Fast Track: When flirting can be fatal

Office flirtations are common, and perhaps understandable. But, as the experts tell Annabelle Thorpe, they are more likely to lead to your downfall than your promotion
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When Mike actually made a pass at Diane, it came as a total shock to her. In spite of the fact that they had often gone to the pub at lunchtime together, practically overloaded the computer system with constant e-mailing and kept up a constant stream of flirtatious comments and jokes, she had no idea that Mike was seriously attracted to her. Engaged to someone else, Diane saw her flirtation with Mike as nothing more than a way to spice up the working day; a chance for a bit of light-hearted fun.

"I was gobsmacked," she admits. "We were at a leaving do. He cornered me at the bar and asked if I'd ever been unfaithful to Carl, my fiance. Did I fancy giving it a try. With him. Soon. I must have looked horrified and just shook my head. He said, 'but I thought...' and didn't finish the sentence."

Diane admits that although she never thought about it at the time, it was probably quite easy for Mike to misconstrue her behaviour towards him. "I was pretty flirtatious but I thought it was safe," she says. "It was fun to have someone paying me attention, for e-mails to keep appearing, to have someone to go to the pub with at lunchtime. It felt quite naughty, but in a very confined way. Now I feel guilty on two levels - that I led Mike on, and also that in some way I've betrayed my fiance."

According to Ros Heaton, a psychologist with the Management Consultancy group, Insight, work flirtations are often a source of trouble. "There is nothing wrong with flirting at work, as long as you know where to draw the line. Flirting on a superficial level can be fun - but you have to know how far you can go, or the situation can get complicated."

It's not difficult to see why offices are such hothouses for affairs and romantic liaisons. Most of us have more contact with our work colleagues than we do with our partners, spending long days sharing cramped surroundings, running through every emotion imaginable, from despair to elation. It is incredibly easy for the closeness of work relationships to blur into something more, particularly if you're new to work and have come straight from the free and easy world of education.

For Diane and Mike the situation was awkward, but no one was really damaged by the misunderstanding. The situation can become more complicated when the two people involved are not on an equal footing - when one has more power than the other - as Ali, a 24-year-old advertising copywriter, found out to her cost.

"When I landed the job as a trainee copywriter, I was thrilled," she says. "Although the first weeks consisted of little more than making coffee and photocopying, I really felt as if I'd got my foot in the door. What made it even better was how well I got on with my boss, James - at first I'd felt quite intimidated by him but after a few weeks we were getting on so well that I felt he was more of a friend than a boss. That was my first mistake."

According to Ros Heaton, coming straight from education into the workplace can be a difficult transition. "Student life is based on equality - everyone is the same and flirting, affairs and liaisons go on constantly, forming no threat to anyone. But the workplace is much more hierarchical and generally, if a flirtatious or romantic situation does go wrong, it's the person lower down the scale who loses out."

As Ali found out. After several months of flirting, of long chats over the endless drinks that are so much a part of the advertising profession, the inevitable happened. "Over the weeks I'd become increasingly attracted to James and one drunken evening we ended up in bed together. I naively thought it meant something, but right from the next morning it was clear that for James it meant very little. The flirting didn't stop, but it now had an edge to it which was almost triumphant. I felt so stupid and humiliated."

Ali was so upset by what had happened that her work began to suffer. "Copywriting involves a lot of creative thought and my thoughts were just taken up with James. He started to criticise a lot of my ideas and find fault with everything I did. To this day, I'm not sure if it was personal and he wanted to get rid of me, or whether my work really was that bad."

When the training programme finished, Ali was not kept on by the company and although she now has a new job, she is convinced that if she had not let the flirtation with James get out of hand, she would still be with the agency. "I was so flattered by James' attention that I didn't see it for what it was," she admits. "He's probably like that with every trainee that comes into the company. Unfortunately, I was just dumb enough to fall for it."

Ros Heaton believes that although flirting can be fun, the safest policy is to keep things fairly superficial. "It's particularly difficult for women," she says, "and although some women use flirting as a way to get on, it doesn't generally help in the long term. Respect is extremely important in the workplace and to gain it you must seem professional, not an object of attraction. Flirting is revealing a part of your personality that doesn't really belong in the workplace, which is why it feels exciting. But you always have to remember that it's the professional side of you that really counts at work, and ensure it is that aspect of your personality which dominates."

Ali agrees. "When I first started work, I was still very much a student and I didn't differentiate much between work and home - so that my flirtation with James had no restrictions on it. In my new job I still flirt now and then, but I'm there to do a job and I want to be taken seriously. I'm a different person out of work to in the office - it may not be as much fun, but it feels a whole lot safer."

Flirting in the office: how to play the game

Rule 1: Be honest with yourself. Are you flirting for a bit of fun - or because you're attracted to the other person? If it's the second, and neither of you are involved, then fine. If one of you is, then back off.

Rule 2: Flirt only with those on an equal footing with you. If power games become involved, things can become very nasty. Leave flirting with bosses to other bosses, and watch from a distance.

Rule 3: If someone is getting out of hand, step on it immediately. Make it clear you're not interested in anything. Most importantly, stop flirting with them.

Rule 4: Avoid too much eye contact, or touching. This is too personal and can be misconstrued.

Rule 5: Don't engage. It's easy for flirtations to become a competition - who can say the most outrageous thing. This is not a good road to go down!