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Love, sex and bonuses: the incestuous world of banking office romances

Finding love as an investment banker can be hard. The hours don’t allow for an active social life, and it’s not exactly a career choice that inspires warm, fuzzy feelings in those outside the financial sector – they’re ignored at parties and unpopular on dating websites. Not surprisingly, therefore, it’s a fertile industry for office romances.

When banker love stories come to the public’s attention they’re invariably salubrious – J.P. Morgan investment banker, David Gray, who stalked a colleague after she moved from New York to London to escape him; the desperate email of fund manager ‘Mike’ begging a clearly disinterested girl for a second date (which she posted on Reddit), or the famous ‘spreadsheet’ financier, who kept disparaging notes on a series of girls he took out.

Within the financial sector, however, workplace romances are common and usually low key. Matt, who works as a product controller for an investment bank in the City, told us that he met his wife when starting out in J.P. Morgan’s Bournemouth office.

“Most people are young, fresh from university and there’s a definite campus feel to the place,” he said. “Everyone works long hours, socialises together and a lot of people hook up. It felt quite incestuous.”

It can sometimes become awkward, he admits, but most people who started their careers with him in Bournemouth have long moved on to roles in the City or Canary Wharf. “People are open about their relationships, particularly if it gets serious, but it’s a lot easier to keep things going if you move to separate firms,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alex, a 30-year-old investment banker at a firm in Canary Wharf, tells us that she’s tried internet dating, meeting people through friends or social occasions, but has – by and large – ended up with people from work: “There have been instances I’m not proud of – sexual encounters with colleagues on business trips, snogging the 24-year-old analyst during Friday night drinks – but it’s still a lot easier to date people from work.”

Part of the issue, she admits, is that most people working in other industries don’t earn as much, so finding common ground for dates can be difficult, or they're not overly understanding of work commitments that often necessitate last-minute cancellations of plans.

Conflict of interest

Investment banks have long stopped outright bans on workplace romances, but often require that employees reveal relationships if a potential conflict of interest arises, said Richard Isham, partner in at law firm Wedlake Bell, who advises senior bankers on employment issues.

“If there’s any chance of a conflict – say, if a senior person is having a relationship with a more junior individual and may be involved with appraisals, performance or pay negotiations – then the employee handbooks usually require that the relationship is reported to their line manager,” he said. “This could also be in the interests of the senior employee, to avoid any subsequent claims of harassment if the relationship breaks down.”

Keeping the any liaisons in the open also stops the fermentation of bad blood among employees gossiping about perceived favouritism – something likely to create a toxic working environment, according to Phillip Hodson, a spokesperson for the UK Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

“If people believe there’s the possibility of collusion, they begin to view the relationship with suspicion,” he said. “Banking is competitive – it’s not just about the job, it’s about the career journey. If someone appears to have an edge because, for example, they’re sleeping with the boss, it becomes a foul place to work.”

Easing out expensive staff

Ultimately, indulging in a workplace romance without informing your employer could be damaging for your career, particularly if you’re using workplace communication tools to send flirty messages to one another. Most people are no Anthony Weiner’s when it comes to sexting, but seemingly innocent messages can become cringeworthy when ousted into the public domain.

Most banks allow ‘reasonable’ personal use of email and company mobile phones, but they also tend to keep track of what you send.

“It’s not unheard of in these tough times for banks to bring out the dirty laundry in order to prove a conflict of interest and either scale back the bonus for a particular individual or sack them for gross misconduct,” said Isham. “These messages can be very embarrassing when held up to public scrutiny, and even casual relationships can still yield 50-60 messages that can prove inappropriate behaviour.”

Even the likes of Twitter, Gmail and Facebook – where any romantic messages could escape the prying eyes of the banks’ IT departments – have been banned in most Wall Street firms. A good solution could be Snapchat – an app that allows users to send photos to one another than self-destruct in seconds. This is already popular among bankers and traders.

AUTHORPaul Clarke

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