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When a compliment goes too far – the fine line between flattery and harassment
March 5, 2021

Almost everyone loves a compliment, but when you hear “You look really sexy today, darling,” there’s a big difference whether it was said by your partner – or your boss. March 1 was World Compliment Day, which highlights our human need to be recognised and appreciated. I thought this was an ideal opportunity to explore the fine line between flattery and harassment.

The biggest dilemma for CEOs and managers is that there is a fine line. Sometimes, what one person considers a flattering remark will offend another. I hear this problem from male colleagues all the time.

A recent conversation is a prime example. This manager had an employee who’d put significant effort into getting healthier and losing weight. As a result, she purchased new work outfits. He said, “Maureen, I’m really struggling with this. I’d love to give her a compliment, but I’m worried it could be misconstrued as sexual harassment.”

You can leave your hat on

Giving a compliment to an employee might seem like a trivial matter. How much could go wrong when you’re simply saying something nice to a staff member? As I mentioned, the challenge lies in that fine line between praise and harassment.

If your compliments are open to being misinterpreted, especially if they’re repeated, you run the risk of a sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying or mental stress claim. Payouts for successful claims can range from five to seven figures.

How do we get around this problem? By leaving the personal out of the workplace and putting your professional hat on.

We solved the manager’s compliment conundrum by couching it in professional terms. This enabled him to express his appreciation of her efforts without sounding sleazy. He ended up saying to her, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but you’ve done a great job of looking after your health and I love the way you’re presenting for work now.”

The power of language

One of Sir Richard Branson’s sayings is, “I have always believed that the way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers, and that people flourish when they are praised.”

Praising your employees is great, but the language you use to frame your compliments makes all the difference. Consider how these two examples might sound to an employee:

  • “You’re looking really attractive at work these days.”
  • “I appreciate the effort you’re putting into presenting well for work.”

The first one is couched in personal terms. The second is based on professional presentation.

You can guess which is most likely to offend someone. See more about appropriate workplace language in my ‘language traffic light’ chart below.

That was offensive

You’re more likely to fall foul of the compliment quandary if you cause offence. Signs someone is offended include:

  • A shocked facial expression or blank stare – they’re probably thinking, “I can’t believe he/she actually said that!
  • Crossing the arms over the chest – indicating someone’s desire to protect themselves against you or block you out.
  • Taking a step back or walking away – they may be upset, or thinking, “I’m going to punch that person in the face if I don’t get out of here,” or “I’m going straight to HR to report that.”

If you think you may have offended someone, it’s best to address it right away. Even in the best workplaces, people sometimes blurt things out before engaging their brains!

Go to the person you’ve offended, explain you didn’t mean to cause offence, and apologise for what you said. Owning up to your behaviour helps build a workplace culture of trust and respect. Reflecting on what you said and why it caused offence can help you avoid making the same mistake again – and to become a better human.

Mind your motives

It’s also important that compliments are genuine and not used to achieve your own ends, such as performance managing your team. For example, imagine four people on a customer service team are working in a quadrangle-shaped set up. The sales manager approaches one of them and says, “Mary, I’m really pleased with what you’ve done for me this month. Thanks very much.”

But he’s really saying the rest of the team need to lift their game. The manager is using the compliment as a weapon to target underperforming team members, rather than managing their performance individually.

I’ve seen behaviour like this, and it can fracture your workplace culture.

This isn’t to say compliments can’t be used as part of a performance management process. In fact, they can be very effective when used well. For example, you could say, “Shireen, I appreciate the effort you’re putting into meeting our uniform standards,” or “Bill, you’re doing really well delivering your projects within budget now, but we still need to improve on meeting deadlines. What can we do to make that happen?”

I’ll leave you with a quote I believe sums things up well:

“When a manager recognizes an employee’s behavior, personally and sincerely, both feel proud, gratified, and happy. There’s a human connection that transcends the immediate culture to create a shared bond. The power of this bond is stronger than you might think; indeed, it’s the power that holds together great organizational cultures.”

– Erik Mosley and Derek Irvine, co-authors of The Power of Thanks: How Social Recognition Empowers Employees and Creates a Best Place to Work

At Maureen Kyne & Associates, my team and I focus on preventing inappropriate workplace behaviours before they become a problem. If workplace bullying, discrimination or harassment is an issue, we’ll work with you to discover and address the underlying problems and create a trust-based culture that benefits your staff and your financial position.