Oh, office romance.
If you’ve never had a work crush, congratulations. For the rest of us, sexual and romantic feelings in the office are pretty common: Some 40% of US workers have already participated in office romances, recent surveys show. Nearly 20% have done so more than once.
Most dating apps (including Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and Coffee Meets Bagel) feature geographic filters, enabling users to swipe through potential matches who live close by. Even in massive metropolises like New York City, if you swipe through enough people (standards, y’all), it’s not uncommon to come across a coworker’s profile. In a city, people who work in the same office often live within five to 15 miles of one another, an average dating app range.
Whether they’re a crush, friend, or that dude from IT, this confrontation is jarring. As Tina Fey would say, seeing a coworker on a dating app is ”like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.” Equal parts terrifying, and can’t look away.
But after the panic passes, what should you do? If you’re interested, should you swipe right? Isn’t swiping right the perfect way to reveal your crush, given your colleague will only know that you “liked” them if they’ve also “liked” you? If you’re not interested in dating your coworker, should you swipe right to be funny, or just say hi? Is it rude to ignore them completely? Or is it insane that you would even consider that being rude, or think about swiping right in the first place? This is work, not the Bachelor.
Clearly, there’s a risk of overthinking. But trivial as the issue seems, a misplaced swipe could have a profound impact on your workplace comfort.
To settle the matter, I consulted Alison Green, work culture expert and author of the popular blog, “Ask a Manager” (now adapted into a book, set to publish in May 2018). According to Green, there’s only one answer to the right-swipe debacle:
Don’t do it. (Sorry.)
“If you see a coworker on a dating site, you should maintain a polite fiction that you just didn’t see them,” Green tells Quartz. “That lets everyone preserve their privacy in a realm where they probably want it. ‘Pretend you never saw each other’ is the least awkward option.”
Sure, Green admits, it’s easy to think, “Well, we’ll only be notified if we both swipe right on each other, so what’s the worst that could happen?”
“Some people will swipe right on people they know as a sort of platonic hello. And really, people shouldn’t do that with coworkers for exactly this reason! But they do. And sometimes people swipe without paying a ton of attention to who they’re swiping on,” says Green.
“If you swipe right to indicate genuine interest and they swipe right as a sort of friendly wave, or vice versa, you could end up in an awkward misunderstanding about intentions. Or, let’s say the other person hadn’t even intended to swipe right on you, because sometimes people swipe accidentally. If you then swipe back and get matched, you could leave the other person feeling creeped out.”
So what should you do if you are romantically interested in a coworker, and seeking a low-stakes way to test the waters? In-person or via a private message on a non-work related platform (iMessage, not Slack) is always better. Never reveal romantic feelings for a coworker via a dating app: “Sure, it could lead somewhere good, but the potential for misunderstandings and awkwardness is too high,” says Green.
This doesn’t mean all hope is dead.
While some organizations ban romantic and sexual relationships between employees, most prohibit relationships only when they involve managers and direct reports. If non-manager-report relationships are permitted, various rules may still apply. At Facebook and Google, for example, employees can only ask one another out once. “If they are turned down, they don’t get to ask again. Ambiguous answers such as ‘I’m busy’ or ‘I can’t that night,’ count as a ‘no,'” Heidi Swartz, Facebook’s global head of employment law, tells the Wall Street Journal.
If one date leads to another, consult your company’s employee handbook and review its workplace relationships policy before making things public. According to a 2015 CareerBuilder.com survey of 8,000 US professionals, 72% of workers who’ve engaged in office relationships didn’t try to hide them—a dramatic increase from 2010, when, per the same survey, 54% of respondents who engaged in office romances chose to keep them secret. But not everyone wants to know what their employees are up to.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, “At Facebook, if a potential date involves a person in a more senior position than the other, the date itself doesn’t necessarily have to be disclosed to HR. Facebook says it trusts its employees to disclose a relationship when there is a conflict of interest. Failure to do so will lead to disciplinary action.’
Officially documented dating policies aren’t the be-all and end-all. As legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon recently told the New York Times, while all employees should act like responsible adults, it’s on leaders to regularly emphasize workplace boundaries. MacKinnon suggests this message: “Listen, we’re here to work, not to cater to your social and sexual needs. If I hear you’re doing that, you’re out of here.” Or, “there will be repercussions.”
“It’s pretty strong,” she admits. “But harassment doesn’t happen in those places.”
When in doubt, consult your HR representative. If this conversation seems too awkward to breach, consider the fact that human resources professionals charged with dealing with romantic entanglements also seem to have plenty of experience with them. A 2015 survey of over 2,000 US employees found that 57% of HR professionals have participated in at least one office affair.
In every case, here’s one universal rule: Assume nothing. Literally nothing. Regardless of whether your coworker is friendly, flirty, flirty when tipsy, looks cute, dresses “provocative,” is young, is old, is less powerful than you are, is more powerful than you are—it doesn’t matter. Assume nothing. If your coworker consents to hanging out in a safe space, which should be outside of the office, express your feelings without pressure. If your feelings are mutual, great! If not, don’t press, and definitely don’t hold a grudge or inflict any form of punishment—doing so could become sexual harassment.
And if someone turns you down in real life, definitely don’t go for the right-swipe next time you see them on Tinder. May the odds be ever in your favor, friends.