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Is it ever OK to compliment a co-worker's appearance on the job?

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When Lisa Parker was new to corporate coaching, a senior-level colleague she respected brought her in as his No. 2 for a series of training seminars. Time and time again, he introduced her as smart, capable and beautiful.

"I was so uncomfortable," she said. "The first time it happened I remember standing there waiting to take the front of the room and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe he just said that.'"

Parker asked him to stop. Embarrassed, he responded: "But you ARE beautiful." That was a decade ago and he never did it again. The two have happily worked together many times since.

Sound familiar? Fast forward to April 4, when President Barack Obama introduced California's Kamala Harris at a Democratic fundraiser as brilliant, dedicated, tough and "by far, the best looking attorney general in the country."

The remark — the two are friends — raised a few eyebrows over whether it amounted to sexism. The president, who has similarly complimented men before, called Harris and apologized. A Harris spokesman assured the world she remains an Obama supporter.

But the question lingers. Male-to-female, female-to-male, peer-to-peer, superior-to-subordinate: Are workplace compliments focused on looks or other personal details like dress ever OK? Is the alternative a more sterile professional life? When do such remarks rise to actionable harassment, or become worthy of a friendly rebuff or a trip to HR?

"If we all end up trending toward the center, we become pure vanilla. It's boring and it's a huge loss," said Parker, the New York author of the March book "Managing the Moment."

Parker, compliance experts and human resource managers agree that tone, context and a pattern of behavior are everything when it comes to unwanted remarks.

"Personally I'm not offended by a compliment, but I do take the issue very seriously," said labor lawyer Ingrid Fredeen, once in-house counsel for General Mills and now a vice president for ethics and training at Navex Global, a supplier of computer-based training tools.

"Whenever you're in some kind of a male-dominated world, there are always many sides to a compliment. Some of them are just pure. They don't mean anything other than, 'You have a nice jacket on.' End of story," she said.

Others are dripping with innuendo. "They're about power, and so using a compliment is a way to change the power dynamic between two individuals, and there's some tension there. That happens very frequently."

According to the nonprofit group Catalyst, which works to expand opportunities for women in business, sex discrimination charges amount to about 15% of allegations handled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011. That includes sexual harassment, defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" that unreasonably affects employment or a work environment.

Nearly all large employers in the U.S. had harassment grievance policies in 1998 and 70% of U.S. companies provided training related to sexual harassment, according to research published in 2007 in the American Journal of Sociology by Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Erin L Kelly of the University of Minnesota.

But where does that leave the casual remark? "If it's made in public, laugh it off in the moment and then privately speak to the person," Parker counsels.

Fredeen notes: "When you're thinking about the legal landscape, compliments alone don't typically constitute unlawful sexual harassment."

Donna Mazzola, who recently retired after 30 years in HR in the banking and insurance industries, said the way codes of conduct are enforced is important. Even then, atmosphere from department to department, floor to floor, is everything.

"In the sales office, the women gave it right back to the guys and you would almost never have a complaint," she said of one large insurance company where she worked. "It's very common to have a sales guy say, 'Gal, were you out drinking, what the hell are you wearing today? Jeez, your dress is awful short.' In corporate you would have never said something like that."

Much also depends on personal relationships, Mazzola said. "Is this someone you hang out with in the lunch room? Or is this a more senior person or a colleague who you're not that close with?"

Such remarks are definitely not restricted to men, she said, recalling a female senior executive who once hauled a female vice president into her office to chide her about the way she dressed.

"'You dress way too sexy for this company and for your role,'" Mazzola recalled. "The VP said, 'Well, have there been complaints?' And this woman said, 'No, but I see the way men look at you in training sessions.'"

The vice president's response? "Well, if there are no complaints, I don't understand."

Parker said appearance can indeed be a legitimate target of complaints if a person creates a distraction.

But falling short of that, is it OK to compliment an outfit or a coworker's new hairdo? Why risk a compliment or a casual remark if the intent is innocent? Why not stick with ball scores, the weather or the latest movie?

"We're human and we form close bonds with the people we work with and we care about them," Fredeen said. "At the end of the day, for most, nothing bad is going to come of me telling you, 'Gee, you look terrific.'"

