Is It OK to Flirt at Work?

office romanceA giggle here, an eyelash bat there -- a playful punch or a graze of the arm, the increasingly-frequent cubicle visit: Soon it's lunches for two, maybe even drinks after work. But, much like paparazzi-plagued celebrities, you have to keep insisting that you're "just friends" to everyone around you, including yourselves. Still, you wonder, "What's the big deal, anyway? A little flirtation never hurt anyone."

Sure, flirtation can be fun and harmless, but when it happens in the workplace, where do the boundaries exist?

Mixing business with pleasure

In any professional environment, flirtation between co-workers can and does happen. Recently, when the men's magazine Best Life conducted two online polls on office romance, over half of the respondents confessed to having crushes at the office. Of the 1,121 men who responded, 92 percent of the male managers admitted they've been attracted to female co-workers, and 52 percent of the 1,451 women polled said the same about male co-workers.

In a recent interview on the 'The Early Show,' Best Life editor Stephen Perrine said he believed office flirting to be largely harmless. But it can be a thin line between what is acceptable and what may be inappropriate: 82 percent of the female poll respondents also reported feeling "creeped out" by an older male colleague's attempts at flirting.

Perrine says that one way people can decipher if the flirtation has crossed any lines is for them to consider whether or not they would feel comfortable telling their spouses or significant others about anything they're doing at work. And if you're single, he says, you should think about how comfortable you would be if your daughter was flirting the same way.

Taking it to the next level

So you like each other, you really like each other, and you want to go beyond flirting. According to Dennis Powers, author of 'The Office Romance: Playing With Fire and Not Getting Burned' (AMACOM), office romances are increasingly common and, if approached carefully, don't need to get messy.

One way to avoid disaster is to know up front what both of you want from the relationship. If one person's looking for a fling and the other is eyeing the rings at Tiffany's, it probably isn't going to work out. At that point, you need to decide whether the short-term romance is going to be worth the long-term situation of working with an ex.

Make sure you understand your workplace's policy on office romance. Ask yourself if this relationship is worth the possibility of having to leave your job. Also, maintain a professional image at all times: Avoid or limit public displays of affection at work and keep the flirtatious e-mailing to a minimum -- you never know when you're accidentally going to press "Reply all."

Staying in-bounds

When it comes to flirtatious behavior, be careful. Avoid any indiscretions by building good relationships with your co-workers, supervisors and employees. If you unintentionally offend someone, they should know you well enough to know you meant no harm, and should be comfortable telling you as much so you can make sure it won't happen again.

Pay attention to body language. If the object of your flirtation is not reciprocating, that person may be uncomfortable (arms crossed in front of the chest is usually a signal) or simply uninterested (take a lack of eye contact or unenthusiastic, one-word answers as major hints).

Be aware of the message your own body language is sending as well. Maintaining eye contact or lightly touching a person's hand when telling a story is fine; behavior that is sexual in nature, such as shoulder- or back-rubbing, is not only inappropriate, it's nauseating for others to watch.

Be especially mindful of verbal cues. Do not continue to ask a co-worker out if he or she has already told you no. Office romance is one department where persistence does not pay off.

Know your audience. Some people may appreciate a dirty joke here and there, others won't tolerate them. Even complimenting a person's physical appearance can be tricky. Someone who doesn't know you better could construe a well-intended compliment ("That sweater really brings out the blue in your eyes") as a come-on. Try to keep flattering remarks related to work ("Great presentation today!").

Bottom line: Play it safe. When in doubt, keep it outside the office.

Next: Do You Have a Work Spouse? >>

Mary Lorenz is a special contributor to

Copyright 2006

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