Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Addressing Workplace Flirting


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

I have a surgeon colleague who is flirting with a staff member. He is very obviously taken with her and cannot seem to help himself. She is now reciprocating the attention. Both are married to other people and the staff are becoming uncomfortable. I need some advice on how to have the conversation with the surgeon so we can maintain a professional working relationship.

Flirting with Disaster

A Dear Flirting,

Yikes. That’s about as sensitive a subject as you could take on.

And I absolutely agree that you must. People under the spell of intoxicating hormones often delude themselves into thinking that their behavior is either invisible or acceptable to everyone else in the world. Or they become so self-absorbed that they stop caring what others think. This is a tough veil to penetrate.

But there’s a good chance you can.

Your first challenge will be to Start with Heart. You’ll need to do this in a different way than we sometimes advocate. Your challenge will be to clarify what you really want out of this conversation. If you’re like most of us, you’ll be tempted to try not just to solve the problem of unprofessional behavior, you’ll mix it in with some nonverbals—or even verbals—that cross into the moral domain. Knowing the two are married I’d personally find the behavior repugnant and be inclined to comment on this point.

If you want to succeed in dealing with the professional behavior problem, I suggest you not try to deal with your moral opinions. Mixing the two will likely result in you accomplishing neither. And it sounds as though your relationship with the two of them is not such that they are asking you for moral guidance.

If you are with me on the goal of the crucial conversation, then you need to prepare for it by gathering facts. Think of the facts you will need to share with them to help them nondefensively appreciate how their behavior is being perceived. For example, if the surgeon tends to place his hand on the small of the staff member’s back when talking to her, and leaves it there for some time, you would note that and prepare to share this concrete behavioral description of your concern. Try to identify four or five behaviors in this way that will enable you to illustrate the problem.

And prepare to share them in a non-judgmental way. Do not, for example, say to the staff member, “You fawn all over him.” Strip all the judgments and conclusions out of your description. Instead, say, “When he says something that few others find funny, you laugh loudly—not something you tend to do when others are making jokes.”

Now that you’ve prepared by clarifying your goal, and by gathering the facts you’ll need, you’re ready to begin. Start the conversation with a contrasting statement that first points out what you are not trying to discuss—and then points out what you are discussing.

For example, “Doctor, do you have a minute? I’d like to have a private chat with you if now is okay.” Continue when you have some privacy.

“I’ve noticed a few things between you and (the staff member). I was very, very reluctant to discuss it with you or her because frankly, for the most part, it’s none of my business. I want you to know that I believe your personal matters are exactly that—personal. And I would not venture to intrude. The reason I’m bringing it up is that a few things you and she are doing are having an effect you may not be aware of. It’s creating discomfort for others and may even affect the quality of care we’re giving. Can I describe the concerns?”

With that said, share the behaviors you’ve observed. Then share how you’ve seen people reacting. Add how you believe future reactions may affect the doctor, his patients, and the team—or any other consequences you believe might be important to the doctor (or staff member when you speak with her).

If you want them to care enough about the problem to listen—in spite of their likely embarrassment as you raise the issue—be sure you’re prepared to share natural consequences of their actions in the workplace that they would care about. If you do this and the previous steps well, you’ll have the highest likelihood that you can get their ear and have an influence.

And if the concerns persist and cross ethical lines in the company, be sure to do what’s right in getting HR or compliance involved.

Best wishes. Your very question demonstrates your commitment to doing the right thing. I trust you will.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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