Research shows that four out of 10 of us are destined to meet our husbands or wives in the workplace, and, after this month's usual Valentine hype, there will be a fresh outbreak of inter-departmental relationships. On a private level, such liaisons can mean happiness and fulfilment. Professionally, however, the implications can be quite dangerous.
Many employers fear that workplace romances cut productivity, result in inter-office jealousies and unnecessary distractions, and increase the risk of fraud. Jealousies often arise when one partner is senior to the other. Charges of favouritism can be difficult to avoid but, ironically, the reverse is also frequently true, says Sarah Veale, senior policy adviser in employment rights at the Trades Union Congress (TUC). 'In their anxiety to be seen to be fair, a line manager can discriminate against his or her partner,' she warns. In extreme cases, this can lead to the breakdown not only of team-working but of the relationship itself, leaving everyone worse off.
Mick, a City trader, knows all about distractions. 'When Julie split up with her last boyfriend, he had trouble working in the same office,' he says. 'And because he was worth more to the bank, my boss and I agreed to fire her to make his life easier. Fortunately, he was horrified and left himself. Now I'm married to her but she still hasn't forgiven me for what almost happened.'
Fraud is a particular problem in the financial sector where firms struggle to maintain Chinese walls between departments. A relationship that spans the divide is a security risk: 'What if a trader asks his girlfriend in the settlements department to cover up a risky position?' asks one banker. 'Or a sales person, short on the monthly target, asks a trader to quote a better price for their customers?'
As a result, many companies frown on relationships at work. Some, usually US-owned, even make such a liaison a sackable offence. James Davies, partner in employment law at Lewis Silkin, the solicitors, says the prime motive for this is fear of a sexual harassment case being brought after a failed romance. So far, this fear has not taken root in the UK but many businesses, particularly big legal firms and consultancies, frown on the practice and make it clear that such liaisons will not help promotion.
According to the experts, both approaches are wrong: 'With so many of us meeting our partners at work, it is ludicrous to try to restrict dating,' says Lucy Anderson, an equal opportunities adviser at the TUC. 'Sexual harassment cases are rarely about relationships, anyway. They are usually about bullying where sex is the tool.'
Angela Edward, policy adviser for the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), says that blanket bans are unenforceable: 'If two people are in a relationship, which one do you sack?' she asks. 'The one you're left with is hardly likely to be delighted. You end up losing two valuable members of staff for the sake of a general principle.' She feels that warning staff about the risks is much better.
And the risks are considerable, says Observer columnist Neasa MacErlean in her booklet for the IPD, Get More From Work - And More Fun. She recommends discretion until the relationship is well-established and telling line managers directly before the affair becomes public. Once everything is in the open, it is worth erring on the side of formality and being scrupulously careful to demonstrate commitment to departmental colleagues, she says, even to the point of disagreeing openly with your romantic partner on work issues.
Such strategies do lead to tensions and employers should accept that in-house relationships are likely to lead to the loss of at least one partner. But this is perfectly healthy, says trader Mick. 'I certainly wouldn't want to work with Julie again,' he says. 'I mean, what on earth would we talk about at home?'.