Flirting with colleagues… harmless banter or sexual harassment?

“I flirt with all of my female colleagues, but it’s completely platonic – I’m gay!  So I certainly don’t think it’s an issue in terms of conduct.”

We use the term flirting quite freely, but according to Wikipedia, “flirting is a common form of social interaction by one person that obliquely indicates a romantic or sexual interest towards another.”  Going by this definition, this young man doesn’t really flirt with his female colleagues.

Students discussing this topic recently at a university agreed that the setting of any flirtation is really significant.  If it’s done in front of students, it’s not appropriate or professional, regardless of whether or not there is any physical attraction.  However, if it’s done in the staff room it might be acceptable depending on whether it would cause embarrassment to others. If it was done with some discretion and between consenting adults they all agreed, it is harmless.  After all, don’t most people meet their long-term partners in the work-place?

I guess the problem is where the dividing line is between one person’s “harmless banter” and another’s “sexual harassment”.

Is it alright to flirt with colleagues in school?  Or do you think that all flirtatious and sexualised banter should be moved outside of the school setting?

What do you think?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and as a teacher trainer and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk or book him for a talk on professional values and ethics.  His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.


10 thoughts on “Flirting with colleagues… harmless banter or sexual harassment?

  1. I find flirting to be one of the most unprofessional actions that can occur in a workplace. In fact, when viewing it, I find it embarrassing and disgusting. I can only imagine the impression it could give students who view it. I think professional friendships can be formed without any of the flirty banter. Your relationship with that person is, first and foremost, one of a professional sort. Not to mention, the person you are flirting with could be someone like me who doesn’t take well to that kind of conversation and might actually become very uncomfortable with the person who is initiating it.

    1. Thanks for that Claudia. I agree with nearly all of what you say, but let me “challenge” you with a couple of remarks and I’d be interested in your response if you have time: Most people meet their life-long partners in the workplace. How will you signal attraction to someone if you never, ever engage in a little flirtatious banter? Isn’t a little bit of fliratiousness part of human nature?

      You make a very important point about the discomfort it may cause. One person’s “harmless” flirtatious banter is another person’s “sexual harrassment”.

      1. Perhaps that could be saved for office parties or coffee dates on the weekend. It doesn’t have a place on school grounds and around students, though. But again, you have to be careful because, like you said, “One person’s “harmless” flirtatious banter is another person’s “sexual harrassment”.”
        But I don’t know that I’d call flirting “human nature”. I associate the need to eat and drink to survive as human nature. I don’t think you need to flirt to live and therefore, it can be saved for a more appropriate place and time.

  2. I actually happen to disagree with Claudia. Although I recognize her opposition to flirting, I think it’s not fair to give it a stigma. If I found two teachers locking lips in the middle of the office I would find it completely inappropriate, but as teacher we devote far too much of our time to our schools and often these are the only social interactions we can have for long periods of time. In that, sometimes love finds it’s way into the school environment. Now, as for the playful flirting, I would not appreciate it if the Principal was lusting after staff, however, sometimes all teachers need is to laugh with each other in order to keep their sanity. Sometimes that laughter appears as flirting. So be it. It’s not harming the students, and in fact, I believe that students seeing healthy positive interactions between adults, including their teachers, can be extremely beneficial. We are not always aware of the adult interactions they experience at home, so someone needs to model positive relations.

    1. Thanks for that Mr Q – very thoughtful, interesting and measured. And I agree with every thing you said. I also think our pupils and students can learn a lot from the way we positively model our ‘social’ lives – for example, my teachers took us to the pub with them on field trips (almost unthinkable now) and we could see which teachers ‘liked’ and even ‘fancied’ each other. Looking back on those occasions, I’m sure I learned a lot about mature and responsible behaviors from them, including how to handle my alcohol intake!

  3. I agree more with Mr Q, though not entirely sure how personally comfortable I would be flirting with anyone in front of students.

  4. I’m interested in how flirting is perceived by other members of staff. Are their judgements moral or professional? Also, if a heterosexual woman has fun with a female colleague, would the same act be judged/misinterpreted as ‘flirting’ with a male colleague?

    1. Good point Leanne – I think probably not..! though I think the judgments can be both moral and professional. If teachers are flirting on purpose in front of students and colleagues in ways that draws attention to them, that is unprofessional. For some people – any kind of flirting might be defined as immoral – but I think 99.9% of the population wouldn’t take that particular moral position..! 🙂

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