Keeping workplace compliments sincere and within the legal boundaries is simple, if your reasons for giving it are sincere.

A few synonyms for the word “compliment” are admiration, endorsement, and congratulations. These all sound innocent enough. However, a compliment veiled in flattery and flirtation can quickly turn into an awkward situation and labeled inappropriate, especially in the workplace.

When Workplace Compliments Get You Sent to HR

A male employee, I’ll refer to him as Colin, recently shared this workplace situation with me:

For the last four years, I’ve often complimented my coworker, “Greta.” Sometimes on her shoes, on her outfits, or just in general about her overall appearance. She has always happily accepted my compliments, at times included where she bought the shoes or outfits, and often reciprocating by commenting on my suit or tie. Recently, her reaction to my compliments has changed – she merely nods with what looks like a forced smile.

One day, shortly after complimenting her on her new haircut, I was called up to the HR department. “Greta,” had filed a complaint against me.

After hearing Colin’s story, my response was, “Wow!” Unfortunately, scenarios like this one have become more common since the #MeToo movement and all of the sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced. That is not to say that workplace harassment doesn’t exist, and if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable at work because of a colleague you should absolutely make a complaint and contact a lawyer, such as, in order to put a stop to the problem. This story is just to demonstrate how the term has become somewhat watered down due to these movements, and to provide some advice on how to avoid any potential problems.

People and relationships change. Sometimes, without notice. A person has the right to change the terms and conditions of a relationship at any time. However, for the sake of the relationship’s history, the courtesy to provide the party involved with the new guidelines, and time to adjust, would be considered by most to be professional, mature, and ethical. In this case, “Greta” was none of these.

Greta’s Options: Once she realized that she no longer wanted Colin to compliment on her appearance, she could have privately asked him to stop. While not mandatory, as a courtesy and respect for their work-relationship, it would seem reasonable to tell him why.

Now, if Colin persisted on complimenting her, she could have given him a final and stern warning or reported him to HR. Keep in mind that old habits are sometimes hard to break and in most cases, it can take a few slip-ups while trying to conquer it.

national compliment day,

[bctt tweet=”WORKPLACE TIP: If you aren’t sure whether your remark will be taken as a compliment or sexual harassment, don’t say it. #NationalComplimentDay” username=”rosalindatweets”]

Simple Guidelines to Avoid Having a Workplace Compliment Turn into a Sexual Harassment Claim

You’ve gone too far if: If your eyes linger, if physical space between your bodies is so close that you can smell their breath, if your tone of voice is “bedroomy,” or your hands touch.

So what kind of workplace compliments can you give?

  • I love your enthusiasm.
  • You have a great sense of humor.
  • Your public speaking skills are great.
  • I wish I could learn to be as composed as you are under pressure.
  • You have a great sense of style.

The preferred type of compliments to give coworkers are related to their personal traits, accomplishments, or mad skills.

Mental Floss; 25 Polite Compliments You Can Pay a Coworker

7 Questions to Help Keep a Workplace Compliment Sincere and Legit

  1. Would you say it in front of others?

No: That is a sign that it is potentially inappropriate. Reconsider, rephrase, restrain yourself.

  1. Are you intentionally saying it in front of others or speaking in a really loud voice to ensure everyone hears it?

Yes: Your motive may be questioned and can be perceived as insincere.

  1. Is it a nervous habit when you don’t know what to say?

Yes: Break it! Quiet awkwardness is much better than a visit to HR.

  1. Is it about a physical feature?

Yes: Unless, they have openly brought attention to their facelift, hair implants…and are looking for approval or compliments, avoid commenting on physical attributes.

  1. Is it a precursor to asking for a favor?

Yes: You’ll quickly earn the reputation of being super disingenuous, manipulative, and diminished trustworthiness. “Do not offer a compliment and ask for a favor at the same time.” —Mark Twain

  1. Are your compliments too frequent and given only to a specific coworker or gender?

Yes: Trouble ahead! It’ll make other co-workers feel weird and can eventually be perceived as targeted harassment.

  1. Do you conjure up a random compliment for purposes of receiving one?

Yes: How draining and disappointing, and no doubt, obvious to the recipient.

compliment in the workplace, national compliment day

Final thoughts: Don’t discount a compliment because you are looking for a way it can potentially offend you; don’t twist it into how you think they “really” meant it; don’t allow your rotten mood to dictate your receptiveness.

The next time a co-worker, client, or boss says, “That dress suits you” or “That’s a great color on you,” simply say, “Thank you” and move on. Not everyone wants to offend you or get with you.

Consider your relationship with that coworker. If your relationship is more familiar or you’ve hung out together after work hours, a joke or even a saucy compliment may be perceived to be okay. Before you report your coworkers, consider that they may have misunderstood what is acceptable and have a brief one-on-one conversation. More often than not, that is all that is needed.

Everyone in the organization needs to play a part in keeping the workplace civilized. Before running to HR after receiving a workplace compliment you deem inappropriate, consider the circumstances around the compliment, whether the co-worker is truly overstepping boundaries or just numb to what is appropriate and what’s not. If you can solve the issue without involving HR and management, you may find it’s a better situation for all.

Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, Workplace Civility, Soft Skills, Business Etiquette Expert, Media Source, and author of “Don’t Burp in the Boardroom.

Presentations are available to support HR policies and harassment compliance, address concerns, or to avert potential inclinations – Up and coming managers – Millennials – Interns – New-hire orientation process – Layoffs to help prepare them for interviews – Professional development events or conferences – College/university students – Athletes on public behavior – Actors to prepare for roles – NEW! Attorneys; polish client’s professional presence for a court appearance.

For more information, please contact me via email, or by calling 650.871.6200 before a dilemma turns into front page news.