Image Source—Getty Images/Vetta
By Jackie Zimmermann
January 13, 2015

After firing CEO Dov Charney last month, American Apparel decided to update its company code of ethics with stricter guidelines regarding interoffice relationships. According to the new policy, “No management-level employee may make sexual advances, welcome or unwelcome, toward any subordinate.”

Considering Charney’s time with the company was riddled with allegations of sexual harassment, it’s no surprise that the company wants to take a more conservative approach to fraternization.

But here’s the thing: Whether or not there are policies forbidding them, office relationships happen.

A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that nearly 40% of employees admitted to having a romantic relationship with a co-worker. And a whopping 31% of office relationships result in marriage—meaning they can’t always be a bad idea, right?

Here’s how to make sure pursuing love won’t cost you your job:

Avoid Getting Involved with the Wrong Person

According to the CareerBuilder survey, 24% of intra-office relationships were with someone higher up in the organization.

Dana Brownlee, president of professional training development company Professionalism Matters, advises against initiating a romance with your manager, or, likewise, with anyone who reports to you directly or indirectly.

“If you’re a manager, you should be held to a higher standard,” she says. “You’re creating a climate where people are going to see bias whether there really is bias or not.”

Relationships with your peers are generally more acceptable—assuming they’re unhitched. A stunning 20% of people who told CareerBuilder that they had dated someone at the office admitted that at least one person in the relationship was married.

Perhaps that makes sense given the amount of time we spend at work: In an office relationship, you can relate to the struggles someone faces from 9 to 5, says Brownlee. That’s not easy to do with a spouse or partner who works in a different field.

But getting involved with someone who’s married can end up damaging your personal reputation as well as your professional one—if people find out, you could lose integrity—not to mention the pain it could inflict on loved ones (yours or your partner’s).

For those of you considering an office relationship with a married coworker, here’s some sage advice: Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.

Know Your Company’s Policy Before the First Date

Some companies have very strict rules about relationships, and you should understand those boundaries—and the possible consequences of crossing them.

“Of course we know those policies aren’t always adhered to,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of etiquetteexpert.com, “but it certainly should be considered, especially if there’s a policy that says, ‘We won’t hire married couples.'”

In other words, assuming you think this relationship could get serious enough to get to the altar, you could end up having to choose between your lover and your livelihood. And that’s a tough choice. Of people surveyed by Workplace Options, 57% said they’d opt to protect their career, but 43% said they would lean towards leaving their jobs.

Does your company strictly prohibit relationships of any kind? Before deciding that you’d be willing to pack up your desk in some grand romantic gesture, Brownlee advises that you consider your skill set, resume and future goals.

“It might be smarter for your career development to consider smaller changes instead of radical shifts,” she says. Maybe there’s an opportunity to switch to a different team or project, or to get some needed experience in a different department.

Consider the Worst-Case Scenario

With 7% of respondents to the CareerBuilder survey saying they had to leave a job after a breakup, you’ll be glad you did some critical thinking before jumping into any new relationship with a colleague.

First of all, ask yourself how well you know your potential partner. If things turn south, the last thing you’ll want is someone gossiping about your private life or what you said about your boss after a particularly tough performance review.

Also, consider how much you’d continue having to work with the person after breaking up—or even how regularly you’re likely to run into him or her at work functions or around the water cooler. “It can make for a very uncomfortable situation,” she says Whitmore.

Plus, if the two of you are uncomfortable around each other while working on a common project, your performance may suffer—and that could in turn hurt your prospects for promotions or raises.

To avoid some of these consequences, Brownlee says you’re better off asking out someone in a different department vs. someone whom you work with on a regular basis.

Remember that During Business Hours, Work Comes First

If you decide to pursue the relationship, set up some ground rules before things get too serious, says Brownlee. Think of the discussion as “a prenup for dating,” she says.

Make sure you are both clear about who will know about the relationship and when. You’ve hopefully already looked into the company policy, so you understand which superiors need to know. But what about Amy in the next cubicle over?

“In the early, casual stages, it’s probably better to keep it quiet,” says Brownlee. “If it’s serious, it’s probably a little harder to play it close to the vest. The key is that you guys are on the same page.”

You’ll also want to make sure you set some boundaries about how much time you spend together in the office in order to actively manage your coworkers’ and managers’ perceptions. No one thought anything of a random chat you two had in your office before the relationship, but now it can be misconstrued as a social call or, even worse, a risky-business meeting.

“You can get a reputation, whether it’s earned or not,” Brownlee says.

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