Until the robots come for our jobs, office romance will exist. Thirty-seven percent of people have dated a colleague, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. And the Society for Human Resource Management found that while 12 percent of companies have workplace dating policies that mostly specify that relationships between high- and low-ranking employees are a no-go, 81 percent of employers don’t provide training on how to manage these relationships.
Admittedly, workplace dating has always been a powder keg of romantic potential, serious regret and boundary-pushing. But in a post-Weinstein world, we’re finally looking at it under a microscope. Even lower-level employees, those who consider themselves “good guys,” are guilty of unwanted behavior at the office. While a Cosmopolitan survey found that one in three female employees has been sexually harassed, men can be oblivious perpetrators. “I’ve investigated a number of workplace incidents and 9 out of 10 times the man will say to me, ‘I had no idea that was harassment,’” says Roberta Matuson, who runs a business consulting company. “The majority of times I actually believed [that he didn’t think] telling off-color jokes or asking the co-author at the conference to join him for a drink later constituted harassment.”
The good news is that you can pursue an office crush without being the office creep. In fact, there are some basic ground rules that ensure no one at the office will be made to feel uncomfortable or coerced by your advances.
A few of the most important ones…
Don’t Be Overtly Sexual
Nobody wants to be hit on under fluorescent lights while they try to finish a memo. Don’t perch on the edge of your colleague’s desk and ask them why they’re single. Don’t slowly scan their body followed by a sloppy wink. And never, ever get handsy.
When Joanna Douglas worked as a tester for a chemical company after college, a colleague constantly hovered around her desk and left her notes with messages such as “Hey sexy, I like your look today.” “It made me feel uneasy,” she writes in an email. “I was worried that if this got worse, he would follow me home. I felt like someone was breathing down my neck.”
The legal definition of sexual harassment includes “verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” that is “so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment.” But Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University, uses a much easier litmus test to determine appropriate office behavior. “Imagine that you have Aunt Bessie or Uncle Mordecai sitting on your shoulder watching whatever is going on,” she says. “If Aunt Bessie or Uncle Mordecai would be offended, then you should be [changing] something about the situation.”
For example, you can compliment a colleague without being sexual. “To say that someone ‘Looks nice today’ — there’s no problem with that,” says Drobac. “[But saying], ‘Ohhh that shirt really shows off your curves,’ [is] too detailed and too personal.”
Take It Slow
There’s no need to rush the dating process with a person you’re guaranteed to see every day. An old colleague of mine says he slowly pursued a coworker he’s now married to instead of hitting on her aggressively. “My approach was to try to talk to her in a non-romantic way that could organically grow into a more obviously romantic back-and-forth,” he tells me on Facebook. “Often, romantic advice tends to advocate being assertive: Just ask them out. I think this is one case where the opposite is probably preferable.”
I met my current boyfriend five years ago at work, and we spent months Gchatting about our our lives before I eventually asked him out for a drink. So I can attest to the fact that the slow game isn’t only less off-putting—it also means you can gauge your own feelings for someone before making a bold move. A bold move that, if it goes badly, can definitely make your work life miserable.
Don’t Date Multiple People
Don’t pounce on every new employee and be the guy who women warn one another about. After Andrea had hooked up with one of her coworkers a few times, she found out he was also sleeping with another woman at her ad agency. “He was the textbook example of ‘don’t shit where you eat,’” she says. “After that, I didn’t trust him professionally [because] clearly he’s not someone who I [could] trust personally.”
Not only is being the serial dater at work a bad look, it could also get you into legal trouble. “A pattern of behavior can constitute possible sexual harassment,” says Susan Strauss, a workplace investigator who specializes in harassment and bullying. “The workplace isn’t a pick-up joint. People meet their spouses at work all the time, [but] that’s different than some single guy on the make.”
No Means No
A lot of men cross the red line by being overly persistent. But if a colleague you ask out says “no” or acts uninterested in any way, back off. “Sometimes [guys] think ‘no’ means ‘try harder’ or ‘double down on the number of texts or phone calls,’” says HR consultant Steve Albrecht. “They think, She’s just playing hard to get. Or: She just doesn’t know how good of a guy I am so I have to prove it to her.”
They would be wrong, however. “If a woman tells a guy ‘I’m busy’ three to four times then he should get the hint that’s she’s not interested,” says Jonathan Bennett, a relationship coach.
Don’t Date Anyone Less Senior
Life isn’t a Mad Men episode: You shouldn’t hit on anyone you could also fire. There’s a reason why 99 percent of companies with workplace romance policies forbid this kind of dating, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Even if the relationship is consensual, you have too much influence over that person’s career for the dynamic to ever be equal. “You don’t know if [a person’s] direct report is going out with them because there’s some implied coercion,” says Strauss. “Maybe [they’ve been told] they’ll get a raise or will get promoted.”
Plus, if things don’t work out, it’s most often the lower-level employee — usually a woman — whose career gets derailed. If you want to date someone you manage that badly, get a new job before diving into a relationship. At the very least, if you stay at the same workplace, make sure they start reporting to someone else.
Don’t Flaunt Your Relationship
Don’t brag about your office romance to your coworkers or make your personal life too obvious. I once dated someone who constantly touched my hair in front of our coworkers; it was awful. You should, however, give HR a heads-up so they know the relationship is consensual. “Basically they call it a love contract,” says Drobac. “You sign a statement saying, ‘Yeah, I’m seeing Joe over in supply and everything’s cool. If there’s ever a problem I’ll let you know.’ That way if someone says, ‘Oh well, Joe’s paying a little too much attention to Maria in shipping, [HR] can say, ‘They’ve checked with us, and you don’t have to worry.’”
Don’t Cause Drama if It Ends
If you break up with a colleague, don’t bring the subsequent drama into the workplace. “If one person [has] been told, ‘We’re done and don’t bother me anymore’ but continues to make phone calls, come to her desk, send emails and flowers, then we’re talking about it turning into sexual harassment,” says Strauss.
If you’ve taken the breakup that badly, take some time off work. Or if being civil toward an ex you might sit near all day sounds impossible, don’t shack up with a colleague in the first place.