Re: Flirting and Mentorship


This is gonna sound stupid, but while I haven't thought of it as "flirting," I guess it's true that the way I usually interact with male superiors is to be "friendly" in a way I don't have to be with women. I think what I do is less the wide-eyed flattery thing--I'd be terrified that it would be *interpreted* as flirting--but rather the Big Smile when I see you thing. And the friendly enquiries--"how are you? do you have a minute? thanks so much!" More effusive, I guess, than flirty.

My 2 cents.

Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 3:51 PM
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Eh. I think this might be bad advice. If your partners are anything like most of the older successful men I know, they aren't known for (a) generally good social skills, or (b) a lot of experience with normal female attention. If the woman is normal flirty - by which I really mean, normal and fun - that seems fine.

But I've known a few older successful men, whom I like and respect, who ended up having issues with precisely the women under them of whom they initially seemed most fond. I am always surprised by it, but it happens with more regularity than I would have thought.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 3:56 PM
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It doesn't have to be "flirting" does it? Can't we just call it kissing ass?

Posted by: Chopper | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 3:59 PM
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Well, but that's the issue. I don't not do this because I'm too proud to kiss ass -- I have no shame. For what they pay me here, I will, and have, done things worse than sucking up to soulless lawfirm partners. What's getting in my way, and in my friend's, is that the style of ass-kissing required looks like simple ass-kissing from another man, but sets off my "don't flirt with co-workers" inhibitions.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:03 PM
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"With the kind of work we do, the apprenticeship/strong personal bonds manner of handing out work really does make sense"


Posted by: David Weman | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:15 PM
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Although I've written on the topic of mentorship before, I feel that I am in no position to contribute to this discussion. One of my male co-workers mentioned a study to me that women who act flirty on the job tend to receive lower performance reviews than women who are non-flirty and act completely professional. He said that he thought of me when he read the article because I was strictly business, never flirted with the guys in the office, and had recently been promoted.

This was a guy I had been hitting on for weeks.

Apparently, far too subtly.

Posted by: Becks | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:19 PM
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I work in an industry that usually has more women than men in the office. Whether the lessons of mine translate well into a law firm is a question beyond my knowledge, but that's the same advice I'd give at my workplace. I've always flirted with female supervisors and it has always worked to my advantage. No ass-banditry or anything like that (well, once, but that's a long story) but within boundaries. It works.

The women I work with (as org chart equals) tend to do better with male supervisors, particularly the women who are mildly flirty. Too much backfires, but just enough works wonders. I don't know any of them who have found it more enjoyable to work under other women. That pairing seems to produce the very most interpersonal problems.

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:20 PM
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Well, because you're working on long-term teams, in which the associate's job is often less to get something objective accomplished than it is to provide support for the partner in the way that is most useful to them. One project I've spent a great deal of time on in the last year is prepping a partner for a series of depositions of a oarticular expert witness -- researching every fragment of academic work he's ever done, all of the implications of his expert report, and then distilling that down into only what my partner needs to know to take him apart at the depositions. With a task like that, doing a good job depends on knowing exactly what he wants and how he wants it, substantively, format-wise... Support tasks like that are a lot smoother if you've got a well-established personal/professional relationship.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:22 PM
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8 to 5.

To 6 -- I thought that post of yours was great when I read it, and hadn't thought of it as I was writing this.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:24 PM
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I'd say that your advice isn't totally terrible. It might depend on your friend's personality. When I'm trying to be impressive to somebody in a superior position, I usually end up coming off as overly formal and a bit humorless. (Seriously: I got that on a seminar evaluation.) If someone suggested I flirt a little, it would probably get transmorgified into behavior that would simply be friendly.

Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:31 PM
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I feel pretty strongly about this in the academic setting, where hierarchies are also strictly enforced. I have watched friends be flirty with profs to get their attention, and I find the results to be patchy at best. The prof may be capable of tit-staring, but is he really capable of listening to your brilliant ideas while tit-staring? Not really. Will it get you a recommendation? Maybe, but it will be tinted by guilty feelings or expectation of gratitude.

Rather, I like to take the "I am one of the guys" approach. If I'm trying to create camaraderie with guys making dirty jokes, I make dirty jokes. If they want to tell stories about their sexual history, I submit my own. Unfortunately, I find that the males in question don't see it as an equal exchange, at first, because they're shocked by my "manly" frankness. Eventually, though, I tend to earn the respect of even the dudeliest of dudes.

