Is flirting in the office acceptable?

14 May 2013 -


Research shows that flirtation can be a powerful business tool for women. But is using your sexuality to get ahead ethical?

Flirting: you could say that it is a fact of life, and nigh-on unavoidable in the workplace. After all, there’s many a loving couple some distance into their marriages whose eyes first met across that printer that never quite seems to work properly. But in an environment where people are placing an ever-greater value on achieving goals through merit, does the careful deployment of sexual charisma represent a cheap trick for concealing skills gaps and, as such, a source of envy and resentment? Here’s what our experts think…


Dr Catherine Hakim, author of Honey Money: Why attractiveness is the key to success

Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first and only female Prime Minister, flirted with her ministers and other colleagues. She also restyled her image to be more feminine and low-voiced – with great success in British elections.

Men and women in positions of power and authority usually deploy charm and charisma in persuading colleagues and staff to cooperate with their chosen policies and strategies. It is only a short step beyond this to flirt with colleagues you particularly like, or whose support is vital. Chief executives in the largest firms invest in their erotic capital, as well as human capital and social capital – they are typically above-average in looks and appearance.

The French and other Mediterranean cultures take it for granted that politicians, managers and businessmen – and women – will be seductive in their manners, as well as being competent managers. The ability to be engaging, to be liked, to attract attention, support and loyalty is as valuable for success as the right qualifications and work experience. Knowing how to flirt, gently, is part of the desirable package of social skills for people in top jobs.

Unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxon puritan cultures of northern Europe regard sexuality with anxiety. They hide their discomfort behind a wall of moralising prurience. Flirting in the office, or in business, only becomes problematic when people do not know how to do it with style, without giving or taking offence. People need to learn the necessary skills, including how to say no without being offensive – and admirers need to recognise that a refusal is not a teasing come-on.

From time to time we all encounter attractive people in public life. It is perfectly natural to pay tribute, to offer them compliments or admiring looks. These can be accepted gracefully without worrying that there are dark ulterior motives. The puritan cultures of Britain and northern Europe have something to learn from the more relaxed and hedonistic cultures of southern Europe. Flirting in the office is a harmless pastime. It can even be helpful in fostering good working relationships, bringing a ray of sunshine into the working day. Surveys show that both men and women appreciate a slightly sexualised atmosphere at work. In any event, it is inevitable in mixed-sex offices – and it is pointless for us to pretend otherwise.


Lucy Mangan, Guardian columnist

If you genuinely find someone at work attractive – well, first of all, lucky you and where is your office? I’m self-employed and even the cat hates me. If you do like the look of a colleague, then it’s human nature to flirt with them. But even then, it is best saved for after work. When the personal and professional streams of life converge, the waters are always muddied. Everything becomes ambiguous. Did he give me that choice piece of work because I’m good at my job or good in bed? Did he ask for my help just now because he wanted to see me or because he is really borderline incompetent? And so on. What your colleagues are thinking, meanwhile, as speculation, gossip and jealousy build is probably unprintable here.

When men flirt with women in the office, it immediately raises questions. If he – as, let’s face it, he’s likely to be – is senior to her, is he seeking to express his attraction to or exercise his power over her? Is it the beginning of something good or of sexual harassment? Does she respond positively or negatively and which will jeopardise her job? Her dignity? And why has she suddenly been forced to choose?

Grey areas are the delight of dramatists, philosophers and students up drinking coffee until late in a marathon session of youthful pontification.

They are hell for other people and especially during normal working hours.

When women flirt with men, the risks are even greater. We live in a far from perfect world, and – generally speaking – the respect women have in the professional world is both harder-won and more easily lost than that which men have. And there is no way to flirt without imperilling it. Being a flirter is a short-term strategy. It would be one thing – still hardly ideal, but never mind – if the average flirtee granted whatever it was you were after in pure, simple recognition that you had given him a pleasant few minutes’ diversion in the middle of a boring day, but the average flirtee does not.

You may get what you want, but only – if you will excuse my frankness – because the man granting you it thinks he is in with a chance, however small, of sleeping with you. Therein always lies trouble. If and when you decide you want to be taken seriously in the workplace – and most people at some stage of their lives and careers decide they do – you will probably find that you have compromised if not yourself then at least your reputation too long ago to recover it now.

Flirting costs you in the long term even if your actions aren’t misinterpreted along the way.

From a wider perspective, the willingness of one woman to flirt rather than work her way to success undermines the fight against sexual harassment and the perceived professional competence of all women, and makes their lives just that little bit harder than they need to be. At an individual and collective level, it helps no one. Best to keep it for the bar, not the boardroom, where it belongs.

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