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Why flirting your way to the top might not work

If you think flirting will help you get ahead, think again.
Image: Boss telling subordinate to get out.
Becoming too much of a flirt at work can make your boss begin to not trust your judgment.Getty Images/Istockphoto / iStockphoto
/ Source: Forbes

If you think flirting will help you get ahead, think again.

We’ve all done it. A seductive smile while negotiating a big purchase. Flirtatious banter with your cubicle neighbor or morning barista. That certain suggestive lilt that enters your voice when asking for help with a project.

Those adept at the subtle art of flirting know that batting their lashes or casting a longing look can be a form of social power, sometimes useful in securing an advantage or ally. Career experts like Nicole Williams, author of "Girl on Top," advocate using every tool available to you to gain an edge in the workplace. Although it often goes unspoken, many executives agree. “Flirting?” asked one woman. “I call it efficiency.” slideshow: Eight ways flirting goes wrong in the workplace

Even some academics are waxing poetic about the hidden value of sexual prowess. Sociologist and London School of Economics professor Catherine Hakim, author of "Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom," believes that “erotic capital” is the fourth human asset, in addition to economic, social and cultural capital.

She defines it broadly as physical and social attractiveness, and says that flirting is one manifestation. “Charisma often includes flirting, when appropriate,” Hakim says, “and these days even CEOs are expected to display charisma.”

However, while flirting may sometimes help snag a discount, land a client or secure a coveted work assignment, it can just as easily make you vulnerable to misperceptions and social backlash. Experts agree that flirting for gain is risky business and can expose you to a host of unintended consequences.

“Flirting is the suggestion of the possibility, but not the probability, of something sexual occurring between two individuals,” says psychologist Simon Rego, director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. It’s expressed in a person’s tone of voice, pauses, eye contact, posture, body language and wordplay, he says. The 10 most sexist jobs in the U.S.

According to Rego, the danger arises from misreading the context and the other person’s perspective. “In a bar, it will be perceived differently than being pulled over for speeding,” he notes. But flirting with a police officer to get out of a ticket is at least worth a try, right? Not necessarily, says Rego. An officer who might have been willing to give you a break before, may be insulted by the obvious manipulation, thinking: You think I’ll bend the rules for a little bit of flirting? Suddenly, they’re more apt to put you in your place.

The workplace is especially ripe for misunderstandings or harsh judgments. David Nour, author of Relationship Economics, says he frequently observes employees flirting to improve their position, be it a salesperson trying to build preference with a buyer or a professional hoping to gain priority on a project or land a promotion.

Yet misreading the flirtee can result in questions about your intentions, credibility and character. At the very least, it could undermine the foundation of trust between you and your supervisor. Even worse, you may end up on the receiving end of unwanted advances, warns Nour. “Flirting at work is simply dangerous and very career limiting.” America's least reputable companies

Hakim, on the other hand, believes that those who are talented at flirting would be unlikely to get themselves into such situations. “People who are clumsy at flirting are clumsy people,” she says. “It is not the flirting that is the problem; it is their lack of skill and good judgment as to when it is appropriate.”

Nour counters that even if you and the subject of your flirtations are completely in sync, you can never control the perception of onlookers — and in the workplace reputation is everything.

“Jesse,” a 25-year-old civil servant, learned that lesson the hard way. With a small population of young people in his office, he and an attractive, married coworker often flirted just for fun. They were allies at work but never met outside the office. A young female secretary observed their playful interactions and became suspicious and jealous that Jesse didn’t pay her the same attention. The most annoying business jargon

The secretary began planting the idea around the office that they were having an affair. “Little did I know, the rumors and gossip had been swirling around me for months,” he says. “I was known as a homewrecker.” When the secretary eventually accused his co-worker directly, it quickly elevated to management and HR.

“People who misconstrue your behavior or feel alienated often feel compelled to do something about it, like I’m going to tell his wife or go to HR,” says Nour. “It blows up something simple into something incredibly problematic for many people.”

Ultimately, psychologist Rego says flirting blurs your intentions and can easily confuse others around you. Consider what you really want to communicate to others, he suggests. When in doubt, ask yourself: Would I feel comfortable if my partner — or my grandmother — were here? Political sex scandals What makes people powerful?