Times change. Thirty years ago, the position of a minister caught having an extramarital affair would be untenable. Now, in Boris Johnson, we have a man who was elected to the highest office in the land despite wide speculation about his relationship with ?Jennifer Arcuri, a US businesswoman, during his time as London mayor.
But while the nation’s attitudes to moral rectitude have clearly shifted, so have views on relationships in the workplace. It is this aspect of the alleged affair between Health Secretary Matt Hacock and one of his close aides – along with the obvious hypocrisy of being caught in an embrace while simultaneously warning the country to be careful about who they hugged – that may end up attracting more scrutiny.
On Friday, the Sun published pictures of Mr Hancock and Gina Coladangelo in what could be euphemistically described as a breach of social distancing rules. The photos are thought to have been taken inside the department last month. Ms Coladangelo was made a non-executive director of the health department last year. It is understood that the pair have known each other for 25 years since studying at Oxford together.?
Romances between colleagues are a fact of life – roughly a third of all relationships in the UK start in the workplace, according to one survey. This is to be expected when many organisations hire on the basis of shared values and similar backgrounds and ask colleagues to spend many hours working in close proximity to one another.?
Indeed, such relationships form a cornerstone of our popular culture: think of Dawn finally kissing Tim at the Wernham Hogg Christmas party in The Office and Hugh Grant’s wildly inappropriate flirting with Martine McCutcheon’s Number 10 tea lady in Love Actually.?
But office romances are also a huge headache for HR departments. The goalposts on what is and is not deemed acceptable have started to shift since the onset of the #MeToo era. The sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein raised the issue of power imbalances in the workplace. Many American companies decided to adopt a zero tolerance approach to relationships between bosses and subordinates.
The issue was brought to the fore with the firing of McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook in 2019 following what was reported to be an entirely consensual relationship with a colleague. The British executive had been boss of the world’s largest fast food chain since 2015 and was widely credited as the driving force behind a doubling of the company’s share price during his tenure.?
The board of directors decided that Easterbrook breached a specific company policy that bans employees from “dating or having a sexual relationship” with direct or indirect reports. As Easterbrook was the ultimate boss of the company, this clearly precluded him having a relationship with anyone who worked at McDonald’s.?
“One of American society’s most cherished beliefs is that the work place is – or should be – asexual,” writes Vicki Schultz, a professor of law at Yale, in her 2003 paper The Sanitised Workplace. “The dominant ethic says: ‘Work is work, and sex is sex, and never the twain shall meet.’ Call it the ethic of workplace asexuality.”
Easterbrook was the fifth chief executive in the US to lose his job over a consensual relationship in an 18 month period. A recent survey showed that, among those companies that have formal policies on workplace relationships, a full 78 per cent have an outright ban on any consensual relationship between a manager and an employee.
“Today, as much as ever, sexuality is seen as something “bad” – or at least beyond the bounds of professionalism – that should be banned from organisational life,” writes Prof Schultz.