“Flirt your way to the top” career advice sparks outrage

By Elizabeth Bromstein

'Flirt your way to the top' advice sparks outrageShould you flirt your way to the top? Would you if you could?

Forbes recently ran an article titled “Flirting Your Way to the Corner Office: Are you ignoring one of your greatest career assets? A guide to professional flirtation.

Some readers were upset. To make things worse, it was published in the “Forbes Woman” section.

“I am absolutely floored that this garbage was published by Forbes!” said one commenter, whose sentiments were echoed by a few others.

I agree. This Cosmo-y piece has no place in Forbes.

In the article, Nicole Williams, author of Girl on Top: Your Guide to Turning Dating Rules into Career Success, makes the case for flirting thusly: “Using flirtation is just smart…It’s naive to think it has no place at work.” Yes. It’s also naïve to think that lying, backstabbing and sleeping your way to the top aren’t effective strategies. But that doesn’t mean Forbes should start running step-by-step how to guides. (Though, OK, I’d totally read them).

Or does it? AM I naïve?

Weirdly, the article isn’t really about flirting but offers networking 101 tips in vaguely sexy trappings.

Forbes says Williams describes said “professional flirtation” as an extension of good networking skills, which include maintaining eye contact, smiling, showing interest by asking questions and listening, while adding what they call “a dash of flirtatious nuance” like “giving an authentic compliment or offering a touch on the hand.”

Come on. Really? That’s just being friendly, even if you label it “flirtatious nuance.” You should be doing this with everyone, whether they are of the same or opposite sex. Studies repeatedly show that touch has a powerful impact on impression. When interviewing, it’s probably best not to reach across the desk or table and pat your interviewer on the hand or forearm, but I’m a big fan of the couple hand clasp handshake upon both arrival and departure. Not only do I use it, I’m a sucker for it.

Among the other so-called flirting tips are “Use friendliness and charisma to build rapport with coworkers–men and women–by smiling, joking and showing enthusiasm” and “Maintain eye contact.” You don’t say.

But wait! There’s more! Like, “Show that you are confident in yourself by adding some style and polish to your look,” but “Keep make-up, skirt length and cleavage appropriate, while opting for fitted but conservative looks.” Translated: Wear nice clothes that fit and don’t show too much skin.

Gee, thanks Forbes. This stuff isn’t flirting. Flirting is giggles and knowing looks. Flirting is tossing your hair, cocking your head to one side and dangling a shoe off one toe, touching yourself at the base of the throat and looking at the floor. Oh yes. I know how to flirt. But I don’t think I’d use it at work (If I didn’t own my own company). Because you know what? It’s inappropriate.

As for the genuinely useful stuff, the two absolute best books you will ever read on the subject are the classics: Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” These timeless tomes offer everything you need to know about genuinely making a good impression and subtly manoeuvring people to your way of thinking.

And the actual flirting? My instinct is to say keep it out of the workplace. Not because I’m against it on principle, but because the potential for your actions to backfire is just too big.

But I’m curious to know how other people feel about this. Would you or did you ever flirt your way into a job or promotion? Is the mere suggestion appalling? Or is it just playing the game?

In other news, related to my recent post ‘Can you be too attractive to hire?’, one woman, Debralee Lorenzana is suing Citibank, alleging she was fired for being “too attractive.” Watch YouTube video of the details of her suit. I think the skin-tight white tank top is indicative of more inappropriate behaviour. I also think she seems irritatingly smug.

Personally, I know many beautiful women who haven’t been fired from their jobs for it. Is it me or is this about more than being pretty?

41 Responses to ““Flirt your way to the top” career advice sparks outrage”

  1. JT says:

    As per your own comments the Forbes article discussed effective communication strategies. I’m not clear why this is a hot topic as nothing in your comments suggested that the Forbes article referred to our traditional view of flirting. Is it the title of the article and/or the word ‘flirting’that sparked interest in an otherwise well known albeit tired and worn out topic on communication? If so, good for Forbes and I will definitely follow their advice in the workplace.

  2. Ursula says:

    Not in our professional career. Why on earth would we put in the time to educate ourselves and in doing that, put ourselves 10’s of thousands of dollars into debt so that we can, what, giggle to our bosses while doing a Hollywood hair flip as we turn and walk away? No. What a joke. I do not think it even matters to any woman, or man, with that matter, that has a brain that this article was published. It only embarasses Forbes. What a shame they’d publish such a thing.

