As you read this, someone, somewhere, is dreaming of dating a coworker.
You might say it’s the nature of the game. Whether the people involved are in a relationship or single or somewhere in between, most jobs require human interaction—and a certain percentage of human interactions can include flirting.
Some of those workplace flirtations lead to workplace dating. Consider that studies have shown anywhere from 8% to 15% of relationships grow from workplace interactions and you realize concepts like an “office crush” or a “work spouse” aren’t just jokes.
Yes, the person who makes you excited to clock in could end up becoming more than that one day.
That’s what happened to Julia Wolfe, 27, a journalist in New York, several years ago.
“We kind of flirted a little bit,” said Wolfe, of her interactions with her then-coworker. “He had a crush on me. I thought it would be a really bad idea, so I didn’t consider it too seriously. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to date your coworker when you’re on a team of three people and you share a desk!”
She and the man in question—Joel Eastwood, 28, now a former coworker at two different newspapers—got married in July, however.
So yes, a happy ending is possible. But what does it take to pull it off? And what are the missteps to avoid? Keep reading to find out how to make dating at work…work.
How to date a coworker
“Like that third gin martini, an office romance seems like a great idea at the time, but there will be consequences, and likely a bad hangover,” said New York-based dating coach Connell Barrett. “The stakes are high, and the potential consequences are weighty.”
For starters, many employers have policies that explicitly ban or discourage employee dating.
Strange as it may sound if you’re in the throes of a budding workplace romance, one key reason is the potential for lawsuits. If things go sour, the employer could get taken to court—and lose big.
One party may allege that aspects of the relationship were non-consensual; one party could maintain the other did damage to their career—or a lawsuit might even come from a third party levying allegations of a boss giving preferential treatment to a subordinate they were dating.
However, the threat of a hypothetical future lawsuit isn’t what most people are considering when they debate entering a relationship with a coworker. More likely, they’re thinking about courting, not going to court.
And again, it can be done, where permitted—provided you learn how to do it right.
The do’s and don’ts of dating at work
Do Learn the Rules. If you are considering asking a coworker out, it’s best to start by doing some research. Research your company’s policy—if any—on employee dating and determine whether you’re in the clear regarding current or future actions you’re hoping to undertake.
This way, you’ll at least be aware of the ramifications you might encounter later on if and when your relationship comes to light; you’ll also get a head start on knowing what boundaries to avoid crossing, and why.
Don’t Do It on a Whim. Whatever you do, don’t approach the situation casually. Asking a coworker out might blow up in your face in a number of ways, so it’s important to initially weigh the pros and cons and not give it a shot on a lark. You may even want to do a little leg work and try to find out if they have a spouse or partner first.
“A hot-and-heavy romance is amazing at first, but things cool off,” said Barrett. “If you break up—which is overwhelmingly likely—it could get awkward and messy for you both.
“Think back to an ugly breakup you had, and all the stress and pain that came with it,” he said. “Now, imagine having to see that person five days a week in the place where you earn your living, and where you have to be at your best. People have quit their jobs because it was too hard being around their ex.”
In short, if you’re going to go for it, give yourself time to consider the worst-case scenario, and make sure you’re comfortable making that gamble before you send that text or Slack message—because once it’s out, you can’t take it back.
Do Date Sideways. Not all instances of dating at work are created equal. While there’s the potential for workplace drama in almost every case, some are much more fraught than others—specifically, dating a superior or a subordinate.
In the case of dating a boss or an underling, the danger is the power dynamic at play.
Not only can things get tricky if one person gets to order the other person around professionally, but in theory if one needs to regularly treat them as an equal emotionally, you also run the risk of alienating other people if and when word gets out.
Consider that, if your coworker was dating your boss, you’d most likely start scrutinizing their interactions for signs of favoritism.
Even if both parties are trying to be professional, the appearance of a conflict of interest or double-standards won’t make for a good dynamic when it comes to general team cohesion. And realistically, this applies across your entire company, not just your own department or organization. Even if dating a significantly higher- or lower-ranked employee from another group seems innocent, outside observers may still perceive the lower-ranking worker as trying to curry favor with management.
Don’t Date Close. Another thing that can completely scuttle a good workplace dynamic is dating someone you interact with every single day in a professional capacity.
While that closeness can foster shared feelings, it can also mean if anything goes wrong—if you get turned down, or if you break up—it’ll be much worse than if you were dating someone whose professional career only barely overlaps with your own.
“There are many ways to get dates outside of your workplace—dozens of dating apps, fix-ups, matchmakers, approaching,” said Barrett.
“Only date a coworker if your gut tells you you’re a great fit as a couple. If you think they could be ‘the one,’ then consider rolling the dice—just do it with clarity about the potential ramifications.”
Do Be Discreet. “It’s not a fun, sexy talk to have, but if you decide to date a coworker, you and your new romantic interest should discuss how you’ll navigate various factors—the gossip, who to tell, how you’ll handle a potential break-up,” Barrett said.
“Agree to a code of conduct, so that you both keep things professional between 9 and 5. No store-room make-out sessions! No conference-room nookie!”
While being discreet about things at work is a good rule of thumb, disclosing what’s going on to your direct superior may also be a smart move, depending on your company’s policies.
“Once you start dating, tell your boss about the relationship—not the details, of course,” said Barrett. “But as a professional courtesy, let her or him know that your office relationship won’t keep you from doing your best work.”
Don’t Be Pushy. One thing that’s easy to overlook is regardless of your feelings about dating a coworker, the coworker in question needs to match them pretty closely for anything to happen.
If they’re not interested—either in you specifically, or the idea of dating a coworker in general—pushing for a date, a hookup or a relationship risks becoming workplace harassment.
This is one reason tech giants like Google and Facebook have company policies stating that employees seeking a relationship with a coworker can only broach the topic once with a coworker—and anything other than a distinct “Yes” counts as a “No.”
In short, you have one shot, at most. So be sure you’re making the right move before you take it.
So, can you date a coworker?
It’s complicated. At the end of the day, it can be genuinely hard to tell the difference between a legitimately good idea and a bad idea that feels fun and hasn’t soured yet.
Regardless of company policy, any rules you set for yourself could be wrong—vowing not to date a coworker might mean you miss out on the love of your life; being open to it could end up derailing your career or worse.
The one thing you have to decide for yourself is: which is more important, your feelings for the person, or the job in question? That’s a dilemma Wolfe and Eastwood were able to solve…eventually.
“When it did happen, both of us were like, ‘OK, this is probably not a good idea. We shouldn’t do this. Sounds good, we won’t,’” said Wolfe. “But we were falling in love—so we kept spending time together.”
“I think it would have been different had either of us been in any position of power over the other, but that wasn’t the case,” Wolfe said.
“We were both very junior, both very much on the same level. There weren’t any questions of favoritism. We were a three-person team—we were always going to be working closely.”
And as for the third member of the team? He was actually happy to learn the truth.
“We were so nervous to tell him,” Wolfe said. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so relieved. I thought you two didn’t like me!’”—referring to the fact he often felt excluded from their inside joke-filled conversations.