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

46 Comments
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The first incident cited here (Lisa Parker) was unnecessary. Obama's comment was ironic, and lightly underlined the disproportionate number of male attorney generals. I hope I can continue to say "Cool haircut" or "Looking smart" to both male and female colleagues.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

This is so American. As a Brit, I feel it would be only natural to compliment someone you are on the job with.

7 ( +12 / -5 )

People are way too touchy these days about all kinds of unimportant stuff. If someone gives you a compliment, accept it in the spirit it is offered. Start worrying when you stop getting compliments.

24 ( +25 / -2 )

So now people don't even want a compliment? They are so wrapped up in iPhones, iPads, iPods and Social Media Sites these days that they can't take a compliment. Instead, they just want attention by looking for something to be offended by.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Had to represent someone in similar circumstances recently and conducted this experiment:

I say (to a woman) "Changed your hair style recently? Looks good".

"Have you been working out (reference to obvious wieght loss)"?

"New outfit Leanne? Really suits you".

Her response:

"yep, thought it was time for a change"

"Working out and on a low carb diet. Wearing clothes I haven't worn for years"

"Birthday treat for myself. Do you like it"/

No harm there. But imagine if she goes to her superior or HR and say's:

"I feel uneasy around SimondB, he's always commenting on my apperance or body size. I don't like being alone in the same room as him. He even makes comments about my clothes"

Suddenly what was an everyday remark has been turned around to make me look like a letch who needs to be counselled and/or warned about my conduct around females. Unless you know the person very well and can hand on heart say she is a good friend, be carefull what you say in todays painfully PC world. And remember, some people look for offence.

14 ( +15 / -1 )

But falling short of that, is it OK to compliment an outfit or a coworker’s new hairdo? Why risk a compliment or a casual remark if the intent is innocent?

A compliment makes the comment personal. If workers are in an impersonal corporate culture, then saying a person is smart, capable and beautiful is probably out of order.

If the number 1 executive only points out his female number 2 as smart, capable and beautiful and never introduces the other males on the executive team as smart, capable and handsome, that indicates a problem. Especially since beautiful women are often negatively perceived by both men and women in the work force.

If the culture of the workplace is more personal, then the whole dynamic changes. All people would be free to compliment a person's hair, clothing, shoes and so on.

Most people, however, would probably appreciate it if you noticed how well they did their jobs (especially the thankless ones) rather than a personal compliment. Then they wouldn't have to worry about how to take it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think it depends on how the compliment is delivered and when, many compliments can also be mistaken 'for a Come on' or even sexual harasement these days.

Depending on both persons.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's been said that if the person is attracted to you then it's a compliment. If not, it's harassment . Interesting theory ...

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I think the problem is quite simply that, as the old saying goes, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Saying that someone is beautiful, sexy, handsome or hunky suggests that there is a level of physical attraction between the speaker and the person they're admiring. If an openly gay co-worker says to another male co-worker, "Oh, you're handsome!" then that's crossing the line as it implies a physical attraction. If the same openly gay co-worker says to a female co-worker, "Oh, you're beautiful!", then that is okay since there is no implied physical attraction. Of course since we don't all wear our sexual orientation on your namebadges (Hi! I'm [Gay] Phil!) it is best to just avoid comments that might imply a physical attraction.

Of course the entire responsibility doesn't lie on the person making the comment, but also on the person receiving the comment. Many people struggle with self-image problems, and may perceive a sincere complement about their appearance as being snide or sarcastic. A comment like "Have you been working out?" might be perceived by a more confident person as, "You're looking fit!", but by another person as, "You really should work out more because you're FAT!". Communication is not a precise art as there is often a gulf between the speaker's intent and the listener's preconceptions.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It's a minefield. If taken the wrong way, a compliment on looks can be taken as sekuhara. Yet many people meet their life aprtm=ners at work, so it must be ok sometimes.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

They are so wrapped up in iPhones, iPads, iPods and Social Media Sites these days that they can't take a compliment

The ironic thing is, they upload photos of themselves on facebook for everyone to comment on, but if you do it in person it is sexual harrassment.

I once complimented a married women on her new hairstyle saying she looked beautiful (you know, just an informal, おお、きれいですねぇ)... A few days later I got a call from an angry husband who accused me of hitting on his wife.

Now I don't bother to compliment married Japanese women anymore, it's not worth the hassle if/when they take it the wrong way. I probably wouldn't compliment a woman back in Australia either - I have no idea what social norms are back home any more.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

For those of you suggesting this isn't really an issue I'd like to know you age, your job experience in companies and your view on working women. I get the feeling that you're over 50, haven't spent a lot of time in a huge company and probably have issues with working women.

