How to Date a Professional Contact

How to Date a Professional Contact

Given how much time we spend at the office — and at work-related events — some of us might have little personal time, especially when it comes to dating. But extracurricular career activities can be great opportunities to meet someone.

Of course, mixing business and pleasure can be tricky at best. Here’s how to handle the fine line between networking and flirting, without compromising your professional bona fides.

How to Mix Business and Pleasure

How to Mix Business and Pleasure

Given how much time we spend at the office — and at work-related events — some of us might have little personal time, especially when it comes to dating. But extracurricular career activities can be great opportunities to meet someone.

Of course, mixing business and pleasure can be tricky at best. Here’s how to handle the fine line between networking and flirting, without compromising your professional bona fides.

Go For Extracurricular Activities

Go For Extracurricular Activities

If you’re going to a conference, meeting, or other work-related event, your focus should be on work — not picking up, says sexuality counselor and relationship expert Jess O’Reilly, PhD. “If, however, you opt to attend a social event attached to a professional event or conference, then it might be more appropriate to expect personal or romantic relationships to blossom,” she says. That said, you don’t want to start picking up potential dates on company time — or the company dime.

Chicago-based matchmaking and dating expert Stef Safran also advises looking for end-of-summer or other seasonal parties within your industry, as opposed to conference and strictly business events, since “these events are often meant more for fun than networking, so people often attend them with the hopes of meeting someone special — not just to focus on business,” she says.

Feel It Out With Non-Work Conversation

Feel It Out With Non-Work Conversation

It might be hard to tell whether someone’s interest is personal or professional when you first meet at an industry event, so pay close attention to their choice of conversation topics. “If someone talks about him/herself, it may be an invitation to a personal connection,” O’Reilly says. “Look for references to hobbies, friends, childhood, or family, in particular.”

You could also take the initiative and ask strategic questions to gauge how they respond. “Most people talk shop even at after-hours events, so if you throw in a personal question — like, ‘What are you into outside of work?’ — you can see if he or she is open to non-work-related topics.” If they demur or switch right back to work talk, that’s a signal that they don’t want to open up on a personal level. Feeling out the basics of someone’s personal life is also a good way to discover crucial info about them, like whether they’re married (not everyone wears a ring!), has children, or leads a lifestyle that’s just not compatible with yours (e.g., they travel all the time).

Take It Slow

Take It Slow

If there was ever a time not to rush into dating someone, this is it. Since you’re in the same industry, there’s a risk of coming off as unprofessional. “No matter how attracted you are, no matter how long it’s been — cough, cough — relax and take a step back,”  says professional and social media expert Carlota Zimmerman. “If this person is any kind of respectable adult, they’re going to be permanently turned off if you try to move things too fast, especially if you meet at an industry conference or networking event.”

Rather than ask for a phone number or a date, suggest that you go to an event together or sit next to each other at the next dinner event. “Some people really do take these type of industry events seriously, and a surefire way to destroy your chances — not to mention your professional reputation — is to presume that your Prince(ess) Charming is also just here for the beer,” she says. And there’s a real upside to taking it easy: “If the sparks are there, patience and maturity will only make the fire burn hotter,” she says.

Move Forward Strategically

Move Forward Strategically

Want to get to know someone better? Exchange business cards and write your non-work cell phone number on the back of yours. It shows you’re interested in a personal relationship, says relationship expert April Masini.

Another way: Suggest meeting up for lunch or coffee to talk more about networking or your industry. One-on-one time away from the open bar of an event can help you figure out if there’s something there beyond business. If you’re establishing a more-than-professional rapport, you might suggest meeting up again, but for dinner or drinks. And if there’s no chemistry? Well, worst-case scenario is that you create a solid business relationship.

On the other hand, if you know you’re interested in someone and you feel like you’re getting a reciprocal vibe, just go for it. Make the ask and don’t be subtle about it by proposing a networking lunch. O’Reilly says, “If you’re interested in going on a date, be very straightforward by asking, ‘Can I take you out for a drink? Like as a date?'”

If you’re on the receiving end of an invite, Masini says that the proposed setting often defines the nature of the relationship. If someone in your industry invites you for lunch, coffee, or even cocktails, it could still be a work appointment, but there’s (almost) no way a business appointment would include a movie, the zoo, or a museum. If you’re still not sure, assume things are all business unless the other person says otherwise.

Be Discreet Online

Be Discreet Online

Avoid using business-focused platforms like LinkedIn to ask someone out, and don’t text flirtatiously until you’re sure about the nature of your relationship, Safran advises. Call directly or email (using a personal account or numbers if you have them) to keep correspondence separate from your professional life, at least in the beginning.

And don’t post photos of the two of you on social media — they might be misconstrued by mutual colleagues (or each other). Wait until you’ve talked about whether you’re actually dating to avoid confusion and potential fallout. This also goes for tagging each other in statuses, check-ins, and so on.

Share the News — Carefully

Share the News — Carefully

If you do begin dating someone in your industry — whether it’s someone at your company, someone who works with your company as a contractor, or simply someone you might see at a number of events throughout the year — be sure things are serious before telling coworkers that you’re an item, says Sherri Murphy, CEO and VIP matchmaker at Elite Connections. She adds that the six-month mark is ideal to break the news.

When you do say something, don’t be dramatic: “When the timing feels right to tell your coworkers, casually bring it up in conversation,” Murphy says. “If you bring it up as a big deal, they will think of it as a big deal,” and overblowing things can become a distraction at work. As for PDA, it’s always a no-no. “It is not professional to demonstrate affection in any way in front of people in your work environment,” she says.

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