Advice

Office Flirtation vs. Sexual Harassment: A Primer

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flirting at work

Political news coverage this summer has read like US Weekly. Politicians have been busy spending our tax dollars sending dick pics, paying for sex, and having extramarital affairs. We may feel like we could easily spot inappropriate workplace behavior- and there’s a lot of buzz about how these elected dudes should know better- but what if it isn’t so egregious or explicit? Is it ever ACTUALLY the case that someone thinks they are harmlessly flirting and it is misinterpreted?

Overt flirtation or sexual innuendos can be jarring, if not wildly inappropriate. This is especially true in the workplace. Assuming you don’t have a pre-established sexual or romantic relationship, here are some law-based* and peer-reviewed** things to consider if you want to start a workplace flirtation and avoid being creepy or worse, putting someone in a really uncomfortable situation (because there is nothing sexy about that):

*Nope. Not a lawyer. This is the law of COMMON DECENCY I’m referencing.
**By Chiara, also not a lawyer

1. Be aware of power dynamics. Up or down the chain of command is tricky. Tread lightly with this, because there is a lot of potential to make someone uncomfortable. There are a million ways that shamelessly flirting with your boss can get you into trouble. There are a million more ways that flirting with someone who you manage is murky territory. If someone is not being paid, has less experience, is younger or is reliant on you for a paycheck, you need to be very careful about the way you speak to and about them.

2. Consent in everything. EVEN IF YOU SLEPT TOGETHER (or are dating, or got drunk and kissed, or you think that she was probably implying that you are the cutest boy in the history of office work yesterday). It may be the case that telling the office that she got drunk and made out with you at happy hour karaoke is not okay with her! Talk about this stuff before you go back to work and make a plan you both feel good about. If something less-than-professional and more-than-friendly happened with a coworker outside of work and you want to keep the momentum by day, start subtle. You guys may decide to graduate to raunchy workday texting (see: Bridget Jones and her boss), but feel it out first. ALWAYS make sure that the other person is enthusiastically into a more-than-professional relationship. You ask them out and they politely decline? The laws of work are different and you can’t pursue them like this is a romantic comedy. Bow out like the graceful badass professional you are.

3. Think about what your actions mean to them. Are they in a relationship? Is a workplace flirtation going to create problems at home? Are they involved in an upcoming project at work that will change your working relationship? This kind of forethought doesn’t impede light-hearted flirtation. It makes it possible for you to both continue to do your job well AND think about what they look like in a bathing suit while you make your coffee.

Even in the real world where we are all just clumsy people who want to be spooned sometimes, it’s hard to know in advance if your interest in someone is welcomed. In da club you can subtly dance in someone’s general direction. If they decide they need to pee RIGHT NOW or avoid eye contact and back away, you move on to someone who, for whatever reason, is more into throwing shapes with you. This is your metaphor for workplace flirtation. Casually test the waters by dancing in their direction, make a “your move, cowboy” face and see what happens. Sexy subtly is the key.

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