I ran recently across a study claiming that flirting can pay off for women in the workplace. It was published a few years ago but the author, Professor Laura Kray (who holds the Warren E. and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California) is a top academic in the field of gender studies and still has the peer-reviewed paper listed on her Berkeley bio page.

So the paper is still fair game and, IMHO, worth revisiting. To give you a sense of the study, I'll quote directly from the Berkeley press release:

"'Women are uniquely confronted with a tradeoff in terms of being perceived as strong versus warm. Using feminine charm in negotiation is a technique that combines both,'" says Kray... [who says that] many of her students who are senior women executives admit they love to flirt and describe themselves as 'big flirts.' Kray maintains flirting is not unprofessional if it remains playful and friendly. 'The key is to flirt with your own natural personality in mind. Be authentic. Have fun. That will translate into confidence, which is a strong predictor of negotiation performance.'"

Whoa. Really? With all due respect for Professor Kray--and recognizing that women encounter enormous bias in the workplace and have every right to do what's necessary to balance things out--I'm not sure flirting is all that great an idea.

First, flirting is obviously going to be more effective if a woman is conventionally attractive. Extensive research shows that conventionally attractive people (male and female) get hired more easily, get promoted more quickly, and are generally considered more intelligent than those who are not so genetically blessed.

Second, flirting is also going to be more effective when a woman expends extra resources on her appearance: makeup, clothing, dieting, exercise, and even plastic surgery. While plenty of men are concerned with their appearance, they don't have to pay such a large tax on time and energy in order to remain attractive.

Third, flirting to get ahead isn't just a female strategy. While the Berkeley study didn't cover the reverse situation, a reasonably attractive man can effectively use "charm" to get a better deal, especially when negotiating with older and/or less attractive colleagues. Please don't ask me how I know this.

It seems to me that strategic flirting--regardless of who's doing it--is both manipulative and unfair: manipulative, because it holds out the prospect of a relationship that's never going to happen, and unfair because it augments the substantial advantages that the conventionally attractive already possess.

Furthermore, in the #METOO era, flirting might very well blur boundaries that are perhaps better left intact. In the current environment, it seems to me that any sane man (or woman for that matter) confronted with an openly flirtatious colleague should either run in the opposite direction or nip the situation cold in the bud.

In short, regardless of whether or not the science says it's effective, flirting is best left outside of the workplace. Let's keep the business world professional, shall we?

Published on: Nov 14, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.