  3. Louise says:

    I believe in using any and all assets one possesses to get the job and keep the job, including actually doing a bang-up job! I say, don’t rely on it, but if you’ve got it and know how to use it, by all means, do!

  4. Ophelia says:

    The mere suggestion of having to flirt to get a job/promotion is appalling to me, and I’ve never done it. If my skills and knowledge and experience aren’t enough to get me a job, then I don’t necessarily want to work in that particular environment.

    As regards Debralee Lorenzana… well, the woman has body issues herself, having had multiple surgeries to augment her breasts and otherwise alter her image. Maybe the continually expanding bustline was the reason her managers were uncomfortable working with her.

  5. Ken says:

    By no means should anyone, male or female, flirt in the interest of upward career mobility. Fuggeddaboudit! Let us simply put our best professional foot forward, work on earning raises & promotions based upon competent, dependable, honest performance, & trust in God for the outcome. [...and having done all, to stand.]

  6. Playing the game is playing the game. Knowing how to guage your audience is essential. The idea of flirting your way to the top is asinine – unless you’re heading to the PussyCat Ranch. What was described, as you pointed out, is NOT flirting, rather just using good people skills and being intelligent about how you network and present yourself. Forbes dropped the ball on printing that article and they probably already know that. Anyone who thinks it IS possible to ‘flirt’ your way to the top in a corporate environment is a knuckle-head and a hack.

    Stick to the syrupy ‘how-to’ books for lost women lacking self esteem and ready to believe all that rubbish. My goodness, that was almost a ‘back down the food chain we go’ moment for Forbes.
    Good times.

  7. Should anyone use flirting as a way to advance their career? Answer: no. Period. Forbes magazine, you may have increased your circulation, but you’ve shown me that having money isn’t the same as having brains. Or sense. Try wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress next time. Less controversial, and dinner will be right at hand

  8. As for Ms. Lorenzana, you hit the nail right on the head. Guess what I found on her?

    To but it bluntly: Yup, she’s a plastic-surgery-addicted attention-junkie.

  9. Matt says:

    Are you kidding me? Does flirting have anything to do with the job? Is this something for which you would be hired or be promoted? Give me a break and grow up. A person should be professional always and freindly whenever possible. If you flirt it should be to indicate you want to start a romantic relationship with someone only for that reason other wise it could be a cruel thing to do. Who should be promoted? Simple the best person for the job, period.

  10. As if there aren’t enough accusations of that kind of behaviour already. In my case it’s not really of much value to me as I am 59 years old and look like Santa Clause.

    I have had this tried on me once or twice and my immediate reaction is that this person, male or female, is “dangerous” in the business sense. Afterward I considered what happened and decided to double check the individual’s value to me and in one case decided they were worth far less than the aggravation.

    The other issue is, if there is a witness, preferably, the recipient of this unwanted or unnecessary attention can claim sexual harassment. On the other hand, if I was the witness and the recipient “followed through” in some way and was my superior I would start warming up the resume’.

    The fact that Forbes would publish such tripe does not surprise me, as of late they seem to revel more and more in “yellow journalism” and are rapidly declining to the level of the London Sun. I just wonder when Forbes will have to have a “Page 3″ in order to stay afloat.

  11. Mary Shaw says:

    I guess this is the crossroads between “the way things are” and “the way things ought to be”. I don’t know if flirtation, per se, is enough to give you success in the workplace….at least not the kind of success you can really be proud of. I do think that there are “soft” skills, that some temperaments utilize more easily than others. As a manager/employer, I might prefer people who are socially more adept. However, I have been on the planet long enough to know that there needs to be both form and substance to be the most effective. As a female supervisor I have come across some young men who are skillful flirts, which does impact on their acceptance in the workplace. However, if they have not got the goods to do the job, they will not be on my radar for very long. I have made it a point to get to know people more deeply before I award them a promotion or a perq. Charm alone is not enough to influence my decision.

