How to Keep Your Office Romance Under Wraps

"I think someone likes you," says your annoying co-worker in that singsong voice you can't stand. "Brad just snuck in and put that rose on your desk."

"Brad who?" you ask, trying to seem nonchalant even as your voice betrays you by cracking and you feel yourself blushing deep scarlet. "Oh, you mean Brad from the fifth floor? Nah, we're just friends." But Annoying Co-Worker is on to you, not the least because you can't seem to wipe that silly grin off your face.

You've come back to your cubicle after lunch to find a single rose on your keyboard -- another obvious clue for your colleagues -- for the third day in a row. You turn on your computer and there are 37 new e-mails in your inbox, seven of which are about actual work issues. The rest are from Brad, the cute guy in the legal department, the one who always seems to be in the elevator when you go on your breaks. There's a lot you don't know about him, but it sure has been fun flirting. What wouldn't be fun is if your office-mates discovered your blossoming romance. You're not sure you could take the scrutiny, or -- let's face it -- the teasing. How can you discreetly fan the flames without causing a conflagration?

Depending on your and Brad's job titles and the company's fraternization rules (and you did read the employee handbook cover to cover, memorizing all the salient points, right? Right?), an office love affair can fall anywhere on the continuum from delightfully embarrassing to the cause of lawsuits and termination. Before you accept that invitation to snuggle in the supply closet (or, more realistically, indulge in an intimate two-hour lunch or romantic after-work dalliance), make sure you're aware of company expectations and ignore them, if love or lust compels you, at your own risk. A few simple guidelines will help you with the "discreet" part; the rest is none of our business.

  • Don't leave incriminating stuff sitting around. As much as you'd like to show off the beanie baby elephant he gave you as a token of his amour, people are bound to notice if it sits on top of your computer monitor. If you must keep tokens of your sweetheart's affection, put them away in a file or a box or something. Better yet, keep them at home.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Make sure you know who's in the next cubicle or bathroom stall before saying anything out loud, either on your cell phone or to your one trusted confidante. And never gossip about other co-workers' romances in the bathroom, either. We never do.
  • Act as normal as you can during a lovers' quarrel. Every couple has them, and people working together in high-stress environments are more at risk. Do your best not to let it show by refraining from bursting into his office and stapling his tie to the desk in the middle of a client presentation. Come to think of it, don't do this to your boss, either.
  • Keep your distance from one another in public. Don't always sit next to each other in meetings, or even when the gang gets together for after-work happy hour. If you play footsie under the table, make sure you've found the right foot ... and that it's not a transparent glass table.
  • Don't use pet names at the office. People are sure to suspect something if you slip into private-joke land, or use the adorable nicknames you've given each other. For one thing, it's a natural target for teasing that you may never live down. Save the cute stuff for private moments and you won't have to worry about being called "Tigger," "Boopsie," or "Wonderbuns" by everyone in your department for years to come.
  • Remember to nurture your other alliances, activities, and friendships. Don't stop having lunch with your pals or paying attention to your boss, and don't neglect your work (any more than you usually do).
  • And whatever you do, once you start flirting, don't stop! It's the biggest giveaway of all because, of course, no matter how hard you try, people will notice your flirtation. Once you hook up for real, it might be the beginning of a solid relationship ... or it might end up feeling uncomfortable and awkward. Either way, if you stop flirting once you've started, everyone will know, or think they know, that something has actually happened. And then you'll have to have an affair with your boss to throw everyone off the trail.

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