If you see a couple of colleagues flirting, newsflash: you’re not the first person to witness it, and certainly won’t be the last. But what if this behaviour irks you? What can you do about it? For starters, speak up.

Your job is your livelihood, and if someone or something is interfering with that scenario, it’s time to step up and be more assertive on the matter. There are multiple definitions of consensual flirtation, but there’s always that fine line between friendliness and inappropriate innuendo. Joking about sexual intimacy and soliciting after-hour dates could be considered overkill. What’s more, employees who engage in in-your-face PDA such as massaging, hugging, groping and so on, have taken it a step too far.

But it’s harmless fun, isn’t it?

While it’s perfectly reasonable that employees gravitate toward the people they see most often, there’s plenty of time for them to fraternise outside the office. If you want to start office romance, it should be done in your own time. There is a reason why many companies have policies to protect from a ‘hostile’ work environment, including certain kinds of flirting. Some companies even go as far as to enforce legally-binding parameters for office relationships.

Raising your objections

If you feel at ease discussing the subjects with the colleagues themselves, start from there. Approach the two privately and tell them how you feel. Specify that the behaviour upsets you and politely ask them to stop. It is important to have them acknowledge your request, so you know they understand.

It goes without saying that if at least one of the two has a partner or spouse at home, the situation becomes even more complex. In this case, it’s important not to meddle or judge. The relationship is between these people and their partners. The only thing which should concern you is the inappropriate office flirtation.

Should you speak to your boss?

Another option is to take complaints directly to the boss. You might want to compile a chronological list of offending incidents, to document a pattern, giving as much detail you possibly can. Keep in mind: the more you can tell your employer about the situation, the more information they’ll have at their disposal if or when they investigate things for themselves.

How should you expect your colleagues to react?

That depends on your workplace, the overall dynamics, and your relationship with the pair. If you’re close friends with both, and they weren’t aware that their flirting is irritating, they may be apologetic and perhaps grateful that you brought the issue to their attention.
If you’re not too friendly with them, however, they may respond derisively. What’s more, if other colleagues find out what you’ve done about the situation, their reactions are likely to be mixed. Some may applaud the strength of your convictions; others may label you as a tattletale or prude. Whatever the outcome or reactions, employees who choose to speak up must be ready for responses of every kind. It all boils down to group dynamics: if your colleagues feel you’re a whistle-blower or someone who can’t be trusted, you may very well find yourself as an outsider looking in for quite some time.

Can people actually lose jobs for flirting?

Plain and simply put: yes. Depending on the gravity of the accusation and any substantial evidence pointing towards misconduct within the workplace, some companies might even go as far as to take legal action by opening a more thorough investigation on the grounds of possible sexual harassment. This occurs the moment an employee complains about the situation to a boss or someone within the HR department.
Typically, investigations end in some form of discipline for the offending party or parties. In certain cases, this can translate to probation, in other cases, because most companies retain employees on the condition of proper, professional behaviour, the situation could quite possibly end in dismissal. Again, this all depends on the climate of the company in question.

That said, it’s good to know that the punishment for supposedly innocent flirting can spell out trouble for the flirters, because it can be pretty significant if your behaviour annoys the wrong person. At the end of the day, if employees consider what’s at stake, one would hope that it makes them think twice about flirting at all!

Further reading:

Blurred lines: friendliness vs flirtation in the office