  12. Kevin Chan says:

    Flirting is a dirty trick, but it is a career strategy nonetheless, because the term itself does not refer to specific alignment (just or unjust). Anything that can be employed to earn a leverage in the corporate world is considered a tactic. Some are effective, some aren’t while some are righteous and some are just plain dirty.

    Let’s not forget that 90% of jobs are acquired through connections (while the other 10% still believe they can acquire one without connection or get one through pure resume and skills). Flirting in a way can be considered connecting with other people. Just because most of us do not agree with a person’s execution of tactics does not mean that their actions can be discredited.

  13. Carol Carter says:

    I have watched people flirt their way into promotions or win a job because of some strategic body language, a flip of the hair and a well placed giggle. The problem is, everyone around them knows they bedazzled the decision maker and they are not there because of skills, abilities or knowledge. People are constantly having to mentor them, cover for them, do their job …

    Seriously, put someone like this on my team and my opinion of the moron who hired him or her will plummet through the floor. If I’m smart, I’m finding a better leader to work for and taking everything I know with me. Oh, and before that, me and my colleagues will give the shameless advantage seeker enough rope to hang her/himself, so really, it’s a no-win proposition.

    Promotion through flirtation = Death to credibility = Very rocky career

    The plus for this person is he or she will always find someone who falls for the game. The minus is that he or she won’t ever have the respect that true job satisfaction comes from.

  14. Yeah, well Forbes also just published a loopy article about Obama saying that his father was channeling through him, hence the post-colonial thinking running rampant and to the detriment of the Canadian neighbor to the south, etc. All they did not say was that they knew for a fact that Obama was from Mars.

    Forbes sees gain in chasing after Glen Beck/Fox News lunacy. In other words, it smells like desperation to prop up a declining readership and going for gain with the Teabagger (USA only) set to me. Either that or they had too much to drink at the Editorial meeting.

  15. Mel says:

    I totally agree with you.

  16. wendy kh says:

    I think many men take it as a come on any time a woman isn’t acting like a stone cold robot toward him, so women often completely shut off at work. Add in that if you ARE being nice and friendly, hateful people (usually other women, ironically) will decide you’re the office tramp and sleeping your way to the top. This results in a lot of really cold women in the workplace, so frankly I can see where this advice makes some sense. Besides the article isn’t about whether or not this is RIGHT or JUST, it’s about what WORKS and guess what, it does. No you shouldn’t have to “flirt” but guess what, this isn’t a “should” world.

  17. John Butler says:

    I don’t work in an office (I’m a professor), but I’m still appalled. If I were an employer I would send the flirty person immediately to the door. I have no objections to flirting, but dangling without delivering, which is what some people (men and women) call flirting, in order to clamber to the top of the greasy pole is demeaning as well as ridiculous, I would have thought, and could be dangerous if practiced on the wrong person. People who allow themselves to be swayed by flirting (in a work situation) are simply contemptible and should not be in positions of responsibility.

  18. Amber says:

    I have been called a flirt all my life – why? Cause I have charisma and know how it use it. That is my personality. I would not consider myself a flirt – others do as they mistake my confidence and abilty to communicate with men (and women) unnatural. My co-workers are always of the belief that I have the boss wrapped around my finger – I might have but it is from my knowledge, skills and personality, I am respected for those traits, not my flirting ability. I do not believe in horizontal progression, I believe in the best person for the job irrelevant of their flirting abilities. So does flirting work, maybe, but it only gets you so far. Sooner or later the skills have to come into play and if they are not present, all that flirting will be for not when you fall.

  19. Damion says:

    Please, people have to wake up and smell reality….flirting works in every and all situations….but it is NOT relegated just to women. Men can flirt their way outta stuff, too….and into jobs…and men, women, there is NOTHING WRONG WITH IT. If you got it, flaunt it. That is a rule of life. And no one has the right to limit what “it” is, either. So, women, remember, men are stupid…if you have the talent of flirting…USE IT. Men, it works for you too…especially with gay men…even if you’re straight.

    Flirting is awesome…if you flirt with me, it will affect me. Will it make me give someone, a man or a woman, a job if they are not qualified? No. But if two people are equally qualified and one sat there doing nothing while the other flirted a bit….guess who’ll win.