The people I can't seem to crack are the older women who've gotten to where they are by flirting (or worse) their way to the top. No one hates someone demanding to be treated as a gender-equal as much as those who have been forced to kiss ass and act demure.

Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 4:59 PM
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9 - Thanks, LB.

I actually relate a lot to what AWB said. I tend to be "one of the guys" and have had similar results to what she described.

Posted by: Becks | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 5:22 PM
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What's getting in my way, and in my friend's, is that the style of ass-kissing required looks like simple ass-kissing from another man, but sets off my "don't flirt with co-workers" inhibitions.

I've always thought that when a woman affectionately kisses the ass of a man, that could fairly be interpreted as a sexual act. I mean, pretty much any touching below the waist seems sexual to me.

More seriously, your advice is neither good nor bad, just dangerous. If it comes across as friendly engagement, it will be successful. But if it actually comes across as flirting, bad news. So it's all about the subtlety of the actor. Becks's 6 is apt here -- her flirting was obviously just subtle enough at work to be friedly without being obvious. It only backfired for her because she was actually trying to exude teh sexxxy.

Posted by: Urple | Link to this comment | 03-16-06 6:16 PM
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I am aware that this kind of thing is something one perhaps ought to refrain from having an opinion on from afar. The whole minefield of work-culture, socially acceptable norms and expectations in the workplace (especially a professional office) cannot be remotely charted from abroad. I will allow myself one observation though.

When I moved from England to Austria way back in the day, I was 28 and considerably more straight-laced than I am now. My first job here was in a small but very professional and highly specialised bank with a young staff and a healthy gender balance.

It took me a good while to feel comfortable with, and to clue in to, the strata of verbal and non-verbal communication in the coffee areas and so on. At first it seemed to me that the level of flirtatiousness was just wasy off the scale. No one but me seemed to mind and I just tried to cover up my puzzlement.

One day, after a couple of months, I was taken to one side by a young lady with wisdom way beyond mine in such matters and asked the direct question, and I conceded I found it unnerving and dangerous to take part in flirtatious conversations at work as a matter of routine. She laughed, but with understanding, and explained that for the people working there, there were a set of very strict but unspoken rules about where the line might be. But, this being central europe and not an anglo-saxon land, the line is just somewhere else in the sand. The flirting simply acknowledges the fact that there is a difference between the sexes, that such a thing as sexual attraction exists and is not a bad thing etc. and so forth, und so weiter... The BIG thing is to realise that it can never ever mean anything and that the requirement is to fence with a sharp blade and not a broadsword. She pointed out that she always had the feeling that anglo-saxon office culture was based on repression of facts but that accepting those facts does not lead automatically to unprofessional conduct. It is just that one is more reliant on innate good taste.

Once I learnt how the game was played, I was able to relax and even learnt after a while to take part. I have to say that the working environments I have experienced here have all been much healthier that anything I have ever experienced in anglo-saxon cultures.

FWIW: My current but-soon-to-be-ex employer has its world HQ in the States. We have an "Ethics Codex" on such matters. The details of which a quite franky embarrassing and written on the plain assumption that, unless legislated against, people will do evil things when alone in offices. The level of ridicule with which this codex is held in the Austrian Office is high.

It just is not needed but man can the kids here flirt!

Posted by: Austro | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 3:16 AM
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14: That's interesting because it points out the difference between workplaces. At my old academic department, flirting was normal, fun, and often funny. We deadpanned to one of our male colleagues that he was breathtakingly gorgeous. I was propositioned (hilariously, not threateningly) by two professors. We'd often comment salaciously when someone dressed extra-nice. I don't think it meant we were any less repressed (flirting is itself a kind of repression), but it did mean we talked about it all the time. At my new department in NYC, we have an extremely professional atmosphere with no hanky-panky. Rather, there is just as much actual hanky-panky, but much less apparent on the surface. I'm glad for the professional atmosphere, but its repression is such that folks assume I'm having affairs with profs just because I go so far as to say I care about them. Which is better? I'm not sure. But I think you can only get away with the constant-flirting thing with a very small group of co-workers.

Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 7:07 AM
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There's a jolly "Good Old Girl" persona that allows a lot of familiarity in an non-sexual way. My sister learned it in Kansas. It might be the kind of thing Ms. Bear was talking about.

