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Frustrated by a Flirt: Office-Politics invites 3 advisers to answer

Dear Office-Politics,

I am a 26 year old male working in a British bank in India. When a female boss flirts in the presence of male subordinates, would it be considered professional? By flirting I mean twirling hair, biting lips, looking deeply into the man’s eyes, fondling earrings etc. Is this flirting by a female boss considered acceptable and professional?

Frustrated by a Flirt

franke james

Dear Frustrated by a Flirt,

Can flirting be judged objectively or is it in the eye (and mind) of the beholder?

Your letter raises many issues regarding culture, behavior, and gender. To answer it, I thought it would be very interesting to hear a male and female point of view. Below you will see two responses to your dilemma from Office-Politics Advisers, and my own response. Please note that we are responding to you from a North American business perspective. Dr. John Burton talks about the difference in culture, while Ms. Jennifer Glueck Bezoza gives a terrific checklist on how to gauge appropriate behavior.

1. A Male Point of View: Dr. John Burton reply
2. A Female Point of View: Ms. Jennifer Glueck Bezoza reply

My answer to your question, “Is flirting in the workplace acceptable and professional?” is that flirting is not always a lead-in to sex. It may offend you, in this instance, but it’s not necessarily wrong. In fact virtually everyone does it to one degree or another.

Of course, taken to extremes it can be unprofessional. People are skittish now. Numerous sex scandals over the years have racked up sizable financial settlements, forcing many North American companies to establish sexual harassment policies. The fear is that any behavior which is read as ‘sexual’ could ignite an expensive and messy lawsuit.

But the reality is that flirting goes on anyway. It’s hard to pin down as it is very subjective, and as I stated above, flirting is in the mind of the beholder. What you see as flirtatious, another person could dismiss as friendliness. There are many different levels of flirting. From the salesguy who just wants to score the big deal with a new client, to the Boss who flatters his assistant. In your case, the Boss’ flirting makes you feel uncomfortable. But it’s hard to tell from your letter whether you are reading more into the flirting than is really there.

First off, let’s recognize the cultural gulf that exits between North America and India. We only have to look at the different styles of accepted business dress to realize that we do not share the same views as to what is modest and what is not. Knee-length skirts in North America are considered proper attire for women, whether in business or government. While in some regions of India, women are expected to cover themselves in veils and long saris to be seen as modest.

To understand this better, let’s put aside the issues of dress, and focus only on your boss’ behavior from a North American point of view.

You have interpreted your female boss’ gestures of ‘twirling hair, biting lips and touching earrings’ as flirting. As a woman I find your reading of those gestures to be confusing and offensive. It makes me think that any attractive woman in your presence who bit her lip out of nervousness, twirled her hair absentmindedly, would automatically be inviting you, as a man, to make sexual advances. How wrong is that? Well, I’d venture to say that most women today would not welcome your advances and would let you know in very clear, assertive (and possibly colorful) language.

But I don’t think you are alone. I believe that guys misread women frequently. I think most women have experienced an insensitive ‘jerk’ coming on to them out of the blue and wondered “Why? What was I doing wrong? I was just trying to have a serious conversation with the guy and all of a sudden he lunged…”

I wonder if it all comes down to the male/female divide?

Have you considered that your Boss’ gestures may be unconscious, nervous mannerisms that you are misintrepreting as provocative? Have you asked others in the office if they think your Boss is flirting? The fact that she is your Boss makes it very difficult for you to influence change, but not impossible — if you have a good documented case with objective evidence. But I’d recommend finding more concrete examples than “Looking deeply into a man’s eyes…” That sounds like your fantasy, not objective reality.

In the meantime I would suggest that you try to look past her behavior and focus on what she is saying.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

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    By Franke James on Jun 9, 2007

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