  20. Sou says:

    I believe in networking, it’s a great way to connect with people and find work.
    Flirting to get ahead in your career is not acceptable. Women fought really hard for equality and respect in the workplace. Flirting in the workplace to get ahead in your career promotes a negative image about women and their achievements. In the end, man or woman, it comes down to your professional skills. I am a software developer, I work in a male dominated industry, trust me, employers care about your professional skills. Employers want people who can get the job done, period.

    If you are a competitive professional woman, you want to look back at your achievements and be proud of how you did it. How come men are not encouraged to flirt to get ahead? Think about that. Do you want to be considered an equal or just some woman who has to flirt to succeed?

    And by the way, there is no power in flirting in the workplace. It takes away from your real professional achievements.

    I hope no one takes this flirting garbage seriously.

  21. Lisa says:

    Ok, am I the only honest person here? Flirting in the workplace happens. People to flirt their way to the top whether or not they are qualified for the job. Have I flirted at work? Yes. Why? Because, unlike everyone else commenting, I am still human. I have and react to my emotions and desires. Flirting says to the other person, “besides (or because of)your apparent intelligence, power, position, looks, talents… whatever, I find you worthwhile even to the basest of human worth. Would i flirt with my 75 year old boss? Probably not, unless he intrigues me in some way. Would i do it strictly for a job or promotion? No, because that would be lying. But complimenting someone by sharing a brief moment of relaxed, unforced, and honest recognition of both your physical compatibility (as in, if we were in the jungle and ran into each other, something might happen) is not a crime. It honestly bonds people in a way that if a promotion is available, they remember how good it is to wo!
    rk with you.

    So to restate: i don’t condone going out of your way to flirt, entrap or seduce someone into giving you a job or promotion but like the article states, simply recognising people as people and reacting to them naturally, being ok with the fact that we are sexual beings, is not a crime. Sometimes, in a 10 hour day of working, living, and moving like a machine/computer, it feels good to get a little reminder that you have other attributes of value. Seriously people, have we forgotten we are human? We dedicate 10 or more hours a day to our work (getting ready, traveling and actual work time), we sleep for 6 hours if lucky, we take care of our families and then we have all the artificial but necessary responsibilities (shopping, house work, lawns, car maintenance, etc.)… have a little fun once in a while..

    Besides, her article was just saying… smile, be natural and slightly affectionate, recognised the person, the body, the ego behind the skirt or suit….

  22. Melanie says:

    I completely agree with all the comments so far – Good people skills is not flirting, it’s just using common sense while interacting with your co-workers.
    I have been working in a rather liberal environment for over 10 years (advertising) so I’ve seen quite a few young women (and men) trying the flirting tactics and believe me, none of them has made it very far. The way you present yourself, your intelligence, your confidence and positive outlook are your long term best assets.

  23. Lanosrep says:

    Believe it or not I was asked to flirt with the customers at my last. I was so offended by it that I shortly after because I couldn’t take the notion that I was expected to throw myself at men for $10.50 an hour. I wouldn’t flirt with my coworkers or my customers. There is a difference between being a kind, pleasant, courteous, and professional person, and flirting your way to the top. I am disappointed at Forbes and would love to ask them if they think we are back in the 1950’s again. Did women just step into the work place for the first time recently?

  24. Trish says:

    I have to agree with the majority on this feed. Sure you can flirt your way anywhere, but in the end, somwhere, somehow, you are going to have to prove you can do the job. I have seen how flirting gets the person into the position they desire, but wow can that backfire when they are unable to pull it off without the talent necessary to do the job they were given. Then it becomes an inconvenience for their co-workers because they see how the person got the position and is still holding it because their tactics are being soaked up by their supervisor and other employees, co-workers, are shouldering the work because the flirt has the upper hand and cannot be discredited.

    After all a solid reputation lasts alot longer than the gossip around the watercooler.

  25. Jo-Anne Rees says:

    Time for some articles targeting men’s sexuality by requiring promiscuious attire on the job as bartenders much like the dress code requirements like the Shark Club controversy and lawsuit .
    On the white collar professional front Forbes needs to remember that when “we” do make it to the top (and we will) women will remember such discriminatory behaviour as this article and mabye just maybe we will be then bitter and vengeful!
    Tit for Tat so to speak…no pun insteaded!

