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When Is It OK for Networking to Turn into a Date?

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Sometimes finding your dream job feels about as easy as hauling yourself up Mt. Kilimanjaro. The funny thing is, finding your dream partner can feel just as difficult. If you’re networking in the hopes of landing a job that stokes the flames of your motivation but end up stumbling upon someone who gets you passionate in an entirely different way, should you hold back? This Fast Company video explores that dilemma with a hilarious result. From business-y jargon to decoding past relationships, it covers it all:

This isn’t something the Fast Company team came up with on a whim. The confusion is inspired by a situation that often happens in real life—for example, my friend went out for a networking coffee with a guy only to be completely smitten with him a few weeks later, and vice versa. But if you care about your career, is turning a networking date into an actual date-date totally off-limits? Here’s how to know whether you can pursue both the person and the job that makes your heart flutter.

When You Should Keep It Clean

“Turning networking into a date is strictly forbidden. Networking is like an informational interview,” says Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster. “Sure, you want to get to know the person and let them know you, but it’s on a platonic level. I don’t recommend mixing romance with work while you’re working together, and a one-on-one networking situation is no different,” she explains. That advice isn’t too surprising. If we were to clean up a particularly crass yet astute piece of conventional knowledge, we’d tell you not to play around where you eat. Salemi maintains that if romance becomes an option when you two are actually co-workers, that’s one thing, but if you’re networking, taking it to a personal level is verboten.

If you’re in a very traditional field where gossip spreads like a hashtag, you may be wise to follow her advice and keep romance off-limits. “You should create boundaries and be vigilant about keeping them intact,” says Salemi, who pointed to the fact that the guy in the video pulled back the romantic reins by mentioning that he could expense the drinks. “Avoid uncomfortable conversations and keep the objective on track. You’re there to talk about your professional pursuits and learn about theirs,” she says.

For Salemi, that’s even more true if this person works at your dream company (which can make them more attractive, let’s be real). “Your ‘in’ at the company could quickly and abruptly become a shut door if things go wrong. It gets really tricky and stressful,” she says. That can also apply if they’re at further along at a company in your industry, even if you wouldn’t want to work there. Things can get dicey. “Dating them may feel like a power play instead of an even playing field,” she says. “Overall, it’s not a good idea to mix professional pursuits with your personal ones especially as you’re trying to build contacts and make new connections to land your dream job. We must admit, she’s got a very good point.

When to Go For It

But in a world where the rules are rapidly evolving, from Jen Welter taking the helm of the Arizona Cardinals to things you should just stop caring about, it might make sense to get a little lax in this realm. “It’s OK for networking to become a date, as long as the person is not, or would not become, a supervisor or a direct report,” says Alexandra Levit, co-founder of Career Advisory Board.

She still recommends you keep both your thoughts and actions strictly professional during your first meeting, because work is work. “After that, leave the ball in the other person’s court for follow up contact. You’ll be better able to tell whether the follow up is business-related, or if the person is asking you out,” says Levit.

If you wouldn’t have a direct hand in their work, you can avoid a job-related faux pas and take things to a personal level as long as you always have an eye on your career path. “Realize, though, that depending on how the relationship turns out, your potential future with the company could be positively or negatively impacted,” she explains.

If you want the truth, Levit and Salemi are both right, because it seems like the rules fluctuate depending on your industry. Be honest with yourself about how traditional or forward-thinking your field is, along with whether it’s insular enough for gossip to spread quickly. Then make an informed decision that will either benefit your heart, your Levo profile, or both.

Photo: Franek Strzeszewski/ Getty Images

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