Q: I have a crush on a co-worker. Should I let him know? – Eva, Minneapolis
A: Give it careful thought first, since you could get into a situation that would jeopardize your professional reputation.
Inter-office romance is a tricky business. Some companies frown on it; others formally ban it. Even if your workplace has no problems with colleagues canoodling, you may wind up with a problem should things not work out between you and your flame.
Imagine having to get a pressing report out of an ex, who has a relationship’s worth of dirt on you to use as leverage. Uncomfortable? Yup.
Or, consider what it would be like to work on a team project with someone who has spurned you. Not fun.
On the other hand, if it’s true love you’re looking for, statistics are in your favor. Among U.S. workers who’ve dated someone from work—a hefty 40% of all employees—a third ended up marrying their office sweetheart, according to a CareerBuilder survey.
That makes sense, says Barbara Pachter, author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success. “You may have similar interests if you work at the same organization,” she notes. “And you have a good sense of what someone is like when you spend hours each day in the same place.”
Your first step: Figure out the rules regarding dating officemates. (The employee handbook may offer clues, and if not, ask your HR rep.) No explicit rules? Evaluate whether it the practice is acceptable in your company’s culture by asking others in the office—in an off-handish way, of course—whether they’ve heard of others on staff dating or marrying colleagues.
Before making any moves, keep rank in mind. It’s better to avoid dating someone in a higher or lower position as this can cause an imbalance of power within the office and without. And know that you will draw extra scrutiny if you work closely with the person, even if you are peers.
Next step: Find out if feelings are mutual. Assuming you know your intended is available—which other colleagues should be able to tell you—test the waters by asking him to lunch or inviting him to an outside work event. If he doesn’t seem interested, drop it.
If you do hit it off and start dating, be discreet. “Keep your displays of affection out of the office and away from business social events,” says Pachter.
Mind your social networks too. The lines between one’s professional and personal life can get blurry when it comes to social media, so be careful about posting pictures or racy exchanges with your office sweetie.
Also, don’t let love goggles block your view your colleagues. “If you spend all your lunches and breaks with your partner, you may get disconnected from your co-workers,” says Pachter. “Your work relationships are important to your career. You don’t want to burn your network.”
Most important, be prepared to back off quickly the second trouble brews. In the CareerBuilder survey, 7% of workers who dated a colleague reported having to leave their jobs because their office romance soured.
Have a workplace etiquette question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.