Everyone is talking about #MeToo

What’s a compliment and what’s sexual harassment?

Whether it’s the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who liked to receive young actresses at his hotel room while in his bathrobe, or the Swedish politician Margot Wallström being groped at an EU heads of state dinner: sexism in the workplace is widespread. The fine line between successfully complimenting a colleague and an embarrassing faux pas is a narrow one.

When giving compliments in the workplace they must hit the right tone. All too easily what is meant as a compliment to a colleague can become an embarrassing faux pas.

The hashtag #MeToo is currently creating solidarity among thousands of women who have been sexually harassed. Harassment does not begin with a groping attack, however, but can already be perceived through tasteless and suggestive remarks. A special pitfall are compliments – because they are important motivational factors in a professional environment, but at the same time also problematic if the person giving the compliment fails to formulate them correctly. With our tips you can stay in safe terrain, with regard to giving compliments, while also doing something for the motivation and the working atmosphere of the team.

Flattery or compliment?

The communications expert Michael Fischer advises a moderate disbursing of compliments in the job.

Communications expert Michael Fischer explains the subtle difference between flattery and a compliment, “A compliment is a statement that truthfully emphasizes a particular quality of a person, such as ‘you really have a close eye for the important details’. A compliment becomes flattery if the utterance exaggerates greatly, such as, ‘If I didn’t know anything, I know I could just come to you and any problems would be guaranteed to be solved.’” One quickly realizes that the first compliment was meant honestly, and creates trust and a feeling of loyalty. Flattery, however, can trigger the opposite response, namely mistrust (“Why is the boss saying that to just me …?”).

Fischer advises: “In order for you to really achieve the desired positive effect with your compliments, the following should be noted: the timing, the occasion and, above all, the degree of the compliments made must be consistent.” So don’t distribute compliments according to the watering can principle, instead think carefully in which situation you would like to compliment which colleague. In private life spontaneous compliments may often be the best, however in the job you can burn yourself with it enormously.

The female colleague – the unknown being

Coach Yvonne Welser believes that women, in professional relationships, want to be treated as equal to men.

Yvonne Welser, a trainer at Improwe, replies to the insecurity of many male managers on how to deal with female colleagues and employees: “Just assume that a woman does not want to be treated differently from her male colleagues.” For Welser, everything depends on the attitude of the male boss: “Every manager should explicitly ask himself what his attitude towards women is. In fact, there are still many old patterns behind the gender theme that men should not be afraid to look at. They have grown over generations and you can only change them through awareness.”

Three no-gos for compliments

Martin Bergmann, consultant and social pedagogue, gives tips for making correct compliments.

Martin Bergmann, sociologist and managing director of Improwe, is convinced that gender should not play a role in the general dealings with one another in business. Problems can arise on an emotional level. From this he derives the three most important no-gos for “compliments” in the workplace.

  1. Compliments to external appearance

    Completely inappropriate in the job. Any feedback related to physical characteristics can and will be perceived as sexually suggestive and overbearing. Hands off!

  2. Compliments to allegedly typical female attributes and characteristics

    Phrases like “You have such a delicate voice, please clarify our point with this (angry) customer” or “just use your natural charm” stamp the woman with a stereotype belonging in the past.

  3. Suggestive jokes and arrogant macho sayings

    Sexist jokes are inappropriate. Even sayings that cite old societal roles, such as: “the man makes the money, and the wife makes the household” can harm your professional relationship with female (and many male) colleagues.

Recipe for making the perfect compliment

  • Stay at the factual level, especially if your relationship is very distant. Talk about your work and less about private life. Of course, remember not to renounce courtesy, such as a friendly, unobjectionable welcome.
  • Outline professional achievements in women and men. Promote your employees accordingly and make this transparent.
  • Distribute tasks according to actual competence and abilities, not according to the roles of the past, such as, “Ms. Müller – would you write these documents? You have such beautiful handwriting” or “Mr. Meier – can you take care of this issue? It requires considerable assertiveness and strength.” These compliments are fine, as they speak to each individual’s competencies.

Communicate objectively, clearly, openly and appreciatively with each of your employees. Remember not to treat colleagues and employees differently, according to their gender. You too will then feel safer and better in your role as manager.


About the author

Jörg Peter Urbach is the author, editor and blogger of Sprachleidenschaft. He has been writing for more than 25 years, for print and online. Concepts. Stories. Journal articles. After studying musicology and German language and literature, Jörg Peter worked as an editorial manager in the classical music business. As long-time chief editor of the portal wissen.de, he knows how to inspire readers with clever topics.

If the native Kieler is not writing, he is walking through the Alps. Or listening to the opera. With mindfulness.