This IS a problem because women these days are STILL judged on how they look when it comes to job ability. Be a little too beautiful and you are thought of as an incapable of doing the job, or better yet, sleeping with someone to get a promotion. Be not beautiful enough and you get passed over for positions. The same does happen to men but nearly as much. Having the president of the US comment on someone when introducing her is sexism. Chit chat in the office with her about her hair? Fine. Introducing her? Not needed. Everyone knows if someone is good looking at them by looking at them. Would Obama have made that comment if she was a man? Doubt. Never know now though because if he does, probaby just trying to get himself out of hot water.

-11 ( +1 / -12 )

I have no idea what social norms are back home any more.

And plenty of foreign men demonstrate that on a daily basis with how they speak to female coworkers, be it Japanese or not.

-10 ( +1 / -11 )

While there are and should be rules, the shocking thing is some people have made a profitable career out of pimping it. Vice president for ethics and training? What kind of job title is that? A six-figure one for sure and one whose productivity in dollar terms is probably as hard to quantify as it is to explain exactly what it is she does.

Well I'd take the VP's advice because playing by the rules and talking the talk and obviously worked for her.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Budgie, I guess you've never been sexually harrassed at work. I guess you don't know others who have - or anyone who trusts you enough to tell you. When you listen to some of the crap people have to deal with at work, yes, some folks NEED ethics and training. Some guys don't get that slapping the OL's behind is NOT okay. Some guys don't get that discussing how hot or ugly a female worker is in front of her is not okay. Some women don't get that pinching a guys bum is not okay. Funny, not much of it here and look at all the company bullying and harressement that workers here face.

-9 ( +0 / -9 )

No tmarie I have never been sexually harassed. I have experienced some - and seen far more - power harassment in various careers and most of it seemed to be perpetrated by women. Getting their own back perhaps. I think the subtle power games and carefully holding down of rivals is certainly a good way to climb the ladder. Might even get that coveted VP position in ethics training one day.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

How did we get from paying someone a compliment to smacking them on the tush?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Only when they're smokin' hot. I kid.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

One of our staff had her hair done over the weekend, when she came in I said (nice hair-do...)... completely natural. What's wrong with complimenting someone if they look particularly nice that day?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Can't remember . . . was it Elmer Fudd or Tweety Bird who said, "Be careful be very careful." ?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Mmm. I think there is a difference between what is said, and the way it is said, and you need to differentiate the two. I have occasionally been on the receiving end of comments like this from work colleagues and whilst they generally catch me off guard, I'm never offended by them. We are human after all, and it's generally all in good fun. Women may see it differently though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

So I guess I'd better not say any of the Japanese women I meet during my month-long visit to the country are beautiful or well-dressed? Sure am glad I retired before this pettiness infected the ad agency business.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

No tmarie I have never been sexually harassed. I have experienced some - and seen far more - power harassment in various careers and most of it seemed to be perpetrated by women. Getting their own back perhaps.

And yet you don't think ethics training is needed??! It doesn't matter the gender of the person. Be it sexual harassment, power harassment, some people don't get that their behaviour is not okay and need training.

One of our staff had her hair done over the weekend, when she came in I said (nice hair-do...)... completely natural. What's wrong with complimenting someone if they look particularly nice that day? Nothing wrong with saying someone's hair is nice. There is a world of wrong when the president of the united states decides to introduce a woman and mention how good looking she is. Do you think that women will be taken seriously now that she's known as "by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.”?

Funny how some people just aren't getting it. Just because YOU don't think there is an issue with it, doesn't mean others don't. Frankly I would be pissed off to all hell to have my boss introduce me to a large group of people and comment on my looks. My looks have nothing to do with my job - and any idiot can make a judgement for themselves as to my attractiveness - or not - without some guy commenting on it.

-8 ( +0 / -8 )

Has there ever been a time, before our current era, where people were so easily offended?

They say there is nothing new under the sun but this seems to be a first in history.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Big deal! I don't mind simple compliments about my appearance or what I'm wearing, but I do feel uncomfortable with sexually inappropriate comments.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Question:

How did we get from paying someone a compliment to smacking them on the tush?

