NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When a co-worker asks you out and it's not something you feel comfortable with, it's not always easy to refuse politely. If you're too harsh, you could risk making them angry or upset, but if you're too friendly, you could end up leading them on. It's no secret that dating in the workplace can jeopardize your career, but working with someone you've turned down can also create unnecessary negativity and tension at the office. We checked in with experts who weigh in on the five best ways to decline a date with a colleague and still keep things positive at the water cooler.
1. Thank them -- let them know you're flattered.
You want to thank the person, even if you're uncomfortable, says Dana Corey, founder of relationship coaching firm Modern Relationship Expert in Portland, Ore.
"Even if you have no intention of ever going out with this person, you have to thank them," she says. "They think enough of you to ask you, and that's worth showing a little appreciation."
Thanking the person also helps prevent them from feeling rejected or upset, Corey says, adding that it's important to keep in mind how you want the person to feel about you when you leave the conversation.
"They need to walk away feeling like they were respected, that you heard them," she says. "When you thank them for their offer, suddenly they feel like you had a real conversation -- not that they were just brushed off."
Also, remember that by the time someone asks you out, they've probably been admiring you from afar from a while, and it takes courage to speak up, Corey says.
"Asking you out was not something they did lightly. They had to build up their nerve to do this, and at the very least you need to tell them you appreciate their offer," she explains.
2. Let them know of your career concerns.
Examine your employee handbook for details on your company's dating policy, says Jennette Pokorny, vice president of marketing and communications at EverNext HR. Most companies have rules against a manager and a subordinate dating, and other policies that may make your conversation easier.
"It's great to be able to say, 'I really value my career, and unfortunately our company really frowns on dating, and so I've made it a policy not to go out with anyone in the workplace,'" Pokorny says.
Using this tactic will make the other person feel like you aren't rejecting them -- you're just following company procedure, she says.
"It definitely saves face to put it off on the company and let them know that dating just isn't the right move for either of your careers."
3. Be clear: This won't ever happen.
Although you may be tempted to soften the blow by using phrases such as, "Maybe in a few months," "Not now," or "I'm busy," all you're doing is ensuring that this conversation will happen again.
"You're not giving them an answer, you're just creating an opportunity for them to be more persistent," Corey says. "You have now given them an opening -- giving them hope that one day you're going to be ready."
Unfortunately, if your co-worker really has a thing for you, they may interpret "I'm busy" to mean, "Ask me again next week," Corey cautions.
4. Stress, 'It's not you, it's me."
Make it known you are declining their offer not because they don't meet your standards but because of the rules you have set for yourself, Corey says.
"It eliminates the awkwardness when you say that it's not about your not finding them attractive, it's about you and your desire to maintain your career," Pokorny says. "It takes the sting out of the rejection."
Don't be afraid to use the word "I" repeatedly, says Charles A. Johnson, relationship expert and author of How to Find the Right One and Make it Last!
Phrases such as "I have a personal policy to keep my professional life separate from my personal life," "I would prefer to keep things professional," and "I don't go out on dates with coworkers," are great places to start, Johnson says.
5. Suggest going out as a group if you're at all unclear what they mean.
When someone asks if you'd like to "grab a drink sometime" it's not always abundantly clear what they're after, says Lauri Brammeier, senior vice president at SkyeTeam, an international HR and leadership development firm. Suggesting a group event is a great way to determine what they really want.
"If you are concerned with how your co-worker might react or the impact to your working relationship then you might try a subtle approach, one that deflects the situation," Brammeier says. "Try, 'I think it would be fun for the team to go out, I will see if so-and-so can join us.' This sends the message that you aren't up for an intimate dinner for two."
If your colleague declines your offer for a group event and expresses their desire for the two of you to go out alone, then it's time to go into your other conversations about boundaries and career concerns, Corey says.
"You have to really hear what they are saying," she says. "If there is any ambiguity at all then you have to err on the conservative side, because their request could be completely innocuous."