Former president Barack Obama once introduced California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris at a Democratic fundraiser as brilliant, dedicated, tough and “by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.” The remark raised a few eyebrows as Americans questioned whether or not it amounted to sexism. The then-president, who has also complimented men before, called Harris to apologize.
While Harris is reportedly still an Obama supporter, the situation leaves two questions lingering: Are male-to-female, female-to-male, peer-to-peer, superior-to-subordinate or vice versa workplace compliments focused on looks or personal details like dress ever okay? And when do those remarks rise to actionable harassment?
In the workplace or when you are dealing with someone professionally, a person’s appearance is, nine times out of 10, irrelevant — unless, of course, you’re working in the fashion industry or a person’s attire violates the company’s dress code. But when someone walks into work with a new hair cut or an eye-catching dress, you might feel inclined to compliment them. Likewise, if someone walks into work looking exhausted, you might feel inclined to ask them how they’re doing.
While some compliments might be pure (and compliments alone don’t typically constitute unlawful sexual harassment), some can be full of inuendos that have no place in the office and create power dynamics that keep workplaces from reaching gender parity. And in response to the recent surge of sexual harassment scandals, many people are wondering whether or not commenting on a coworker’s appearance at all is ever acceptable.
That said, Americans tend to agree that just because a behavior is frowned upon doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening in their workplaces. That’s according to a recent poll on workplace behavior from NPR and Ipsos, which offered 1,130 American adults a range of potentially objectionable office behaviors along with a range of options for each behavior, from one to seven (always, mostly and sometimes inappropriate; it depends; and sometimes, mostly or always appropriate). Seventy-two percent of people polled have seen a male commenting on a female coworker’s appearance, and 23 percent have admitted to doing it. And 65 percent of people have seen a female coworker commenting on a male’s appearance, and 26 percent have admitted to doing so.
The research suggests that only 49 percent of people think that a male commenting on a female’s appearance at work is inappropriate. Another 36 percent say that it depends, and 15 percent think it’s totally fine. As for a female commenting on a male’s appearance, 46 percent think it’s inappropriate, 37 percent think it depends on the situation and 17 percent think it’s fine.
But here are 10 times when commenting on a coworker’s appearance is definitely NOT okay, despite what the survey says.
1. Don’t comment on a coworker’s physical attributes
Commenting on a coworker’s body parts is never appropriate, period. Doing so can certainly and justifiably lead to a trip to HR.
2. Don’t comment on a coworker’s decision to re-wear the same clothes
Your coworker may have had slept out the night before, and commenting on that can be construed as making suggestions about their intimate lives. Or, the coworker may not have the budget for an expansive work wardrobe, so commenting on their repeated outfits could be offensive and hurtful.
3. Don’t comment on a coworker’s baby bump
First, your coworker might not actually be pregnant if she hasn’t yet broken the news. Second, your coworker might not want anyone to know if she’s pregnant yet, and then you’re spilling what are her beans to spill. Third, all baby bumps are different and all women’s bodies respond to pregnancy in their own unique ways, so speculating about a woman’s pregnancy can come across as rude.
4. Don’t comment on a coworker’s weight loss
You don’t know if your coworker is ill and unintentionally losing weight or not. Unless they verbally express that they’ve been trying hard to lose weight, commenting on weight loss is risky. Even if they do seem to be fishing for compliments, how you offer a compliment matters — instead of telling them how good their body looks, you should probably stick to congratulating them on their progress instead. That’s more of a meaningful compliment anyway, since you’re acknowledging their hard work and dedication.
5. Don’t comment on a coworker’s outfit being “provocative”
If your coworker is wearing something that, to you, seems too low cut, too short, too sheer, etc., don’t mention it to them. Unless you’re the HR department, you’ve no place doing so.
6. Don’t comment on a coworker who looks hung over
If your coworker comes into work looking like they’ve had quite the night out, it’s best you leave that up to HR to handle. For one, you could be misinterpreting the situation, and perhaps they’ve had a rough night for other not-so-ideal reasons that they don’t feel comfortable discussing with you — such as family or relationship issues. If they are hung over but still able to perform their work, what happens in their lives outside of the office does not concern you. If they’re continuously coming into work hungover, and it’s affecting your work, that’s an issue you need to take up with HR.
7. Don’t comment on any ambiguous injuries on a coworker
Unless they bring it up, you don’t need to know why your coworker is injured. If there is a funny story as to why they randomly showed up on crutches, chances are they’ll tell you. But if you ask them why they’re always bruised, for example, you might be triggering something deeper — like an abuse issue at home that they’re not wanting to discuss at work. If you’re genuinely concerned about them, you might want to pull them aside in private and let them know that you’re an ear for them; otherwise, it’s usually best to keep those comments to yourself or consult someone who could help without invading your coworker’s privacy.
8. Don’t comment on a coworker for “blushing”
Suggesting flirtation at the workplace is awkward and inappropriate. A lot of successful women already deal with rumors about “sleeping their way to the top,” so accusing someone of showing romantic or sexual interest (whether or not it’s true) is unprofessional and negates women’s successes thus far.
9. Don’t comment on a coworker’s especially professional appearance
10. Don’t comment on a coworker who appears to be ill
Again, you don’t know if your coworker is actually ill, and commenting on their poor appearance could open up doors to a conversation that they might not feel like having.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She’s an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
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