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Insights from the Behavioral Science Guy: What to say to a flirtatious co-worker

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

If you are astute in reporting what is already happening and insightful about the effects it has on things your co-worker cares about, he or she is likely to listen.

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Dear Joseph,

I have a surgeon colleague who is flirting with a staff member. He is very obviously taken with her and cannot seem to help himself. She is now reciprocating the attention. Both are married to other people and the staff are becoming uncomfortable. I need some advice on how to have the conversation with the surgeon so we can maintain a professional working relationship.


Flirting with Disaster

Dear Flirting,

Yikes. That’s about as sensitive a subject as you could take on. And I absolutely agree that you must. People under the spell of intoxicating hormones often delude themselves into thinking that their behavior is either invisible or acceptable to everyone else in the world. Or they become so self-absorbed that they stop caring what others think. This is a tough veil to penetrate.

But there’s a good chance you can.

First, get your motives clear. Carefully and honestly answer the question, “What do I really want from this conversation?” If you’re like most of us, you’ll be tempted to try not just to solve the problem of unprofessional behavior; you’ll mix in some nonverbals — or even verbals — that cross into the moral feedback domain. Knowing the two are married, I’d personally find the behavior repugnant and be inclined to express my disgust. But is that what you really want?

If your goal — as you say — is to deal with the professional-behavior problem, you’ll have to set your moral judgments aside. Those are yours and have no place in a conversation about unprofessional workplace conduct. Mixing the two will likely result in you accomplishing neither. And it sounds as though your relationship with the two of them is not such that they are asking you for moral guidance.

If you are with me on the goal of the crucial conversation, then the next step is to prepare for it by gathering facts. Think of the facts you will need to share with them to help them non-defensively appreciate how their behavior is being perceived.

For example, if the surgeon tends to place his hand on the small of the staff member’s back when talking to her, and leaves it there for some time, you would note that and prepare to share this concrete behavioral description of your concern. If the two of them make jokes about one another’s body parts, for example, that would be another “fact.”

Too many of us fail in our crucial conversations because we lead with our emotions (“I’m uncomfortable”) and conclusions (“because you’re flirting”) but with little concrete data. Try to identify four or five behaviors that will enable you to illustrate the problem.

And prepare to share them in a non-judgmental way. Do not, for example, say to the staff member, “You fawn all over him.” Strip all the judgments and conclusions out of your description. Instead, say, “When he says something that few others find funny, you laugh loudly — not something you tend to do when others are making jokes.”

Now that you’ve prepared by clarifying your goal and by gathering the facts you’ll need, you’re ready to begin. Start the conversation with what we call a “contrasting statement” that first points out what you are not trying to discuss — and then point out what you are discussing.

For example, “Doctor, do you have a minute? I’d like to have a private chat with you if now is OK.” Continue when you have some privacy.

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