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Is it OK for owner to flirt with employees?

Dear Office-Politics,

A 42 yr old married friend of mine is an owner of a restaurant who tends to flirt with some of his female employees. The flirting can at times contain sexual connotations. Some of the women (as young as 19) will flirt back. Because they do, he feels that it is harmless fun that creates a playful environment that discourages turnover. He also sees it as a way to gain insight into these employees to be better able to “control” them.

But I worry that this behavior could backfire too. Not only could it open him up to sexual harassment issues, he hasn’t taken into account the motivation for these girls flirting back, and how they may leverage it. Am I overly concerned for him? Is his behavior appropriate because of the response that he gets? Is it more acceptable to flirt with staff in the restaurant business? After all, it is called the “hospitality industry”.

Thank you,

Flirt-concerned Friend

dr. gregory ketchum

Dear Flirt-concerned Friend,

Well massage parlors might be considered part of the “hospitality industry” as well, but I don’t think you’d expect someone giving you a massage to serve you breakfast as well. In other words, let’s have each segment of the “hospitality industry” stick to the basics of their business.

Am I right to be concerned?

Let’s get at that first question of yours, “Am I overly concerned for him?” What does your gut tell you about that? I’ll bet that small voice inside you, your own little Jiminy Cricket, just won’t leave you alone on this one. I don’t know about you, but when my little Jiminy Cricket whispers a caution into my ear I’ve learned not to simply ignore him as he usually is right. I mean, after all, look what happened to Pinocchio when he ignored Jiminy: he ended up in the belly of a whale with donkey ears and a tail. If that’s not a cautionary tale about the cost of ignoring Jiminy, I don’t know what is. So the question becomes, what are you going to do with this “caution” that Jiminy is whispering in your ear? Do you just ignore him? Can you do that? Does it work? Once you think through what I’m saying I believe you’ll have the answer to your question of being overly concerned.

Desire to gain control

Now, let me look at another issue of concern you raise… I’m trying to think of the last time that I flirted with members of the opposite sex as a way of gaining insight into them “to be better able to ‘control’ them.” Huh, I’m thinking and thinking and oh I know: Never.

Let’s face it, that’s a completely ridiculous notion and suggests either that you didn’t clearly hear what your friend was saying when he told you that or that he’s engaging in some sort of self-deception. I mean, I could tell you that I secretly go into my wife’s purse and take money out when she’s not around so as to prevent her from spending too much. You’d think I was not only a little nuts, but also somewhat dishonest. We can’t really know what goes on in someone else’s head, but this logic doesn’t make any sense to me and suggests that this pattern of flirting has deep roots in your friend.

If the women flirt back does it make it acceptable?

If we look at another question of yours: “Is his behavior appropriate because of the response that he gets?” what answer do we get? If I flirted with my best friend’s wife in a manner that included lots of sexual innuendo and she flirted back would my behavior be appropriate? What would you say? I think you’d know the answer to that in a hot minute. I think you know the answer to this question of yours as well, but it’s probably harder to see it clearly because it involves a friend of yours. It’s when our own gut instinct collides with our belief about a friend that we can become unsure of our own judgment. When in doubt, always trust your gut.

The sticky wicket

Now, let’s get to the question of what to do about this. Not to sound like a broken record, but let’s get back to your gut. What does Jiminy say? There are different routes all the way from ignoring it and saying nothing to sitting down and having a conversation with your friend. Other factors like how open he is to feedback and how strong your friendship is play a role too. If you say nothing and this all blows up in his face how will you feel? If you say something and he blows up in your face how will you feel? This is one of those all too common situations where we are placed in a bit of a moral dilemma because someone close to us is exhibiting behavior that we consider inappropriate. Wouldn’t it be a great world if everybody just behaved and we didn’t have to face these sticky wickets? Excuse me, I must have dozed off there and been dreaming!

The bottom line my Flirt-Concerned Friend, listen to Jiminy. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Dr. Greg

Dr. Greg Ketchum, dubbed the “Frasier of the Cubicles” by the San Francisco Chronicle, is a former clinical psychologist-turned CEO and media career coach. He presides over an executive talent firm, providing coaching and recruiting for executives and Fortune 500 companies. A unique mix of psychology and coaching expertise gives Dr. Greg a great understanding of people and what it takes for career success. Combined with his keen insight into today’s job market, and infused with his trademark quick wit, Dr. Greg challenges Office-Politics readers to reach for career success on their own terms — and to have a good time doing it.

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