Cupid at work: 3 tips for office romances

'Offices are often the easiest places to meet and fall in love,' says one expert. Here's how to keep your career and relationship intact, plus some fun Valentine's Day stats.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Friends, Valentine's Day is upon us once again, and I confess I was planning to ignore it this year (in my column, that is). But then I came across some eye-opening statistics, in a batch of recent employee surveys, that I just can't resist passing along for you to ponder.

Let's start with the newly released 2007 Office Romance Survey from Vault.com, in which 17% of respondents admit to having been caught trysting on the job - in the boardroom, the stairwell, the engineering lab, the office kitchen, the boss's office...Whew.

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What's remarkable here is the enormous increase since last year, when only 2% of those polled had been surprised in flagrante delicto at work. The survey is mum on the intriguing question of whether there is actually a lot more canoodling going on, or whether the people involved have simply decided to fling caution to the wind.

Or consider what SnagAJob.com, an employment agency for hourly workers, discovered in an online poll with 800 respondents across the land: 72% of men, and 60% of women, are infatuated with a co-worker. Most (64%) intend to keep it a secret. Interestingly, men are more likely than women to reveal their feelings, according to this survey: 34% of women say they might spill the beans, while 40% of men say so.

Speaking of differences between the sexes, still another survey suggests that "men may be the office flirts, but women tend to establish more meaningful relationships" with the opposite sex. That's according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by Atlanta-based staffing firm Randstad USA: "Of the women surveyed, 53% have, or have had, an 'office spouse' in whom they confide about personal matters and relationship issues, compared to 42% of men." And 25% of men - more than twice the percentage of women (12%) - say they have "rated co-workers with terms like 'most datable' or 'best-looking'."

The Harris poll also shows some interesting variations among U.S. regions. West of the Mississippi, it seems, people flirt more with their colleagues (45%, versus 37% in the South, 34% in the Northeast, and just 32% in the Midwest), and are more inclined to date a co-worker on the sly (23% of Westerners say they've done this, versus 15% in the Northeast, Midwest, and South).

A word to the indiscreet: If you're in the habit of blabbing about your love life at the office, be advised that just 14% of people in the West and the Northeast are bothered by hearing "too much information" about it, while 18% in the Midwest and 17% in the South really wish you would hush up.

Of course, falling in love - or even just fooling around - at work isn't without its risks. "The important thing is to stay professional and keep romance in its place," says Andrea Nierenberg, head of a consulting firm called the Nierenberg Group (www.mybusinessrelationships.com). She offers these three essential tips:

Don't mix business and pleasure. "Save romancing for breaks or after hours. Next time you come up with a cute nickname or amorous thought to share with your sweetheart during the workday, write it down in a notebook and save it for later." R-rated e-mails are always (no exceptions) a bad idea.

Know your company's policy on office romance. Some companies, for example, don't allow one member of a couple to report to the other. Bear in mind that, as far as your employer is concerned, "your dream romance can turn into a nightmare harassment case. Be aware of the legal issues, and act appropriately."

Keep cuddling out of the copy room. "People are rarely interested in watching their co-workers snuggle in the break room or fight between cubicles," notes Nierenberg. How true. "Colleagues will be much more likely to respect your relationship if you show discretion in how you behave around them."

"Offices are often the easiest places to meet and fall in love," Nierenberg says. "If you handle it carefully, you never know - yours might end up being one of the 22% of office romances that lead to marriage." And if not, well, at least you'll stay out of trouble.

Have you had an office romance? How did it turn out? Have you worked around colleagues who were dating? What tips do you have for others? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog.

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