Answers:

remember, some people look for offence.

they just want attention by looking for something to be offended by.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Best advice. Keep your mouth shut unless she's your sister or brother.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Funny how some people just aren't getting it. Just because YOU don't think there is an issue with it, doesn't mean others don't. Frankly I would be pissed off to all hell to have my boss introduce me to a large group of people and comment on my looks. My looks have nothing to do with my job - and any idiot can make a judgement for themselves as to my attractiveness - or not - without some guy commenting on it.

What if he/she introduced you as the most intelligent employee? Or just, the nicest employee. I think you made a good point in your post when you mention some take it well, and some don't. I think that it is actually the other way around, some mean it in good spirit whereas some mean it as a demeaning insult or just plain ignorant statement. The clever thing to do is to spot the last two and throw it back at the perpetrator. The one thing you got wrong is linking looks to attractiveness. You can be really good looking but completely unattractive, for example - overly aggressive in nature, over reacting, etc.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

keep your mouth closed at all times is the safest plocy

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

If someone is too thick to tell the difference between paying a compliment and using a compliment as an opportunity to assert their power over someone else, they shouldnt be in a position of power in the first place.

And as for someone being mortally offended because someone complimented them on their looks - well if you were that confident in your ability to do the job it wouldnt be an issue for you anyway, would it?

I never took President Obamas comment to be a put-down on Kamala Harris. I took it to be a put-down on all the men that had come before her and work in similar positions. I felt sorry for them! Kamala Harris wasnt remotely bothered by it. She was confident enough in herself to know that she can do the job. The fact that she is attractive is an added extra that has nothing to do with the job itself. I think people were just looking for an opportunity to pounce on Obama - most of them Republicans, those champions of female equality!

Sexual harrassment is no joke. I know. I`ve been a victim of it. But a compliment - WAY back from the line.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

it's ok ONLY if it ends at a love hotel

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

What if he/she introduced you as the most intelligent employee? Or just, the nicest employee.

People get hired due to their intelligence and personality. People are not supposed to get hired based on looks unless they are into model.

The clever thing to do is to spot the last two and throw it back at the perpetrator. Why would a mature adult even want to "throw it back" at a coworker/boss? That's unprofessional. Why go down to their level for something that shouldn't have been done in the first place.

And while I don't doubt Obama made the comment with kind intentions, this women is now at the center of debate on it all. Do you think that is helping her career or her imagine?

well if you were that confident in your ability to do the job it wouldnt be an issue for you anyway, would it? Why would it not if others have an issue with what was said? This is the issue here. Perhaps this women is fine with what others said but others clearly are not or we wouldn't be discussing it. Just because she doesn't have an issue with it doesn't mean she won't get passed over for a promotion, get talked about or only be known as the pretty one rather than her work.

And this wasn't a compliment. This was an introduction to a large number of people. Funny how men never get introductions based on their looks unless they are in the media industry.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Funny how men never get introductions based on their looks unless they are in the media industry.

Whenever that happens, they complain, they sue, etc. Obama was presented as the hottie president and stuff like that. He was ranked in some sexiest shirtless celeb dude articles with his beach photos...and that lasted what ? 2 weeks before the White House gave a scolding to media explaining that "president was a serious position and he should no be talked about like some actor or model...". Funny that now he is on the other side, doing what he was complaining about. He surely understood later when he show himself on TV...that was a little too much like Mad Men. But that's so common the double standard...

A Harris spokesman assured the world she remains an Obama supporter.

Well, if she had expressed negative feelings about it, she would have got crowds calling her names.

This IS a problem because women these days are STILL judged on how they look when it comes to job ability. Be a little too beautiful and you are thought of as an incapable of doing the job, or better yet, sleeping with someone to get a promotion. Be not beautiful enough and you get passed over for positions. The same does happen to men but nearly as much.

