No Flirting at the Water Cooler


What’s the big deal about flirting at work?

When men and women working together in close quarters day in and day out, we expect some flirting to happen, and many people consider it “harmless.” Others openly advocate in favor of flirting to get what you want. But flirting at work is almost never really harmless. It’s a bad idea, even if both people are single and enjoying the interaction, and I say that as someone who is not necessarily opposed to office romances. Dating coworkers is risky and should be handled carefully (and away from the office), but I’ve seen it work out for many couples.

Flirting is a bad idea. Even if office dating can work out, office flirting is another story. It’s distracting and confusing to the people involved and often to the people around them. Flirting is frequently misunderstood because it’s a terrible form of communication, as evidenced by the countless books, websites and articles purporting to help interpret certain flirtatious advances (or lack thereof). And flirting—whether sincere or not—can do real harm to someone’s professional reputation, especially if that “someone” is a woman.

A much-publicized study in 2012 found that women can gain an advantage by flirting in certain negotiations. In the context of a single, contained negotiation, it’s possible that flirting could put you at a short term advantage, but as a long term strategy, it stinks, both for your reputation and your self-worth.

One study surveyed women business school graduates about whether they knowingly engaged in flirting for business gain and found that just over 50% of the respondents said that they did so. But those who said that they never flirted this way earned more on average (between 75k and 100k annually) than the flirters (who earned between 50k and 75k). And the non-flirters also earned more promotions in their careers.

Do keep it friendly. To avoid the pitfalls of perceived flirting, some people go too far in the opposite direction, striving to keep all work relationships “strictly business.” I’ve seen some women adopt a coldly impersonal attitude at work, when I know them to be warm and caring people. I find this approach counter-productive, because it often alienates people. Let’s not forget that as Christians we are ambassadors of God in the workplace. Opening our hearts to and caring about the people we work with is one of the primary ways we can “be like Christ” at work, and it’s actually good for business too.

To be an effective team member or leader, you need to get to know the people you work with, men included, and to understand their personalities, strengths, and passions. What’s more, having a friendly and engaged office environment contributes to greater productivity and job satisfaction, and you can’t get there by freezing people out.

So how do you know when what starts as friendliness is skirting towards (or may be perceived as) flirting?

Start with a gut-check. Most women, if we’re being honest with ourselves, know when the “attraction and attention-seeking” switch is flipped. Pay attention to your own heart, and pray that God would open your eyes to any blind spots. Let Philippians 4:8 be your guide: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Ask someone you trust. I know women whose naturally effusive personalities get misinterpreted as flirting, which can be confusing and frustrating for them, as well as the people around them. If you have a close friend in the office, it can be helpful to ask them if they think anything you’re doing could be taken for flirting. If you ask a question like that though, be ready to be accepting of their answer. Hearing other people’s interpretations of your demeanor can be enlightening, but it can also be humbling.

Consider potential warning signs. When Elizabeth Knox touched on this issue in her book, ”Faith Powered Profession,” she informally surveyed friends and colleagues to collect a list of what she calls “borderline” behavior. These are things that on their own aren’t necessarily over-the-line, but can be considered warning signs that you might be headed there. Elizabeth’s list includes things like:

If you find yourself doing one of these things, it might be time to think carefully about the messages you are sending, not just to the man you’re flirting with, but also to the rest of the office.

Mistakes happen. Here’s how to handle them. Sometimes flirting that you consider harmless gets misinterpreted for more, and you may find yourself with an unduly amorous colleague. Most of the time, such mistakes are awkward, but innocent, and can be handled with honesty and—if appropriate—a simple apology. Sometimes, though, a misunderstanding over real or perceived flirtation can lead to unwelcome advances or inappropriate behavior. No amount of flirting can justify sexual harassment, and you should not hesitate to take appropriate measures if you find yourself subject to demeaning or aggressive behavior.

Most of the time, if you’re faced with someone who seems overly flirtatious towards you, the best thing you can do is to respond with professionalism. At one point in my career I found myself in a position where I had to work closely with a man who had an aggressive reputation for openly flirting (and more) with females he met on the job. I found his manner towards me distasteful, but he represented one of our biggest clients, so I couldn’t avoid working with him, and because of his position with the client, I needed to try to avoid alienating him if possible. I was walking a delicate line between making him feel respected and liked, and giving him the mistaken impression that his advances were welcome. In that case, my best defensive strategy was a strong offense of warm professionalism. I was always friendly, but careful to gently steer our conversations towards business matters. If there was reason for us to be alone together, I was sure to keep an appropriate physical distance between us. In case of business dinners, I always invited a colleague to join us, and at the end of the night, I offered a handshake and a cheerful but firm “good night.” Using this strategy, we were able to work together for years without incident.

When it comes to flirting, we all want to believe that we’re the exception: that our own “innocent flirtation” could never lead anywhere regrettable. But flirting can go wrong in so many ways. If you really stop to think about it, we all know of too many men and women whose little flirtation turned to full-blown affairs, office scandals, unwanted harassment, and even career-ending law suits. It’s so much easier to say “no” to flirting when it is still “small” and “innocent,” than it is to correct a bigger problem down the line.



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