“To compliment, or not to compliment: that is the question…’

…might write a 21st century Shakespeare on the ongoing war about workplace compliments between genders.

A little while back I somehow managed to read Lucy Kellaway’s 13 October FT column   “How to sidestep unwelcome…’ (compliments  etc.,) although the difficulty of referencing FT articles means you’ll have to bear with while I paraphrase from memory.

The article was spawned from a question to her by a professional woman  about how to deal with ‘unwanted’ compliments. Kellaway’s reply incorporated a comment made to her by another female professional who had confided that she had dealt with a man complimenting on her outfit along the lines of ” yes I return your compliment but I hope there will soon be a time when we don’t have to have these conversations”. Hopefully I have presented the gist faithfully.

There was plenty of comment on Ms Kellaway’s twitter feed and some of this in turn referred to the infamous Charlotte Proudman/Alexander Carter-Silk episode in September 2015 (for those who missed it, here is the  The Guardian’s coverage).

It is a minefield and feelings quickly run high.So will the time come when workplace compliments are a thing of the past? I hope not.

I am internet dating at the moment, and two observations have quickly surfaced: firstly  there are many parallels between selling yourself personally  (for love, companionship or whatever else you want out of it),  and selling yourself for work. Secondly, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in that environment are also relevant to the workplace. I’ve been giving these some thought.

Employment tribunals have long been a happy hunting ground for media coverage on workplace culture and sexism in particular. There is little doubt that some workplaces are controlled by knuckle-dragging bullies who tolerate women around the office as eye candy and gofers rather than colleagues. I’ve never worked in such a culture but I’m sure it’s there. And for women it must be yet another challenge to deal with whilst just trying to get on with building a career. How do you function and prosper within – never mind change and eradicate – such cultures? As always a large part of the answer lies in the individual deciding how much they want to bite off and chew: is it about self-preservation or being a figurehead for wider change?

I’m not talking here about the complex issue of women’s career progression in general -although in time I might. For now I am focussing on why ‘simple’ intra-gender courtesies, many of them instilled in men as part of their upbringing as a kind, generous, observant and supportive male, could end up being dismantled.

Where I have worked there has been a fairly even split between the sexes. Admittedly it moves out of balance higher up the tree (which is another thorny issue), but the workplace has been genuinely diverse in terms of gender split at most levels. There are the usual HR codes and they are taken seriously and enforced. Like school, I believe that this has to be the way. We are equal.

And yet we are also men and women. Men like and appreciate the presence of women, and vice versa. That’s life. And most people I work with take care and pride in their appearance: some because they know it is part of the business credo to demonstrate self-worth and possibly status, others do it because on a personal level they like looking good.

Do women really go to all that trouble to then conspicuously resent being complimented on their efforts?  Of course, the compliment has to be delivered at the right time, for the right reasons and in the right way. Mr Carter-Silk was rather clumsy, to say the least. But should such faux pas really lead to compliments being banished from the workplace?

Over the years I have complimented female colleagues on their (new) hairstyle, their clothing (in terms of colour, overall effect), and  shoes. I always thought carefully about delivery, and maybe I got the tone right or wrong. But as far as I know,  no-one ever took exception. Quite the opposite. It was taken graciously – as compliments are intended to be.

Similarly, over the years I have been complimented on my suit, my tie, and even on a particularly loud pair of socks I had only earlier that day decided were destined for the bin (the compliment saved them. Indeed I went and bought some more!).  All from women. but I have also complimented men on their sartorial style, as they have me. And men have also been ever ready to be objective about each others’ dress sense too. Especially on ‘dress-down Friday’.

And on every occasion, no-one has taken umbrage and HR have been left in peace. Indeed, it has contributed as much as anything else to the bonding and mutual respect needed in the workplace.

So forgive me if I wonder what the world of work is coming to? Why do women walk into the lion’s den? Why do they put up with it? Why do they feel they get so little support from male colleagues who have wives and daughters potentially subjected to the same ‘banter’?  And why do I not encounter this?

I’m simply putting the other side of the argument. And I am genuinely interested to know if, amongst other fashion crimes I have committed, I have worn the rose-tinted spectacles for too long. Comments welcome.