  26. Marilou says:

    Will the flirting skill be of long-term benefit to the company? This flirtatious woman’s energy and resources then would be to continually maintain that flirtatious skill and less to the professional application of skills and knowledge. I wonder which ‘type’ of company would this be?

    It smacks of medieval ‘palace intrigues’ where ‘wily women’ make it all they way up to the king or his courtiers, or be queen. Is it really the same archaic dynamic?

  27. J.E. says:

    I’ve watched my 17 year old daughter flirt to her advantage in her work, and get rewarded with great tips and a lot of positive attention. Even now, her garrulous, flirtatious side hides a very tough, surprisingly savvy young leader who is going to major in business administration next year. Still, her behaviour reminds me there is absolutely no doubt in some professions fliritng with everyone (including the boss) is an advantage.

    Peforming Arts, some areas of the hospitality and a couple of other service-related positions encourage flirting as a sales or tip-earning tool. Why not for promotions?

    For many attractive and/or ego-driven, self-aware individuals flirting is a form of self-expression that is in their professional repertoire regardless of what the ethics courses and employee guidelines of the New Millenium tell us is acceptable workplace behaviour.

    However, there comes a time in every worker’s life, when personal attractiveness can no longer support the Flirt-For-The-Top. Then those people are on equal footing with those of us who refuse to use flirting as a ‘technique’. In the fall years of our careers, even the most attractive and charming of us have to rely on our skills, knowledge and work ethic to keep our jobs.

    Imagining the 50 something Office Matriarch fliriting with a 35 something Manager fresh out of University, to compete with the 20 something cutie whose been with the company for a whole six months, makes me cringe and laugh at the same time.

    Have I ever flirted to get a promotion or some advantage in the workplace? Nope, and I won’t do it now, either. That my daughter does flirt in her workplace bothers me a bit, but one day she will look like me and (insert laugh here) flirting will not be an option for furthering her career!

  28. Paulina says:

    Anybody with the ability to give a promotion got to that level through skill and wants other skillful people working for him/her. I can’t believe women still read and utilize these “cosmo-y” tactics.

    My opinion is do your work and do it well. If you’re good looking and don’t use it, people will respect you more for it.

    Forbes lost my subscription ever since btw.

  29. I agree that “flirting” is just social interaction skills, and therefore useful in a business environment. But many men, unfortunately, interpret “flirting” as a come-on, indicative of an interest in a more intimate and less “professional” relationship. It is no such thing, and men that interpret “flirting” in this way, in ANY environment, do so at their peril, and will more often than not be “disappointed”.

    I’m a man, and have often been described as “flirty” by women, and I can accept that. But all I’m doing, really, is interacting with people in a way that acknowleges them as individuals, not just “cogs in a machine”, and especially not as potential sex partners. I treat all people with respect, I’m not “forward” or suggestive, there’s absolutely NO sexual intent involved. I use humour (mostly self-depracating), and look people in the eyes with a smile on my face, and I have absolutely no problem with women that interact with me in the same manner.

    I DO have a problem with women that try to manipulate me through sexual suggestiveness, I consider it a mark of disrespect, as if I’m not capable of thinking clearly when someone attempts to manipulate me this way.

    If men can’t deal rationally with women who are confidant, capable, friendly, and outgoing, that’s THEIR problem. It’s unfortunate (especially for women, often) that many men who are in postions of power view such women in such an archaic manner.

  30. David says:

    O come off it women always have and always will use their sexuality and men have always known it. The only difference now is that men are afraid to follow through for fear claims of harassment. Yes, unfortunately they did and will happen in the workplace but the truth is that many of these were the result some action initiated by the claimant.

  31. T.N. says:

    As a male with my own company, I can say with certainty that any woman trying to flirt (or sleep) her way to the top with me will get her walking papers, no questions asked. I have neither the tolerance nor the patience to deal with people who try to take the “easy road”. I want people working for me who have talent, skills pertaining to their job, and a good work ethic. Office tramps are not welcome in my organization.

    Then on top of all that, you have the obvious problems stemming from today’s workplace atmosphere in which every smile/touch/friendly remark leaves you one step away from a harassment lawsuit. Regardless of whether you’re a man or woman, you would have to be out of your mind to even TRY anything that could be regarded as having sexual overtones.

