Glancing down at my phone, I hesitated. I was about to make one of the biggest mistakes of my life, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“OK, I’ll meet you for a drink,” I typed. I was 27 years old, and from the moment James* appeared at my office desk, I’d thought of little else. Smartly dressed and slightly bookish, he’d made me laugh so much that my colleagues encouraged me to email him and from there, the messages didn’t stop.
Research shows that nearly a fifth of Brits met their current or most recent partner at work. After years of working in mostly female environments, I naively assumed that James was my long-waited office romance.
As things escalated, I wanted to ask him outright whether he had a girlfriend, but we’re conditioned to ‘play it cool.’ Instead, I nudged around the subject by enquiring about his living situation, his weekend plans, his next holiday. He never mentioned a partner, but something was niggling. Our chemistry was undeniable, so why hadn’t he asked me out?
James claimed he wasn’t on social media, but months later, I connected the dots based on where he’d been to university. And there it was in pernicious pixels on his Facebook profile – a photo of him and his long-term girlfriend.
“I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, I only wanted to be friends,” he said, when I confronted him later. But what impression is a someone supposed to gather when you message and flirt with them for months on end? Surely your partner is one of the many centres of your world, so why wouldn’t they naturally come up in conversation?
These men will never fully reveal themselves until they are forced to.
Over the years, I’ve realised that James is one of countless men who get an unusual thrill, and accompanying ego boost, by pretending to be single and pursuing women at work. They are the ‘office f*ckboys’ who crave the emotional presence and connection of a partner, but who also revel in the grey area they have created.
These men will never fully reveal themselves until they are forced to, and they are leaving honest people in a position they never asked to be in.
“Some people are especially good at compartmentalising their life and keeping different strands very separate,” Kate Daly, relationship expert and co-founder of online divorce services company amicable, told HuffPost.
“It’s often the secrecy element that fuels these relationships. There’s the ‘double edged’ secrecy of home life and secrecy from co-workers, which makes all aspects of a person’s life a thrilling game of subterfuge. In some cases, individuals may also turn to infidelity as away of coping with unresolved issues within the relationship and get more rapt attention than they do at home.”
Sadly, for me, the thrills and ‘subterfuge’ were short-lived. When my phone pinged one summer night with a message from James, I foolishly said ‘yes’ to meeting for a drink. Maybe he was ready to leave his girlfriend after all? But the next morning, we realised we’d made a terrible mistake. He wasn’t going to leave her, and it was no coincidence that we both left the company soon after.
Unfortunately, these flirtations are more common than we imagine. Claire* was in her mid-twenties when she met Josh.*
“I was fresh out of a break-up; and seeing this really hot guy who worked on the same floor and who was giving me ‘the eyes’; I hoped it might turn into something exciting,” she recalled. They flirted at the Christmas party and kissed on a night out the following month.
“That’s when he mentioned an ex-girlfriend,” Claire said. “They’d bought a place together, so he hadn’t officially moved out yet. He said he was staying with friends and in Airbnbs. Later, he slid into my Instagram DMs and asked me to ‘keep things between us for the sake of office gossip.’”
Pursuing an office affair can have serious consequences, and the best advice is to get out with as little drama as possible.
They continued messaging and met up on a few occasions, but the office rumour mill soon revealed that things weren’t as they seemed. A colleague informed Claire that before she joined the company, Josh was exposed for seeing two female colleagues at the same time and cheating on his girlfriend.
“I confronted him, but he said I didn’t understand the context,” Claire said. “Then, later, I saw some new pictures on Instagram where he was holding hands with his ex. I knew they were still together, but he claimed I was getting things ‘twisted.’ It was so awkward, and I felt like such an idiot for believing I was special.”
Afterwards, Claire kept a low profile at work, and blocked him on social media.
“I’ve been cheatedon myself, and I wanted to follow ‘girl code’ and tell his girlfriend, but when you work with someone, it adds a whole other layer,” she admitted. “You can’t avoid them, and you also worry that it could affect your career. Maybe I should’ve known better for ignoring the red flags, but he was such a charmer. It knocks the common sense out of you.”
Coming out of the pandemic, our reliance on hybrid working has also blurred the boundaries even more. We’re lonelier, more restless, and discreet instant messaging platforms like Teams and Slack have made office flirtations much easier.
“Pursuing an office affair can have serious consequences, and the best advice is to get out with as little drama as possible,” relationship expert Kate Daly advises. “When we have healthy self-esteem and we have considered our boundaries, we are more likely to be clear and direct about asking important questions. Don’t ignore red flags, and if you have concerns or things aren’t stacking up, get out – and don’t wait. Know your boundaries, stick to them, and don’t override your gut instinct.
“Be prepared to walk away when things don’t feel right because good people who will go on to love you don’t make you feel uncomfortable.”
When it comes to office ‘f*ckboys’, I believe that ‘playing it cool’ is just a myth. If someone genuinely likes you, there shouldn’t be any grey areas. There are also ample opportunities for someone to mention their partner casually and briefly in conversation while also maintaining a degree of privacy and avoiding any awkwardness.
Looking back, Claire feels similarly. “I don’t know where you find the audacity to do these things, and I feel bad for Josh’s girlfriend,” she said. “I believe they’re still together and I also saw him on a dating app during lockdown. I don’t know the ins and outs, but if he doesn’t want to be with her, then he could easily find someone else. Behaving this way isn’t making anyone’s life better, and it must be such an effort to lie and deceive someone all the time.”
Like Claire, I’m confident that when I fall in love again, I won’t need to seek validation elsewhere. If these men had been honest from the beginning, we could’ve avoided a lot of awkwardness, but the message is simple; we are not mis-reading any signals - you are being deliberately deceitful, and we deserve better.