I agree with you about the matter. Those that deny the facts have either a very limited experience, or they are those using the compliments to push women on the side and they find it totally normal. A compliment, it is when an everyday coworker chats 2 minutes at the coffee machine "I like your new shoes...oh, your diet gave results... hey, you work out ? ", that's personal, you set personal limit, you may even date a coworker, if you want, that's private, breaks are private. But you should never have to hear such things during a meeting, in front of customers, etc...as that's work then. That's surely not a compliment when it's Professor Creepy that was telling me in the middle of a lecture (with 400 students) after compliment galore, that I should just hunt some billionaire looking for a trophy wife, suggesting I was too dumb for studies -not that he had ever talked with me or took the time to read a line I had written. He even said stuff like that during final examination, such a classy professor. Or when the same is said -in her absence- about a woman that "she is so beautiful that she will get married soon or become the GF of a rich guy, or will prefer some job as a hostess, she doesn't need the job, the full-time status, the pay raise, the promotion...". Or the countless HR directors that ask young females to come for interviews (for jobs that don't exist) just to tell them how sexy they are. Idem for those that say female researchers and sellers to visit their workplace, while they have no data to provide, no need to buy stuff. Or the service manager that welcomes new staff, all equally qualified and says to women they are so beautiful and charming that they have to answer phone inquiries with their sweet voices, welcome visitors with charming smiles, serve tea with graceful gestures, while young men (not complimented) will be trained at becoming managers and we get back to previous pattern, males will get promoted on work achievements and women complimented and thanks for being so lovely company (but no pay raise, no promotion...hey bimbo, you're just a uketsuke hostess). OK that's not exclusively fat bald creepy old dudes complimenting the young women, but they certainly still represent 80% of the cases in general and 95% in Japan. Other cases being the women doing it to women, to imitate the male managers and be accepted as "one of the boys". And also men doing it to younger and better looking dudes.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

he show himself on TV.

when he was shown ...

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Well said Cos!

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

I compliment people who deserve it all the time. Nothing wrong with it.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

compliments alone don’t typically constitute unlawful sexual harassment.

Gawd. I hope not. But sometimes I think that in today's society where people get "offended" by the littlest thing, the line between compliments and sexual harassment may move in favour of the latter.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I don't know if it is OK or not but I don't think I'll stop. I did stop touching so much though. In my hometown, people are always touching other people when talking, it's only natural in that area but I had to beat that one out of my system.

A compliment is a compliment, take it as is 'cause in my case there is no return policy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The clever thing to do is to spot the last two and throw it back at the perpetrator. Why would a mature adult even want to "throw it back" at a coworker/boss? That's unprofessional. Why go down to their level for something that shouldn't have been done in the first place.

Not sure if you noticed, but you just threw it back at me!

Anyway, I disagree. The clever thing to do is to highlight the shortcomings of anyone who MISUSES a compliment. Expose them. The alternative is to keep quiet and I'm sure you don't believe that is right.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Geez, in over reacting America you can't say anything without someone either being offended or pissed off, I hope it isn't like that everywhere!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It all depends on the relationship between the giver and the receiver. You can't set any hard rules on the subject. In the article the example of the one female criticizing another's mode of dress when there hadn't been complaints smacked of jealousy - either because she could carry the look or because the criticizer was not able to do the same because of her position.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Not sure if you noticed, but you just threw it back at me!

More than happy to throw it back on here. I would be less impressed if my boss had made the comment you did - and trust me, I've had some very questionable comments that I haven't throw back to. I just found a better job.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

More than happy to throw it back on here. I would be less impressed if my boss had made the comment you did - and trust me, I've had some very questionable comments that I haven't throw back to. I just found a better job

I have no doubt you have.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I compliment woman constantly. I guess some like it more than others but I never have any strings attached. That seems to work.

I'll compliment guys sometimes. No strings attached there either.

I have little interest in scheming my way through life. Better to talk straight and use a little discretion as required.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I said, "You're looking good today" to a co-worker just this morning.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

To Tmarie I agree in part of what you said. Yeah if guys are talking about a woman right in front of her saying if she's ugly, that's really bad behavior and rude and should not be tolerated.

However, yeah most people have to work, and these pc policies have gone way too far. A-lot of men find women attractive, it's natural, it's called promoting the species. That is why there are men and women in world on a biological scale.

Thus creating a work environment where men can't check out women out of fear of losing their job is not only unnatural but really evil. A guy should have the right to tell a woman he is attracted to that he finds her attractive. Going against that is going against men's rights as well as women's rights. Both sexes have to adjust to the fact that were are a sexual species and find other adult people attractive. However, if a man or a woman comes up to someone more than a couple of times and the other person makes it clear they are not interested, than that person should know it is time to stop and move on to find someone else. The policies today are meant to treat not only people as equal in everyway, but to eliminate humanity all together, as if were just robots, but were not just robots were human.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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