As Americans work longer and longer days, one thing is inevitable: more and more time in the office. But for the single masses among us, that’s not always such a drag.
According to a survey of roughly 2,000 people conducted by Mic, the third-most common way people find romantic attachments is through work. Another survey, conducted by CareerBuilder, revealed that at least a quarter of all working professionals have confessed to dating a colleague in the past.
So if you find that you’re crushing pretty hard on someone in a nearby cube, don’t worry: you’re definitely not alone.
But how should you proceed?
Your office isn’t exactly a singles bar, and the line between becoming a “boyfriend” and a “creep” in the corporate world is always a fine one. (And, frankly, there’s no guarantee that your company will smile upon your budding romance, either.) To ensure that you come out of this situation with both your heart and your career intact, consider this your handy guide—just don’t forget to brush up on your game with 15 Ways to Impress Any Woman.
Know the Ground Rules
The first rule of dating someone at work is knowing if you actually can, says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with a specialty in interpersonal and work relationships. Some companies ban office romance outright, while others ban dating among direct colleagues, such as superiors and juniors (and teammates). You should consult your employee handbook, and if that’s not clear, ask your HR department directly. (Remember: that’s what they’re there for.) If you’re not careful, flirting could get you in real trouble, or even be considered sexual harassment.
If things progress between you and a colleague down the line, be sure to speak up about your relationship if it’s what your company requires. “Disclosing the relationship and following the rules may potentially protect you and/or your partner from issues related to sexual harassment,” says Rebecca M. Chory, Ph.D., a professor in the College College of Business at Frostburg State University who studies workplace relationships.
Do Your Due Diligence
If there are no corporate hurdles standing in your way, the first thing you need to do is find out a stranger’s relationship status. Simply look around, says Bartell. While a ring on a finger is an obvious indicator, photos on someone’s desk or workspace can also be a big clue a person is taken. If you’re friendly enough with the person to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Instagram, you’ll likely find photos of the things they love the most there, too, notes Monica O’Neal, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and relationship expert. But if you’re not friendly IRL, don’t start firing off friend requests—that’s creepy.
In these early stages, you should also try to catch her eye, as well. Start by checking out the 25 New Rules of Office Style.
Enter the “Friend Zone” First
Don’t question any colleagues about someone’s relationship status unless you want to come off as creepy. “It’s going to seem like you’re behaving inappropriately,” adds Bartell. Instead, simply start talking to the person while you’re waiting for coffee, when you pass each other in the halls, or at the beginning of meetings.
In between finding out what movies they saw this weekend or how long their commute is, you’ll usually learn their relationship status. Build off of that friendship: “If it’s someone at work, you need to come pretty far in the platonic part of the relationship before it turns romantic,” says Bartell.
Don’t Date the Intern If You’re an Executive. (And Vice Versa.
Your safest bet for a partner is a peer—someone on your own organizational level, says Chory. And while dating someone above you on the corporate ladder is often against the rules anyway, it bears repetition: Don’t date the boss. “Employees who date their organizational superiors incur the most negative coworker reactions. They are more likely to be deceived by coworkers, distrusted, and gossiped about,” says Chory.
Psyched because the lady of your dreams told you she’s single? Not so fast: “You have to understand what that means,” says Bartell. “They could be single but not divorced; maybe they’re separated but not sharing that information with you.” Maybe you’re fine with that. But here’s the thing: It’s important to clear the air right off the bat to avoid a blow-up that could negatively impact your work life later.
Consider the Downsides, Because They’re Big
“Before you make a move, give it some serious time to think, ‘is this person worth making things slightly uncomfortable for myself?’” suggests O’Neal. That extra mental leg work is insurance: In an ideal world all works out, but if everything fizzles to a fling, you have to see this person every single day—and act professional doing it.
Barrel says: “Every way that you behave has to be motivated by that at the end. You can’t just walk away and not see that person again.”
Make Your Move with a Lunch Date
Ready to make your move? O’Neal favors the lunch date. Plan it for the next day or a few days later and make it a sit-down restaurant (no, your go-to sub shop doesn’t count). That way, it’s a date but it’s nothing too intense, she says.
A good lunch allows for conversation about the things you both enjoy—and a chance to find out what overlaps (and what your next date might be). Drinks, on the other hand, can put you in a vulnerable situation where the relationship could move … well … too fast. Don’t forget to brush up on your style game with these 20 Shirts Women Can’t Resist.
Jumping in too quickly—both physically and emotionally—can be a recipe for a messy office breakup. So just as you shouldn’t start the relationship by heading to the bedroom, you also shouldn’t get ahead of yourself planning your retirement together. If you’re both open to exploring the possibility of a relationship, think about things in slow motion, says Bartell.
Have a Script
Depending on your company’s rules regarding romance, whether or not you keep your relationship under wraps will vary. But if you’re not required to put it out in the open, it could be a good idea to keep things quiet for a month or so, says Bartell.
O’Neal suggests having a conversation that goes something like, “I feel like there’s potential here and I want to explore where this can go, but can we keep this between the two of us for now so that we can figure out where it’s going?”
After all, letting your love life become office gossip isn’t good for anyone. Once you’re in a commitment, speak up if you want, says O’Neal.
Keep It Out-of-Office
Repeat after me: keep your flirting and quality time outside the office—period, says O’Neal. And yes, that means being on your best behavior at corporate happy hours, group lunches, and routine coffee breaks.
Be Wary of Your Colleagues
Turns out, you might be the only one on cloud nine about your newfound romance. “Even if you think your coworkers are not bothered but it, they may be,” says Chory. “Be prepared for them to be less open and honest with you, to trust you less, and to think you are in the relationship in order to get ahead in the job.”
Deflect their emotions by never showing favoritism toward your partner and not accepting favoritism from them. Cory adds: “Perceptions of injustice drive coworker deception and other negative responses, so trying to avoid the appearance of preferential treatment can prevent a lot of problems.”
Be a Good Co-Worker
Now that you’re an item, here’s another biggie: “Keep your romantic quarrels and drama out of the workplace,” says Chory. Her research finds that one of the most common complaints employees have about their coworkers dating is that arguments spill over into the office, disrupting work. And then make sure your courtship goes the distance with The Secrets to the Best Relationships.