Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

One-Sided Love: How to Deal With Office Crushes

In the movies, workplace relationships usually begin with an attractive woman accidentally spilling coffee on a devastatingly handsome man and end with a declaration of their mutual love in front in of astonished co-workers.

In real life, combining work and romance can be much messier, especially if the attraction is one-sided. Maybe there’s a co-worker who keeps asking you out to lunch or drinks, even though you keep coming up with excuses. Or maybe, someone’s getting way too friendly every morning in the break room.

Whether the advances are simply annoying or they're verging on creepy, we’ve come up with a few tactics to help you deal with every type of office crush.

Scenario 1: Nice Guy (or Gal), No Spark

At one point or another, everyone has been pursued by someone who’s perfectly nice but lacks the special something that would make him or her relationship material. In most scenarios, you can simply let the person know you’re not interested, and that’s that. But dealing with a co-worker—someone you see day in and day out—deserves a little extra finesse.

The best approach is to be honest but gentle. Avoid falling back on the old, “I’m in a relationship” excuse—your pursuer will be even more hurt when he or she finds out it’s a lie (hello, Facebook relationship status). Instead, cushion the blow by saying that you prefer not to date co-workers (unless you have a history of it or have your eye on someone else) or that you aren’t interested in dating right now. He or she will get the hint—and still be able to preserve a bit of dignity.

Scenario 2: The Touchy-Feely Type

Whether he or she is putting her hand on your arm to get your attention or “accidentally” brushing up against you in a meeting, this co-worker never misses a chance for physical contact. And sure, office flirting can be fun if there’s mutual attraction, but if there’s not, even a quick graze can be downright creepy.

Fortunately, you can nip this unwanted closeness in the bud with a series of escalating tactics. The next time person in question touches you, move away abruptly and end the conversation. If he or she still doesn’t get the message, step away and say, “Sorry—I like to keep my personal space at work.”

(Of course, if the situation continues, we’re probably talking a different issue altogether—if you think you’re dealing with sexual harassment, our advice columnist has some thoughts on how to handle it.)

Scenario 3: The BFF Who Wants To Be More

Having an office bestie can make the workday a whole lot more fun. After all, who else knows exactly how you like your Starbucks and emails you cat memes when you’re having a rough day?

Unfortunately, when one half of a workplace friendship wants to take the relationship further, things can get uncomfortable, quick.

If you suspect that an office buddy might be developing deeper feelings for you, pull back a little. Show him or her that you’re only interested in friendship by inviting a third party along for lunches and avoiding hours-long online chats. Keep conversations light and work-related. If he or she still doesn’t get the hint, you can always fall back on the time-tested line: “I just don’t want to ruin our friendship (or put my job in jeopardy).”

Scenario 4: The Boss

Your boss asks you to stay late to help with a last-minute assignment and then invites you to grab some dinner. Sure, it might be purely work-related, but something about the request—the four-star restaurant choice, perhaps?—makes you suspect there’s a romantic motive.

This can be a tough situation for several reasons—not the least of which that a relationship with your boss is always a bad idea, and it's most likely against company policy, too.

If you sense that your boss wants more from you than just an annual report, proceed with caution. You definitely don’t want to jump to any conclusions and make the situation even more awkward. Start small by making sure that your behavior doesn’t indicate any kind of mutual interest or that you aren’t accidentally flirty in your interactions. This might mean limiting conversations about your personal lives and avoiding out-of-work socializing.

If your boss makes a definite move, like pulling you in for a full-body hug or buying you an expensive gift, it’s time to speak up. Let him or her know that while you enjoy your friendship, you would like to keep your relationship on a professional level. If the behavior continues to make you uncomfortable, it may be time to speak with HR.

In the words of Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield, but the office doesn’t have to be. By handling workplace crushes with sensitivity and tact, you’ll be able to avoid awkward situations and keep things professional for everyone involved.

Photo of co-workers talking courtesy of Shutterstock.