Ah, February. Wherever you look, there are pink hearts, red roses, and chocolates galore. Alas, you are too busy working to be looking for love. After all, who would want to meet up with you when your only free time is post-office hours a couple of nights a week? But wait: There is that cutie one department over—no need to worry about when you will be able to leave work when you have the same hours. Could merging of work and dating be the ultimate in efficiencies? Really, your grandmother’s admonishments of never fishing in the company pond resonate with echoes of yesteryear. But there are a few things you should bear in mind before scheduling an office romance in today’s modern workplace.
Forget the flings
It is one thing to have to do the walk of shame after an ill-considered rendezvous. If properly executed, you need never see them again. It is a whole other thing to have to sit next to your one-night stand week after week during the staff meeting. And even worse is if that person chooses to chat about you to colleagues. Choices of promiscuity aside, save the wild romps for Vegas.
Know your company’s policies
Some workplaces are more conservative than others, yet most have some sort of policy or practice regarding dating in the office. Even if you work for a super small or very new business, the harassment laws still apply. Be sure to review your regulations in advance to make sure you are not putting your career in peril.
Even if you are within the guidelines, peers are a safer choice. When office romances turn frosty, it is often the subordinate employee who will need to brush off their resume and begin a job search. Occasionally it is the supervisor who is let go for fear of a litigious ex-lover. Being both single and jobless rarely makes anyone’s resolution list.
Track your ‘paper’ trail
Words of love (or lust) are best whispered. Notes can be left behind, misdirected, or pulled from the recycling bin. Voicemails can be saved, forwarded, or played on speakerphone. All employees should be smart enough nowadays to keep away from the keyboards. All company emails belong to the company and can be reviewed at any time with or without your permission. The same goes for texting on any device owned or paid for by the company. Also, there are cameras everywhere. Video surveillance is in lobbies, elevators, supply rooms, etc. Do your best not to titillate the security guards or wind up as a meme on the Internet. Keep your hands off each other and your clothing on when at work.
Yet, even with all of the admonishments, office romances do bloom. Begin by getting to know the object of your affection as a friend first. Group lunches and drinks as a team work well to determine whether or not you share interests and values. After a few weeks of information gathering, then and only then consider spending time alone.
Keep it out of the office
Any interaction even remotely resembling a date should be done off company property and far away from any prying eyes. It is best to start with the activity dates (museums, comedy shows, history walking tours) first before moving to the more romantic venues.
As you explore the possibilities of romance, take the time to talk about establishing boundaries for when you are at work. Will you arrive and leave together? Will you sit near each other in meetings? Will you meet for lunch? Or will the facade of the cold shoulder apply during office hours?
Know your exit strategy
Before the first kiss, consider what may happen if this does not turn into a long-term liaison. Would one or both of you need to look for a new job? Or if you both stayed, how uncomfortable would that be for you to continue to work together? There are times when relationships come to an end. This can be difficult for even the most mature partners, and can prove to be disastrous for exs who must still work together. No matter how your heart is broken, take the high road. Sob at home, call in sick if necessary, binge-watch bad shows, and gobble your favorite comfort food. Then pull yourself together and get back to work. Know that this too shall pass and learn from the experience. If you are still non-functional, take a vacation to center yourself and find your groove again.
A brand new relationship need not be declared at a staff meeting. But at some point, when the relationship is clearly not a passing fancy, it is time to follow the proper protocol. Start with human resources. HR will let you know if you must also notify your manager. If your company requires you to notify HR when you start dating, chances are you will need to remember to notify HR when you break up as well.
As the Bonnie Raitt song goes, “We laugh just a little too loud.” You may think you are giving an Oscar-worthy performance by keeping your romance a secret, but most people are woeful at being subtle. The pheromones alone will give you away. Be honest when asked. However, you do not need to become stars of the office drama. Create boundaries of what you will and won’t share in the office. This is not middle school. Behave professionally. If others ask inappropriate questions, deflect. Keep any quarrels for after-hours.
Invitations and invites
And if things go well, you will have the separate yet equally challenging task of deciding who from the office will be invited to your wedding. The guideline is either less than a third of handpicked officemates or the entire department. Either way, hopefully there are enough resources to cover both of your desks while you are off on your honeymoon.
If all of this sounds too daunting, then no parallel processing for you. Don’t fish in the company pond. Cast a wider net. If you are busy, hire a matchmaker, try online dating, join a club, take a class, scope out while you work out, or really listen to grandma and regularly go to your place of worship. Most of all, revisit your work-life balance to allow time to look for love.
Jodi RR Smith is the president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.