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As cards and flowers wind their way through office postal systems for St Valentine's Day, research has revealed that one in six workers have had a relationship with their boss. Almost 60 per cent of workers have had romantic encounters with workmates.

The research reveals how open most companies are to the legal minefield of discrimination, preferential treatment, and the consequences of revenge connected to office romances.

"It is clear that office workers across the UK are keen on conducting relationships with each other, so employers should think carefully about whether or not they should put a policy in place to give workers guidance," said Ben Doherty, an employment specialist with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.

"While not all employers would want to ban relationships outright, and it's questionable whether they can do so, it can be useful to make it very clear in a policy what is and is not appropriate, and how the company will deal with any breaches," he said.

The survey found that 59 per cent of the 19 to 35-year-olds surveyed had had office romances, while 32 per cent had had encounters with people from their own department. In what could be a shock to businesses that depend on client relationships, 18 per cent of those surveyed admitted having romantic encounters with clients.

The survey was carried out by NETconsent, a company which makes software that manages and publishes corporate policies.

"Organisations have to accept that staff are going to have relationships, but cannot afford to ignore them if it is likely to be detrimental to the company," said Dominic Saunders, operations director of NETconsent. He said organisations can mitigate their risks by ensuring that they communicate and enforce workplace policies to protect themselves from the potentially dangerous effects of workplace romance.

The dangers were underlined earlier this year when a solicitor in a small practice dismissed his personal assistant, a woman much younger than him with whom he had been having a sexual relationship. He dismissed her when he found that she had been having an affair with a student.

The personal assistant took a case against the employer for sex discrimination, which was upheld by an employment tribunal. The Employment Appeals Tribunal later overturned that ruling because it found that the grounds for dismissal was not sex discrimination but jealousy, and that that reason is "inconsistent with the reason being her sex".

Despite all the romantic activity in UK offices, workers are not aware of what their company's policy says about office romances. While 37 per cent of the workers surveyed said they thought their work did not have a policy on the matter, 51 per cent said that they did not know whether or not there was a policy.

"The important thing for companies to bear in mind is that they should be consistent across the whole organisation in their application of any policy," said Doherty. "The policy itself should ensure that any workplace relationships do not impact upon an employee's performance of their duties, and should put in place a procedure to be followed if the relationship does affect an employee's performance of their duties."

Doherty said it is important for employers to ensure their workplace policies are communicated to employees. An employer must also be able demonstrate that this has been done. Sending a policy by email is a good approach, said Doherty, provided that new starters are also made aware of policies.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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