What To Do About Flirting Coworker?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a bossĀ  who plays favorite to flirting subordinate:

A female coworker regularly wears low-cut blouses and leans in to guys when chatting, and flirts. Everyone sees it except for my boss. My boss is not immune to this and it is negatively impacting the rest of the staff’s relationships with him. The coworker is starting to get somewhat preferential treatment. Can anything be done? We are very disappointed in our boss for falling for this (we had hoped he would be above it!).

Signed, Observer

DearĀ Observer:

What you can do about this situation will depend on five elements of the problem (which means, there is no easy answer!). First I’ll mention those elements, then some things for you to think about related to the overall situation.

1. How comfortable do you and/or others feel talking to your boss and critiquing work or making suggestions about it? If he is very much the “boss” and you can’t discuss concerns with him, you probably will not be able to bring up the subject and express your observations and feelings. If you or others frequently chat with him in a casual way, you will more likely be able to talk about this issue. If your workplace is large enough to have an HR section or someone who handles EEO issues perhaps you can talk to someone there.

2. To what degree is the coworker’s behavior and attire inappropriate? For example, are her breasts really exposed in a way that is offensive or embarrassing and does she seem to dress in a way that any reasonable person would think was sexually provocative? Is it in violation of guidelines for attire? Is there a guideline or policy? Does she interact with the public, customers or clients, or mostly with coworkers? Would she look inappropriate to talk to children, if they were in the workplace? Regarding her behavior: If a man leaned as near to a woman as this employee leans near men, would it be very inappropriate, no matter who was involved or not inappropriate unless the conversation and other actions made it seem that way? Is she outgoing and joking with almost everyone or is she only pleasant to men? Those are issues that make the difference in whether her behavior is purposeful or part of her overall style. It still might not be appropriate for work, but at least would indicate it is not devious or scheming, to get benefits for herself.

3. What is the preferential treatment she has been given and has anyone else ever gotten similar treatment? If she has, as a matter of routine, been allowed privileges that others are denied or if she is allowed to work less time or make more money, or if she is the only one who ever gets perks that others are refused when they ask, that is true preferential treatment. I’m aware that sometimes preferential treatment isn’t easy to define. However, since this is the thing that you can most easily challenge, it would be a good idea to be able to show specifics of what she was allowed to do that others were not.

4. How is the situation harming the workplace, work relationships, morale or the work product? Are you and others able to do your work anyway? Has the workplace become so sexually-oriented that non-participants are shut out? As far as the preferential treatment goes, who has been harmed from it and what have they lost as a result? Is it an irritant but not a barrier to doing work or is it much worse than that?

5. The fifth element is the most difficult: What do you want as a remedy for this situation? That’s one reason I said the issue of preferential treatment is the one you can most easily challenge. If you want your coworker to dress differently, you will have to rely on your boss to talk to her about it and direct different clothing. If your boss is a man, I can’t imagine him telling her to wear less revealing clothing. If you have an HR section or a female in an executive position, they are the ones who would probably get the task. Is that likely to happen? I also can’t imagine your boss wanting to tell the employee that she is leaning too closely to men and that she seems to be flirting, unless it is so overt as to be shocking. She wouldn’t do it if she wasn’t encouraged by their reactions, so that is as much of an issue as anything. The thing you could most easily confront is the preferential treatment, because that is problematic no matter who is involved and it is more easily proven and more obviously hurtful to other employees, but it would be best to deal with each situation as it occurs.

Put all of those elements together and it appears that what you can do will be very limited unless your boss trusts you and you can easily talk to him about almost anything. You seem to have respected your boss’s judgment in the past, so it might be best to give this a bit more time and see if it calms down or if it becomes problematic enough that you have something specific to talk to him about. Just be sure that there really is a concern and that the situation truly requires change in order for you and others to do their work.

You have probably experienced situations where a relatively minor issue became major when it was talked about excessively by a group of coworkers. You also know how a work group can become almost obsessed with the actions of a coworker, to the point of being on the lookout for the slightest offense. I’m not implying that is the case here, but you must admit, it wouldn’t be the first time. It would be a shame to stir up negative feelings over something that could be worked around if everyone put it out of their conversations and their work focus Another thing to avoid is shutting out the coworker over something that apparently she has not been told is a problem and may not view as a problem herself.

If she has an ulterior motive, at some point it will result in a scandal, a firing or a lawsuit. If it’s not so terrible, time will take care of things. Your coworker may be very extroverted, gregarious and comfortable with her attractiveness to men, so all of this is only a fun way to be at work, but has no significance to her, and she would like to have women friends too. For all you know, the boss may be appreciative of her fun nature and wishes everyone was that way! It’s almost certain that if women are not accepting of her, she will seek the acceptance of men. If she is a young woman and you are more mature, your friendship at work may help her mature as well. (I may be giving her credit for a much better nature than she has, but it’s always good to start out giving people the benefit of the doubt.) However, if after all of that analysis of the situation, you decide you must talk to your boss, talk about the issues you can show are genuinely negative situations caused by the employee’s clothing, behavior and the preferential treatment being shown to her.

You might say something like, “Carl, this is the kind of situation that starts out seeming like fun and ends up as a sexual harassment lawsuit against the boss. I’d hate to see that happen to you.” Or, “I think all of us are hard-working and have been dedicated and dependable employees, but the way you treat Lisa, it’s like she’s the only one who matters. That may sound petty, but that’s the way it looks to us, and I have specific examples to prove my point. I’d like to talk about it.” Or, “Carl, I’ve been here for quite a while and I’m seeing a difference in the work environment here in the last few months. We used to be a fun place but we took care of business. Now it seems there are two groups; Lisa and the men and the rest of us. Can I talk to you about that?” Those may not be the things you would say, but maybe you could adapt them to your style and the situation.

I wish I had a more concrete response for you, but this is one of those situations where, frustrating though it might be, it doesn’t sound intolerable. You may need to work with it and see if it becomes much worse or less irritating as time goes on. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know as things develop. The experiences of others help us give better advice. Best wishes to you with this!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.