Is flirtatious banter really so unprofessional?

Some of the happiest places I have ever worked have been where ‘play’ has been part of ‘work’.

Playfulness, joking, ‘taking the mickey’, banter and even practical jokes helped create relaxed, convivial and pleasant places to work. I’m convinced that such an ethos not only contributed to productive and creative working relationships between colleagues but also with children, parents and to the quality of learning.

Bouncing ideas around and planning new initiatives happened as much in the pub as the staff room. We organised school trips, residentials, concerts, plays and pantos not just for educational attainment but also for the sheer fun of it. People paid flirtatious compliments to each other by joking about new clothes, haircuts, losing weight or gaining it.

Much of the banter though not necessarily of a sexual nature, had a sexualised and flirtatious character to it. People joked about being married, single, straight or gay; husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends were the butt of endless stories; ‘going out’, ‘staying in’, ‘meeting someone new’ and ‘getting dumped’ was an endless series of sometimes hilarious tragi-comedy.

In the febrile and often highly stressed atmosphere of a hard working inner city school, and in a profession as collegial as teaching, it’s hardly surprising then that many of my best colleagues also became my best friends – some of them lasting a life-time.

Play, jokes and banter help build and establish trust between people. But they also come with risk. That’s part of how they work. Play and jokes are rule governed behaviours. Once the rules are broken or there is an attempt to explain how they work, they don’t work anymore.

There were times of course when people recognised an additional element in that banter – they recognised sexual attraction – which sometimes led on to long-term relationships and in some cases even marriage. (Of course, it also led to ‘one night stands’ too – but we usually never heard about those..!)

I read recently the perhaps unsurprising statistic that something like 75-80% of all relationships, including those resulting in marriage, begin in the workplace.

Most of the 25,000 new teachers entering the profession every year in England are in their twenties and single.

If you never engage in any kind of flirtatious and sexualised banter with colleagues, how will you ever signal attraction to those with whom you are most likely to source your long-term relationships?

Is engaging in flirtatious and sexualised banter with colleagues really so unprofessional?


4 thoughts on “Is flirtatious banter really so unprofessional?

  1. Having met my partner at work I would agree with that statistic. With how much we both worked it would be impossible for us to meet someone anywhere else! It’s worth adding of course that this was in my old career as an Event Manager rather than my new and exciting teaching one 

    Neither of us went into it lightly, we needed to be sure we would be able to work together if it didn’t work out. We also kept the relationship quiet to begin and even after it did come out you wouldn’t be able to tell we were together at work. Snogging in the staff room is definitely unprofessional in my opinion! We also didn’t work directly together, I think had we have been in the same team we would have ‘declared it’ to our boss.

    I don’t think I would be against a relationship with another teacher at school, but like I said it wouldn’t be something I would go into lightly and I would definitely keep it outside of school so that I could remain professional – keep my private life private! (Obviously after my training – and obviously if I didn’t already have a partner!)

  2. An interesting question. At one level, obviously work is a part of life and, as you say, flirting is a part of life. But! Flirting in the workplace can be fraught with problems. It really must be a question of boundaries – both professional and personal.
    Like Little Miss Pip I met my (late) partner at work and this did cause difficulties. Not least because I was her boss. This was compounded by the fact that I considered her the best manager I have worked with. I tried to be meticulously fair in my dealings and at times this possibly meant that SHE wasn’t always dealt with fairly. There are always people in a large organisation who will exploit such situations and it really is best to keep relationships away from line management.
    Then there is the problem of judging the audience for flirting! What you may find funny and easy may not be the way it is taken. It really is difficult to judge such situations – particularly when there may be a power relationship involved and the other person feels obliged to find things amusing!
    Another problem! People have different tolerance levels and a few may react in ways we don’t think reasonable. Some may even use casual flirting as a way of ‘getting’ at someone. To give an example, a colleague was reported for sexual harassment when (in my view ) he was being friendly. I actually feel it was a case of passive aggressive behaviour tinged with spite. The response of HR was to say that if someone feels they are being harassed then they were being harassed…. HR used the same argument that if someone feels that they are being bullied then they are being bullied. For me this is an example of a rational organisation acting in an irrational manner. It is, however, another fact of life and one that people have to be aware of. Even as overall manager I found myself in a difficult position when dealing with this.
    Basically, life is hard!

    1. Thank you for such an interesting and extended response – lots to think about there Graham. I like your focus on judgements and how, with experience, we might be expected to refine them. I’m reflecting on the situation you found yourself in and that your partner was dealt with unfairly in order to counter other people’s perceptions of your potential partiality. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of poor judgement – but it does remove the potential perception of its possible motive. As you say “Life is hard”.
      (There’s an awful lot of ‘p’s in the last two sentences) – but thanks again, yours is an excellent post.

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