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Love is in the air? Office dos and don'ts

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, here’s your guide to handle any potentially difficult situation at the office.
Image: Workplace romance
Business couple kissing in the office. Business affair.kieferpix / Getty Images/iStockphoto

More than a third of workers have dated a colleague. But navigating office love — or romantic interest that’s one-sided — can be tricky.

That’s largely due to the “dual relationship” of colleague and lover, and the potential conflict between the two, Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas and director of the school’s Human Dimensions of Organizations program, told Know Your Value.

“I compare it to therapists, for whom it’s an ironclad rule that you can’t have any other relationship with [a client] — whether it’s friends, family or romance — because the dual role would create a conflict of interest,” Markman said.

“In the workplace, it’s not an ironclad rule, but the same concept applies,” he added. “If you have more than one type of relationship with your colleague, that relationship will come into play. So you have to decide how to manage that.”

What to do when: You’re dating a coworker

Check company bylaws. Even in the early are-we-or-aren’t-we-exclusive days, it’s smart to find out if your company regulates romantic relationships. Some may bar romances between members of the same team; others are more lax or may have rules on the books that aren’t enforced. Other companies may not regulate at all, nor require disclosure to human resources.

Your workplace dynamic will likely come into play. For example, if you work in sales and your partner is in marketing, your company may be fine with it. Conversely, stricter rules may kick in if you’re the boss and your partner is your subordinate.

“The relationship gets put into sharper focus if you realize you have to announce it formally to HR, or one of you has to switch teams,” said Vicki Salemi, career expert at employment website “It makes you assess up front if this is something that feels like it could be worth it. The stakes are just higher.”

Disclose the relationship to your colleagues — but otherwise, keep your mouth shut. Unless you’re completely discreet — including on social media — the office rumor mill will likely be churning even before the relationship is official.

“Eventually people know anyway,” Markman noted. He recalled a pair of now-married graduate students who were dating — discreetly, they thought — while working in his lab. “We all knew. And then one Sunday I was at the hardware store and I saw them shopping together. I had to duck into an aisle to avoid embarrassing them! Suddenly I found the paint chips very interesting.”

Avoid awkward run-ins and put a stop to the rumor mill by telling your colleagues that you’re dating. And that should be the last you talk about the relationship, Markman said.

“You’ve walled off your ability to complain to a co-worker friend about how your romantic partner wouldn’t pick up his socks this weekend,” he explained. “He’s no longer an abstraction. You can’t air your dirty laundry when your dirty laundry is sitting three desks down.”

Make a promise together not to bring personal drama into office life. Leave the fights at home and make your dinner plans in private. “Even more than before it’s important that your professionalism is the No. 1 thing people think of when they think of you,” said Salemi.

What to do when: You’re interested in asking out a colleague

Make sure you’re sure. “Think about it. Think about it again. And then do it one more time,” Markman said. “Relationships are hard in general, and [adding the workplace component] can create a lot of added stress. So you want to make sure this isn’t a flash in the pan infatuation. And that you’ll be OK if you face rejection.”

Be careful about how you ask, and how you assess the answer. If you’re certain you want to put yourself out there and ask out your coworker, she advised proceeding carefully. “Go get a coffee or something, in a neutral place where no one can overhear you. The exact wording and approach depends on your relationship, but you can say something like, ‘I want to put something out there to you, but before I do, please know it won’t affect our work in any way. I was wondering if you’d like to go on a date.’”

Keep it short, Salemi said, and give your colleague time to process the request. “Watch their body language: If they cross their arms, pull away or look shocked or uncomfortable, that’s a sign that they’re not interested.” If they happily say yes, great! And if they say no, Salemi said, “You can just say, ‘OK, I completely understand. Just wanted to clear the air.’ And then you can pivot back into work with it all past you. Any awkwardness will abate with a little time.”

What to do when: You receive unwanted romantic attention

Try to be direct if you’re truly not interested. If a colleague asks you out and you know you’re not interested, try to get comfortable being politely direct. While you can certainly give a noncommittal “I’m really busy,” Salemi and Markman agreed a clear-cut ‘No’ is the best approach if you can do it.

“Something like, ‘I appreciate our working relationship but I’m not interested in a romantic one,’” Markman said. “It helps the awkward moment pass more quickly and there’s a concrete answer to move forward.”

Escalate repeated unwanted contact, even if the person never officially asks you out. It can be tougher when the person continues to ask you out or generally gives you unwanted attention on an ongoing basis. Such a situation can quickly turn toxic, and you don’t have to stand for it. Your boss, human resources and other workplace leaders should be supportive and quick to help.

“It happened to me: This guy at work would call for no reason and swing by my desk all the time, and I couldn’t hide,” Salemi said. “I told my boss and she said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ I don’t know what exactly she said to him, but he stopped.”

In a climate of increased attention to sexual harassment, particularly in work scenarios, some companies, including Facebook and Google have a concrete rule: You may ask out a colleague only once, The Wall Street Journal reported. And “I’m busy” or related answers count as a no.

“Many other companies won’t have rules that are as clear-cut,” Salemi said. “But you should never be made to feel uncomfortable at the office. Just getting your work done can be complicated enough.”