  32. Stephanie says:

    I honestly don’t understand why people are getting in such an uproar about this article. It has nothing to do with flirting, just as Ms. Bromstein has concluded. It is standard power of influence and confidence. It talks about maintaining eye contact, not batting your eyelashes, or flipping our hair. I don’t think any of the suggestions have anything to do with flirting, and I don’t think the article warrants a “shame on you Forbes” attitude, that’s ridiculous. People are prejudging the title and where the column was printed (in the women’s section) and assume it is about how to sleep your way to the top, which it’s not.
    I applaud Forbes for making such a “controversial” TITLE and creating a buzz!

  33. Rob says:

    Looks to me like this article title got lots of reader attention — probably what Forbes’ really had in mind. Alas, just another tiresome example of the media resorting to “sex” to sell its wares. As for whether it’s smart for a women to use flirtatious (meaning sexually suggestive) behaviour as a strategy to advance her career, I could not agree more with the majority’s sentiment: it’s not smart, nor is it appropriate in a professional enviroment.
    Leave sex out of it, period. To really get ahead and attract the right kind of attention at work… use your head, be respectful of others and yourself, be friendly but not overly so, work hard, show genuine interest in all your co-workers (not just your boss), and hold youself to a higher standard.

  34. Jean says:

    I worked in an environment where one of my co-workers used flirting to advance their career. It worked very well for them. It also totally frustrated everyone around this person. They leaned over the boss’ desk in a strategic manner, rubbed their back, listened to everything they had to say with bated breathand basically sucked up to the boss like crazy. The result.. this person got promoted, not once but several times! Could they do the job? No…and other people had to cover for them and carry them including the person(s) who promoted them. It created a lot of resentment especially when one other person got passed over for a promotion that should have been theirs no question. They had the skills and knowledge to do the job but the flirter won! I couldn’t bring myself to do that kind of thing. I preferred recognition of my efforts and abilities not how low a top I could wear!

  35. Do not flirt at work….period

  36. Rob says:

    This is an age old womens’ skill to go on the top in an organization, however, it is not formally published or advised. Forbes published it, that is why, it is critisized. Haven’t you heard guys talking in an informal office atmosphere about a sexy woman getting promotion due to her “assets” than to her abilities?

  37. mls says:

    If a man did the same thing he would find himself in the HR office and charges bieng placed. Really sad that your credentials and education are not enough that you have to stoop to these levels. The next time you complain that the person that you awnser to is not qualified here is a product of these tactics. Make it on your merrits not your assets

  38. mg says:

    It does not take much imagination to see where flirting in the workplace will lead. The consequences are irrevocable…not promotable.w

  39. Appleby says:

    Sure it works — why is Danica Patrick driving a NA$CAR and still employed in the IRL, when the best she has ever achieved (without a man being instructed to allow her to pass, so she could score a *win* and ruin the last Champ Car race ever with a *victory*) is 4th place? Because she posed with hardly any clothes on, draped supine over the hood of her car, for a mens magazine — and because she is sponsored by GoDaddy and does commercials that are too racy for television (they tell you to go to the website to see her in the shower, etc.)

    Of course a girl can sex her way to the top. But usually when her *sponsor* gets axed, so will she, and her reputation, not his, is trashed.

  40. Azhar Khan says:

    Wow… I thought women wanted to work to escape titles such as “trophy wives” or “house decoration pieces” or those along those lines… Now it seems they are decorating the streets, work places and public places…
    So its true, the human species is now on the verge of deciding between morale or wild competition for more money and/or influence.
    And it seems… they are choosing the wild competition for more money and/or influence.

  41. Bob says:

    Come on…everything counts…as long as its not over the top.

    Have you ever wondered how many very attractive singers (male or female)..end up winning the American Idol?
    This may sound trite..but America votes and they vote for the one they feel is not only attractive (of course she / he has to have talent)..but also looks…or at least charisma…

    If I am applying for a sales job /or hiring for one…I can tell you straight off that if a person can charm me with subtle hints of closer familiarity then is actually there…then I think…hey…this will likely work on my clients as well….I have..and I did hire based on attractive / personal attributes and by and large with tremendous success / results….


Leave a Reply