We all know that the workplace is a minefield for sexual tension. Where else do you lock up people of the opposite sex for eight hours a day, and tell them to talk with each other but not touch? It is unnatural, and ever since men let women into the workplace, we have been adjusting.

It is totally normal to have a crush on someone at work. And it is totally normal for people to tell you not to act on it. And it is totally normal to throw caution to the wind. According to Helaine Olen, author of the book Office Mate, more than fifty percent of the population is dating someone from work.

So if you're going to do it, here are some best practices for getting the guy:

1. Flirt verbally rather than nonverbally
According to research reported in the Journal of Psychological Science (via Live Science), men are not good at reading nonverbal cues. They mistake a friendly smile as a sexual overture, for example. But researchers found that men also missed nonverbal signs of sexual interest: “When images of gals meant to show allure flashed onto the screen, male students mistook the allure as amicable signals.”

At work, the context of flirting is less defined than a science experiment, which means there will be even more missed cues. On top of that, if your office is full of knowledge workers, who are paid because they do a good job of synthesizing information, the missed cues will probably be even higher.

Why? Because research about Asperger's syndrome tells us how the brain develops its ability to read nonverbal cues. We know that children's brains learn this skill early in life. And we know that kids who seem to think like a young Einstein often have Asperger’s syndrome, where the side of their brain for logic, spatial abilities, and memorizing grows at the expense of the side of the brain for reading nonverbal social cues.

So it seems to me that the cluelessness of men when it comes to reading sexual overtones is actually on a spectrum, and the more extreme their abilities are in the high-IQ side of the brain, the more extreme their inability to read nonverbal sexual cues will be. (And this explains why the conversation about this research on the geek-genius blog Slashdot is so spunky.)

2. If you know he's interested, play hard to get
If you know the guy is interested, make him work to get you. Live Science reports that the male need for the chase is so strong that it even happens in lab mice—given the choice of two girl mice, the boy mouse goes for the girl mouse who is more difficult to conquer.

And we know that both men and women do not take relationships seriously if there's no chase, because, according to Cosmo magazine, only 3% of couples who have sex on first dates end up getting married.

So you are going to have to play hard to get at work if you want more from the guy than just a fling.

(Interesting side note about the chase: Most women intuitively play hard to get, until they find Mr. Right, and then men and women want to have sex—and violate societal sex norms—at the same rate.)

3. Don't make the first move if you are not the same age
Match.com reports that roughly 80% of both sexes are willing to make the first move. But when the man and woman are not in the same age group, men usually make the first move at work.

In a study of long-term relationships between older women and younger men, more than 95% of the men made the first move.

And research from University of Santa Cruz shows an almost institutionalized way for older men to make the first move is to initiate a productive mentoring relationship with a woman and then follow that up with a sexual overture.

So if the guy is your age, buy the book Office Mate, which is a handbook for making passes at co-workers. If the guy is not your age, play hard to get. And either way, remember that the average worker today changes jobs every eighteen months, so if things go bad dating at work, you'll find a new job soon enough anyway.

And in the end, the problem of figuring out if you want to be involved with someone at work might be harder than actually making it happen.

63 replies
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  1. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    So, what’s wrong with a woman going up to a guy and saying, “You and I should grab a drink after work sometime”. As long as a relationship outside of work does not interfere with the environment inside of work I don’t see a problem being open from the start. Don’t bring the office home and don’t bring home to the office. Hard to do I know.

  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    e wrote: “When a man interprets any interaction from a woman as "flirty", no matter what her intentions are, then what's the point of her trying to interact with him at all?” Interestingly enough, I’ve found that my interactions with my female coworkers changed (for the better) after I got married. I am, and have been, happily married since day one, so I am no longer “in the hunt”. I’ve been told that this is fairly obvious and that I am considered “safe”. Some flirting still goes on, but all involved know it isn’t going anywhere beyond just flirting.

  3. gt
    gt says:

    I agree with Dave’s comment. Many men would like to have a friendly conversation with female co-workers but there is a taboo for such behavior. Whispers of possible affairs and other inappropriate behaviors are all things that scare men away from women at work. After all, men are the one’s always the hunters, right? There is a lot a stake for men if they “guess” wrong and are then confronted with a harrassment suit.

    The best relationships at work are those where both the man and woman know both are “safe” so there are no misinterpretations. Enjoying the company of someone of the opposite sex need not end in sex. Fully being able to trust the other person with no physical expectations can make for a wonderful relationship.

    My feelings on women playng hard to get… don’t do it. Be honest and verbal. Men do get the “subtle” non-verbals. Most choose not to respond either because of lack of interest or the inappropriateness in the workplace, which includes the fear of others noticing and possibly creating a bad situation for longevity on the job. For women who want to noticed, YOU ask to meet after work or for a friendly lunch. Stop the non-verbal clues and subtle verbal messages. Also, keep as much of it away from work as possible where it will mostly cause trouble for both parties. Women, if you want to be treated as an equal, act that way. Men aren’t clueless, they are just more cautious.

  4. e
    e says:

    gt wrote: “Also, keep as much of it away from work as possible where it will mostly cause trouble for both parties. Women, if you want to be treated as an equal, act that way.” I definitely agree with these sentiments; everyone has a responsibility to themselves to maintain an expectation of how they would like to be treated by others.

    There will always be gossip-hungry people looking for the least excuse to start rumors about someone else, but as long as you continue to prove that your work (and everyone else’s) is not affected, then there’s really no cause for concern.

    Personally, I think that the best way to have a “safe” interaction with a coworker of the opposite gender is to pretend that you don’t know what the gender of the other person is. I’ve noticed that men will commonly make comments to another man that they wouldn’t say if that person was a woman, like “Wow, check out that hot chick across the street”. Women do the same thing, maybe with different types of comments, but the result is the same. These are the things, however innocent, that can lead to a lawsuit, and can easily be avoided at work. I’m interested to see what others might think of this idea?

  5. Helaine Olen
    Helaine Olen says:

    E — Just be yourself. You can’t prevent every last person from misinterpreting friendship to mean something more but, if anything, most people seem to have the opposite problem: They don’t recognize romantic interest when they see it!

  6. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I made the mistake of introducing my husband to my work world…they hired him while I was there. It caused a lot of problems … with one very jealous female co-worker…and with his male co-workers. At 42 I was young appearing and tiny; frequently people told me I was a spit for Pat Benatar. Not a good idea for spouses to work together…it was hard on hubbie and we ended up in counseling.

  7. John
    John says:

    Men are much more careful these days, it’s almost impossible to date a guy at work.

    The woman would have to ask the guy if he fancyed a drink on the Friday after work, the only way it could happen as the man would be too afraid of getting into trouble.

  8. kinjal
    kinjal says:

    i work in an organisation where i handle administrative work. here is a guy who is a lecturer n i really like him. i have already taken initiatives to take hold on him. i got his no. n i msgd him too. but he isnt responding. rather, when v r at college, he do talk to me, have fun, teasing things but nothing more than that. we talk once in a day, but that too very casually n only related to work. yar, he do not initiate anything. what to do..?

  9. John
    John says:

    I do believe that 50% of people at work are dating at my last job out of the 28 people at my store there was 11 couples.

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