private space’. Even though we were single, everything about our relationship felt seedy and wrong. “It was after about three months that I started questioning the nature of our relationship. Suddenly he began asking me to make him cups of coffee and tea, and to zip down to get his dry-cleaning – things he’d never asked me to do before, and things, I guess, he figured would put me back in my place.
When I eventually cornered him at an event to ask why he was no longer returning my calls, he spat: ‘You were supposed to be fun and this is no longer fun.’ He began openly dating someone from a rival agency after that.
I thought about telling colleagues or calling HR but I realised that I would come out of it looking a whole lot worse and that people would only ever see me as ‘the receptionist who sleeps with her boss to score a promotion’, so I kept quiet even though I was miserable.
“One morning I was called in to a meeting and told there was going to be an office restructure and that I would have to ‘seek employment’ elsewhere. It’s been a couple of years now and as far as I know, I was the only one left without a job after the ‘restructure’. How do I feel about him now that I’m older and wiser? You wouldn’t be able to put it in print.”
“I came out of our relationship realising there can be no winners”
Tahlia*, 27, had a year-long affair with her boss. The affair ultimately spelled the end of both of their relationships.
“I don’t remember much about Peter* the first day I met him, but I have a very clear picture of who I was then. I was naive and what you might call ‘happy-go-lucky’. But more than that, I thought of myself as a good person with a strong moral compass.
“Peter’s dad owned the printing company where we worked and although he was not that much older than me, he and his girlfriend already had a young family together. I felt a strange attraction to him straight away, I suppose, but I didn’t really pay any attention to what that could mean. I was engaged to the guy I’d been with since high school and Peter was the manager I answered to. It was as simple as that. “We did get on well so we often took our conversations outside and grabbed coffee or lunch together. By that time I was panicking about my upcoming wedding, wondering why I’d start to feel sick whenever I tried on a wedding dress or looked at wedding cars.
“During one of our lunches, Peter admitted he was unhappy in his relationship but couldn’t leave because of his kids. When he first kissed me, my heart skipped a beat but at the same time it felt like the whole world as I knew it was collapsing.
“I struggled with the reality of our affair from the beginning. I resented storeroom kisses and ‘dates’ in dingy pubs where colleagues wouldn’t see us, but I went along with it because I was in love with Peter.
“Getting ready to go to work in the morning was both exciting and sickening, and stress became a constant fixture in my life. I was worried our colleagues would find out about us and that I would lose my job, but mostly, I felt sick with guilt over what we were doing to our partners. When I looked in the mirror, I felt nothing but hatred for myself.
“We talked about leaving our partners and starting a life together, but as the months wore on, we argued relentlessly – so much so that I’m certain everyone at work must have been onto us.
“Peter’s girlfriend found one of our text exchanges and threw him out, and I left my fiancé after I admitted I wasn’t in love with him any more.
“But things had become so toxic between me and Peter by that stage there was no way for us to carve out a future as a normal everyday couple. I left the company soon afterward. “It’s been a number of years now. I still sometimes lie awake at night wondering how on earth I got to be ‘that’ girl. I don’t have an answer.”
* Names have been changed.