McDonald's is right to ban office romances, says Sarah Kennedy who found the office gossip too much to bear.
'Consensual relationship' is the buzzword currently relieving CEOs like McDonald's Steve Easterbrook of their jobs. The Watford-born 55-year-old's fling with a colleague is against company policy; in his parting email to staff Easterbrook, who earns £12m ($24m) a year, described it as a "mistake."
And no wonder: having seen how complicated sexual relationships at work can be firsthand, the bitter truth is that they always result in someone, somewhere being compromised.
When I met my husband Duncan we were similar ages and both working immediately below our respective bosses in the same company, National Magazines. He was in sales, I was in editorial and we worked separately.
We became friendly out of the office because there was a sociable scene back then – Duncan asked me out during an office evening out and we started dating, but kept it quiet. Or so we thought – it turned out that everyone knew after we were spotted together on a date.
We stayed in our separate lanes workwise and managed to make it work by having no interaction at all at the office.
But after a few years, he was promoted to Managing Director, and that's when things took a sharp turn for the worse.
The company's management department had intimated that us both staying was, in the longterm, untenable – a new study by Reboot Digital Marketing reveals 21 per cent of those engaged in an office relationship have either left their job or had their partner do so – but this was said with no immediate urgency. Wisely, I think they knew the situation would end itself, which it did.
Potentially, being married to the boss could have been an extremely enjoyable, powerful position for me. Old scores could be settled, I would know what was happening to whom, everyone would be afraid of me.
Sort of like Anne Boleyn. Very like her in fact because had I chosen that path I would most certainly have lost my head. Also, Duncan was no Henry VIII. I don't mean to be unkind about my husband but he is such a goodie-goodie. He would never spill the beans about anything to me, a bit of a blabber.
But the reality was entirely different: day to day at the office, the universal backing away from me by everyone except for the editors I worked with was very painful.
Office friendships with brilliant women I had previously spent lunchtimes shopping with became complicated and melted away. My immediate bosses did not feel compromised, often telling me so, and in some cases and I always valued their honesty.
Yet for other staffers and admin teams things were different. IT turned up immediately to fix my tech blips, everyone greeted me very nicely each morning, I could always get a courier ordered immediately in the post room. Everyone seemed to be behaving weirdly towards me.
Once, I tried to find out which gym the super-fit marketing woman went to. After stopping her for a chat on the stairs to ask about her fitness, she fudged some excuses about "always trying out different places" and then claimed she had to get to a meeting but I knew she did not want me to join her gym. Presumably she thought it was bad enough having to always be nice to me at work.
Also, there were incidents of drama which played out far more fiercely because I was married to the boss (the study on office flings reports that 22 per cent of them take place between the employee and their superior). One Valentine's day, it was 4 o'clock before any flowers turned up for me from Duncan and when they did, I immediately stuffed them in the bin, declaring that it was too late.
How shocking for the junior writers sitting across from me at the office. What sort of a person shoves a bunch of roses in a bin? I realised right then I had to leave. Immediately. I wanted my privacy back and was not enjoying our relationship being under the spotlight. Who wants to be in a marriage and worry that expressing oneself, or any anger with a partner could get one into trouble of some kind? Or worse, make someone else feel compromised or embarrassed.
"Complications can arise particularly when there's an imbalance of power or where colleagues complain of favouritism as a result of these close relations," Stephen Woodhouse, an employment solicitor at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, says. And so, while getting together is entirely legal, it makes sense that companies like McDonald's institute them in order "to balance the rights of individuals, against the need to protect the business and its employees."
When it came to Duncan and I, office gossip was everywhere: rumours began to circulate that I was only working in the company because of my relationship.
I had, prior to meeting him, spent years climbing the career ladder – and doing a very good job of it. But that didn't matter when people were looking for idle water cooler chat. I never knew that marriage to the boss could make me feel so unprofessional, unpopular and insecure.
We have since moved to New York, initially moving with the company before Duncan left three years ago. I never regretted leaving National Magazines just under 20 years ago and the decision was a mutual one for Duncan and I.
He was the greater earner, I was already exploring other opportunities because we knew our position could only go on so long. Duncan no longer works in publishing but I always will and have found in my 10 years here in New York that an old-school American culture looms large.
I have a theory that it is to do with the existence of cheerleaders. American boys grow up in high schools where the girls compete to cheer them on and catch their attention.
Since the Metoo movement took off in 2017, HR departments are more insistent than ever that nothing untoward goes on during, or after, hours. A friend of mine is a director in a luxury fashion company in New York: a recent brief from his HR bosses included a total ban on any kind of after work social activity with junior staffers.
Particularly involving alcohol. As a senior manager he has been told very firmly that he cannot socialise: he is in fact gay and his staff are mainly female but there can be no mitigating circumstances, they have said, to the rule.
It is worth remembering that no one of any gender or persuasion is safe from compromising situations involving sexual relationships at work, when they happen, and perhaps McDonald's has made the right move by banning them altogether.
Blurred lines between colleagues and romance, as I have found, usually becomes even more complicated than you think.