Is it acceptable to flirt openly in the office these days? I had thought not. I go out of my way to deal with the women on my team in a professional way, and would never compliment them on their appearance or make any gender specific remarks at all. I now find that a new male colleague, who makes a point of flirting like mad with almost everyone, is liked and is likely to rise quickly through the organisation. Have I been getting it wrong?
Banker, male, 39
Lucy Kellaway’s answer
Yes, you have got it wrong. Flirting is a tried-and-tested way of getting ahead at work. It is also a risky one with its own complicated rules that you must follow, or else you may end up out of a job — and in court.
Your colleague has evidently mastered Rule Number One: all flirtation must be spread widely and thinly. If you flirt with only one person that is not only unprofessional but is a very bad idea for reasons I hope I don’t need to go into.
The problem for you is that it is very hard cultivating this flirtatious manner; given you appear naturally not to be that way inclined, I suggest you think twice before attempting the following.
Rule Number Two is to fine-tune your flirting technique to make it workplace compatible. The greatest flirts know that they must do it differently at work than out of it. Office flirtation needs to bigger on banter than on bottom pinching. Indeed it should never be sexually threatening or clumsy or even slightly vulgar. Double entendres and winking don’t play well by the photocopier. To tell a colleague at work they look nice is OK but it is vital not to leer as you do it.
The next rule concerns flirtation across the power divide. Flirting with people on the same level is relatively easy; flirting with people above or below you on the ladder is for the advanced class only.
To carry it off you need not only to be a great natural flirt, you must also be respected in your job and thought to be a fine morally upstanding colleague. Here women have a terrific advantage. This is because they aren’t carrying the backlog of centuries of predatory behaviour.
It is true that a flirty woman can sometimes be written off as a bimbo, which makes flirtation a less good strategy for young women who are just starting out, but if the woman is well enough established she doesn’t look dim when she flirts — she looks irresistible.
I can think of two female chief executives for whom flirting is their most powerful weapon. They flirt with absolutely everyone, men and women, from receptionist to the chairman.
The act is deeply manipulative but is no less effective for that. Everyone loves them; and the most irritating thing about them is not just how quickly they advance, it is that they always seem to get their own way at everything.
You’re either a flirt or you’re not. Age and relationship status don’t matter, it’s something you either learn to do at an early age or not at all. So while you can’t do that, there is an opportunity for you when you notice that flirts tend to be flirtatious all the time. He can only adopt one role, but you can tailor your demeanour to fit the situation — you can also be Daddy, Friendly Neighbour, or Drinking Buddy. So learn to act, learn a few roles, and have fun with it.
I’m just over 60 and have been married for 39 years and I will always tell the ladies I work with when I think they look good — new hair style, great dress, etc and I know it’s accepted as a sincere compliment. However I do not flirt because that is treading dangerous ground. Furthermore, as an academic, I never ever tell my female students they look good. I am in a position of power (I control their marks) and that could seem like a proposition.
Academic, male, 60s
Yikes! No, you have not been getting it wrong. Nothing could be creepier than a not-normally-fun-and-flirtatious man trying it on for size after all these years. I honestly suspect it’s what gets one man done for sexual harassment while the other man walks away scot-free time and time again. A charming flirt can really get away with a lot; one false move by a creepster and it’s off with his head.
In what joyless, parallel universe is complimenting someone on their appearance a “gender-specific remark”?
A man in an office who flirts with every woman, but who sleeps with none of them, is seen to be pleasant and harmless. A man who never flirts with anyone is seen to be professional and harmless. Anything in between — there lies danger.
Your office persona is already firmly established. Any increase in flirting would be seen at best as synthetic, probably creepy and possibly predatory. It isn’t you so don’t do it!
Male, manager, 50s
My most effective senior female colleague employs elegant flirting across the bank and invariably gets her way with difficult colleagues. I, as head of a team including many women, employ judicious compliments but stay clear of flirting. Younger males in my team may, and do, flirt and are popular for that. So your 39-year-old banker has got it wrong but then so did I at his age.
Managing director, 59