You probably haven't been on the receiving end of cow eyes and giggles since junior high school.
But one day, amid the Microsoft spreadsheets, it hits you: A co-worker has a crush on you.
This type of behavior is wildly inappropriate at work, but it's been a while since you tossed spitballs in algebra class and you're not sure how to say "no, thanks" without damaging an otherwise good working relationship.
"What complicates the issue of unreturned infatuation is that work is often the key place where potential romantic relationships might develop," says Dr. Jan Yager, author of "Who's That Sitting At My Desk?" "Working, eight, ten or more hours a day makes the workplace 'dating central' for some. There are also those who are unhappily married or don't respect that others are unavailable. These people might develop a crush on someone even if that person isn't single or isn't looking."
Crushes are common when men and women are thrown together in a high-pressure atmosphere. You're well-dressed and at your best at work. That's bound to get someone's little mind spinning. (See: "Flirting Without Disaster.")
The irony is obvious: Sex permeates every other aspect of life and is used to sell mundane things like soap, but sexual expression of just about any kind is The Great No-No at work. If you handle the situation badly, that giggle could morph into a snarl and a sexual harassment lawsuit. (See: "Kiss 'n' Tell Via E-Mail.")
Here's how to get it right:
For starters, ignore the flirtatious behavior — play dumb if you have to. (Gentlemen: This shouldn't be much of a stretch for you.) In most cases, your lack of response will be clearly understood by the person making cow eyes at you and the crush will evaporate quickly.
"What simplifies the situation is that usually there are strong hints that an infatuation isn't mutual," says Yager, a relationship and work expert who holds a Ph.D. in sociology. "This is conveyed through body language, including how people do or don't look at others. Most of the time, those hints stop the co-worker from trying to take the relationship to the next level because most people want to avoid rejection."
Conduct business as if there were no sighs, saucy looks or sly comments. Work with the person as you normally would. Stick to business and it will be impossible for all but the daffiest of the moonstruck to misinterpret your lack of interest in pursing a romantic relationship.
If there are blatant displays of affection, it's time to talk to the person privately. Tell the person that you're flattered by the attention and generous words, but that such behavior isn't appropriate at work. Make it clear that you depend on the person as a member of the team and you look forward to a long professional relationship as colleagues — and nothing more.
"The message is that you're flattered and you respect your co-worker as a co-worker," Yager says. "But you don't have any other kind of feelings toward him or her. It also may be important to reinforce that you don't want what your co-worker just shared with you to hurt your working relationship. Make it clear that you want to keep working together and hope your reply won't change that."
In general, you want to keep the discussion as low-key as possible. Never be confrontational, and always leave a way for the person to back down gracefully and move on. However, some people don't take the hint. If goofy notes continue to show up in your e-mail or and inappropriate gifts mysteriously land on your desk, it's time to speak to your supervisor. (See: "Handling The Office Jerk.")
Outline the situation to your boss and make it clear that you have done everything possible to discourage the person's attention. A good supervisor will listen carefully and act quickly because such behavior can become sexual harassment and leave the company open to big bucks liability if the next person isn't as understanding as you in dealing with the situation. This is true if you work for a mom-and-pop company, a privately held up-and-comer or a major corporation such as Sony, PeopleSoft, AIG or Bank of America.
If you're a supervisor and thinking about fooling around with a subordinate, you're headed for trouble, and you're probably too irresponsible to be a manager. Remember: Your position of authority changes everything, leaving you and your company open to expensive litigation and, possibly, a large settlement.
A one-way infatuation with a subordinate will be a subject of great mirth in the cubicles and will undercut your authority as a manager. The solution is simple: Don't even think about it.
"In addition to the gossip that the boss's one-way infatuation may inspire, it could lead to a sexual harassment lawsuit," Yager says. "Even if there is no lawsuit, the boss may lose the ability to manage effectively. The boss's poor judgment could result in termination."
If you think you've met your future spouse and if there's reason to believe things might work out, one of you should transfer to another department before asking for a date. This is especially true if one supervises the other.
You can resolve most one-way infatuations yourself. Keep things private and allow the person to move on gracefully. In most cases, focus on work and don't mention the potentially difficult situation with the person or anyone else.
But keep your ear to the ground. If the person quickly moves on to another with the same act, there may be trouble ahead. That, as the lawyers say, might establish a "pattern and practice" that creates a "hostile work environment." If the person continues the behavior with others, inform your supervisor.
Don't blame yourself, but review your actions to be sure you haven't sent mixed messages. There's nothing more flattering than being told that you're duckier than frog's ears, so be sure that you somehow haven't encouraged the person's behavior.
"Even if you are unavailable romantically because you are dating or married or if you have a policy of not dating anyone at work, you might want to try to avoid using those reasons for why you didn't return your co-worker's romantic feelings toward you," says Yager, who also wrote "When Friendship Hurts." "Such reasons might be misconstrued as giving hope that things might be different if your romantic situation changes in the future or if you no longer work together."
When you've finally made your lack of interest understood, it's time to get back to work. If you're lucky, you work with a room filled with bright, engaging people. A junior high crush is just a minor annoyance that will soon fade from your memory and won't get in the way of tackling the next project.
"Whether you say 'no thanks' in person, over the phone or in writing, you always need to consider how it impacts your job, always your primary focus," Yager says.