(MONEY Magazine) – Call ConAgra, IBM, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Motorola, PepsiCo and the rest of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies and request their policy on dating at the office, as we did a few weeks ago, and here's what most of them tell you: "We don't have any policy." The standouts are General Motors and United Technologies, which both faxed statements that cautioned against workplace liaisons. Said GM: "Supervisors and subordinates involved in a consensual relationship are encouraged to advise management."

Obviously, few companies want to go on record about heartthrobs nine to five. But with women filling 45% of jobs and 55-hour workweeks commonplace, "The office has become the dating service of the '90s," says Lisa Mainiero, author of the 1989 Office Romance: Love, Power and Sex in the Workplace.

So company policy or no, when Cupid's pesky arrow strikes you on the job, you must think hard about the consequences. Look at the virtual reality of the film Disclosure (see below). Or replay the real-life TV drama of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Since those 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings, the number of sex-harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more than doubled, rising to 14,420 in 1994.

A workplace romance can quickly lead to embarrassment, revenge or legal charges. It can damage your reputation and derail your career. Then again, it can lead to living happily ever after. In a fax poll of 485 corporations conducted by the American Management Association for Money in December, a quarter of the respondents said they had engaged in at least one romance with a co-worker. And half of those affairs resulted in long-lasting relationships or marriage.

In this charged climate, assuming you decide to take the risks, what's the appropriate way to mix business with pleasure? After canvassing employment lawyers, management consultants, psychologists and participants, here's our up-to-date advice about pursuing love among the fax machines:

Find out what's off limits. Most companies have no restrictions about employee dating, but those that do so reserve the right to kick you out the door if you break the rule. So here's what you need to know. "In the majority of states," says Jonathan Segal, an employment lawyer with Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen in Philadelphia, "it's perfectly legal for the company to do so as long as they have forewarned you and the policy is applied consistently." For instance, in 1993, Wal-Mart employees Laural Allen, now 25, and Sam Johnson, 22, who worked at the Gloversville, N.Y. store, were fired after they violated the company policy that forbade married employees from dating co-workers. Johnson was single, but Allen was separated from her husband. New York State's attorney general sued the company, citing a state law that protects workers from discrimination for pursuing "legal recreational activities" after nine to five. The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court upheld the company in January, stating that dating is not a "recreational activity."

"Corporations have personalities," explains Mainiero. "You're expected to become socialized to the prevailing office norms." Generally, large companies--with 100 or more employees--are more tolerant about employee dating, compared with small firms, where an alliance figures to have greater impact on day-to-day work. When in doubt about what's acceptable, get advice from a veteran (and discreet) colleague.

Lastly, you ought to avoid romances with clients, suppliers or vendors altogether. Such a potentially compromising liaison shows poor judgment and a lack of company loyalty. Worse, you could put your company at risk of a lawsuit for conflict of interest or similar charges.

Don't appear in wolf's clothing. Even when dating is allowed, most companies frown on romances between a boss and a direct subordinate. "The lower-level person will always be suspected of sleeping his way to the top," says Mainiero, "and the higher-level person's judgment will be called into question." Also, the odds of a sexual-harassment suit tend to increase in proportion to the couple's unequal status.

Overall, keep your hunting instincts in check. On the job, commenting once on a woman's shapely legs or a man's sexy eyes probably won't qualify as harassment. But doing it repeatedly can. Baker & McKenzie, the world's largest law firm with 53 offices in 33 countries, got slammed with a jury verdict of $3.5 million last year. The firm failed to rein the wayward behavior of a partner in its Palo Alto office, Martin Greenstein, 49, who teased female employees with sexual remarks. His last prey, secretary Rena Weeks, 40, brought suit against him and the company in 1992. Greenstein, who had been with the firm for 22 years, was ordered by the court to pay $225,000 to Weeks. He "resigned for personal reasons" in '93, says his lawyer Tom Gosselin; both the law firm and Greenstein have filed an appeal.

Aside from the legal hazards, being seen as an office wolf can damage your credibility and chances for advancement. Says a partner at a prominent Silicon Valley law firm: "How serious can a guy be about his work if he seems to be concentrating more on his libido than on his clients?"

Make a pact at the start. At the beginning of a consensual office romance, it's wise to keep the affair under wraps. That way you can avoid conflicts or embarrassment until the relationship is solid. But be forewarned: Even the best of intentions can go awry. A 37-year-old law partner had just begun a romance with a 25-year-old third-year associate in his firm and, he says, "We agreed to keep it secret." But while he was away at a conference, he learned from his secretary that his new inamorata had been seen driving his BMW all over town. In the associate's eyes, she gained status by signaling she was close to a rich partner. The relationship ended a month later.

Choose when to go public. Once the relationship reaches cruise control--a matter of individual timing--it's okay to let others know your secret. Chances are some colleagues will have figured it out anyway. If you're involved with someone in your own department, try talking to your boss about how you can minimize any negative impact the relationship may have on your work or on co-workers. Still, be cautious. Colleagues may become envious of your relationship or may conclude they can no longer trust you. "People try to insist a romance doesn't interfere with their job," says Harry Levinson, a Waltham, Mass. psychologist and management consultant. "In fact, it does." Reassure your co-workers if they start giving you the fisheye.

There's also another legal threat: Your company can be sued by any worker who contends your romantic relationship created a "hostile work environment" for him. Although the courts are divided on this issue, employment lawyer Stuart Bompey says: "If your co-workers can show that favoritism is more than just an isolated incident, they may have a case."

Don't hold hands in the cafeteria. No matter how widely accepted your romance may become, don't do any billing or cooing on the job. Besides diminishing your professionalism, public displays of affection will make colleagues think of you as a couple rather than as individuals--not a great career move. Says Tereen Davies, 31, a part-time computer consultant from Ann Arbor, who has had one on-the-job romance and observed several others: "When you're in a relationship at work, you'd better be damned sure of who you're tying yourself to. You can easily rise and fall as a pair."

Make sure you defuse any time bombs. If and when the flames go out, be careful you haven't lit the fuse on your future prospects. One CEO at a southwest publishing house, for instance, tells of two workers he supervised who were partners both on and off the job. While putting together a major deal, the two broke up. The result, he says, "was a debacle. They would be told to work on something, and one person wouldn't show up. We were spending millions of dollars on this, and the deal didn't make it."

If you truly can't stand the sight of your ex in the office, ask to be transferred to another division or to a new project. It's better, however, to try to re-establish a professional relationship, though that may seem awkward for a while. Says one veteran of a failed affair: "If you both value your careers, you'll make an effort."

Clearly, there are lots of pitfalls to romancing someone at work. But, says Andrew DuBrin, author of Winning Office Politics, "The office provides a great opportunity for finding a mate. You just have to remember to use tact, discretion and sensitivity."

--Lesley Alderman

GOT A QUESTION? If you have concerns about your career or other workplace issues that you want us to address, please send a short note (include your phone number and address) to Your Worklife, Money, Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York, N.Y. 10020.