I once worked for a psychotic manager who treated the assistant manager like shit. She was eager to pass the shit downward, and I was her target for about a year. A hellish year for me. At a certain point I started flattering her in a flirty sort of way, and much to my surprise it worked.

She still treated lots of other people like shit, because that was how her job was defined. So later I was able to help get her fired. Disability Act or no, I then tried to get the psychotic fired (and yes, there was a mentally-ill superviser in the organization who could not be fired because of the ADA). But no one would back me up so I retired early.

Before that I had helped block another superviser's promotion, and I can't claim credit for another superviser's fatal heart attack but you know, at a certain point you start to wonder.

I'm unemployable to this day.

Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 7:20 AM
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I think that frankness and openness actually make hanky-panky more difficult. When I first was an undergrad (1964-7) nothing was open and there was a lot of hanky-panky, straight and gay. There were no explicit rule, with "No bad publicity or you're gone!" the implicit rule.

Nowadays explicit sexuality is much more evident everywhere, but the paranoia is more intense and the rules both more explicit and stricter.

I think that the increased sexualization and increased openness of the Sixties of that time also led to a tightening of the age-of-consent laws. People whose main rule is "If it feels good, do it!" areeffective at motivating the tightening and more explicit articulation of standards.

Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 7:28 AM
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(awkward full disclosure--I am one of the old male partners with whom LizardBreath's friend works. Not so awkward disclosure, LB already told me about the advice, so this post is not an indiscretion error)

The challenge faced by LizardBreath's friend is even worse than she lets on. She is the only associate in a firm with eight partners. The youngest partner is 40, there is are two other partners in their 40's. The rest of us are in our 50's or 60's. All but one of the partners are men.

LizardBreath is absolutely right that a person in her friend's position has to work on bonding with her bosses--people who have a significant say over the work she gets, the opportunity to develop professionally she is offered, her pay and, ultimately (if she can stand us that long) whether she becomes a partner herself.

As already discussed above, the use of the word flirting is problematic, because it has a sexual overtone. As noted, the suggestion is more one of ass kissing (could we substitute "developing a personal relationship with"), and the challenges a woman faces in doing that in a way that does not create the misimpression that a sexual relationship, rather than a professional bond, is the goal.

There are no easy answers to this hard question. I must say that in my experience, the "being one of the boys" approach is good only if it is genuine. Best is to do the same thing you would do if you were the same sex as the person to whom you are trying to develop a relationship, but just be prepared to deal with that awkward moment when something has been misconstrued in a firm and adult manner.

Finally, I am pleased to report that I have seen no evidence of excessive eylash batting, so to the extent the advice was accepted, it has been accepted subtly.

Posted by: Idealist | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 7:58 AM
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The challenge faced by LizardBreath's friend is even worse than she lets on.

Another element that Ideal leaves out is that barring himself (Republican, but otherwise a decent human being) the remainder of the partners are ghastly, ghastly excuses for human beings. These are not people with whom any sort of a personal relationship is desirable -- rather, these are people who should be welded into cages and fed through the bars. But that's irrelevant to the larger issue.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 8:07 AM
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re: 19

Thanks for the kind words. I am sure this will cause clients to flock to us.

Posted by: Idealist | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 8:17 AM
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Good lawyers. I didn't say they weren't good lawyers. Terribly competent.

And I suppose all the partners aren't that bad -- just the most visible ones.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 8:18 AM
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I have a friend who has a personal relationship with a certain newspaper magnate. He helped her get her first job, and was in a position to help her throughout her career. She was attracted to him, and asked me whether she thought it would be a bad idea to have an affair with him. I said yes--aside from the ethics of the situation, and potential tackiness, I thought it would be best if he didn't tire of her, which he might do if they actually had a relationship.

I think this was, technically, bad advice, in the sense that my pragmatic sense of things was wrong. I think he would have helped more if she had slept with him.

Best not to have anyway, but still.

Posted by: ac | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 8:40 AM
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My now ex boyfriend worked at a big law firm, and he hated one of his supervisors so much (I don't think she was a partner) that he said his name over and over again in the shower with different hostile intonation for entertainment.

Posted by: Tia | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 8:48 AM
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And I suppose all the partners aren't that bad -- just the most visible ones.

Yes, law firms are like icebergs. The 90% you never see are really quite nice.

Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 9:02 AM
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dangerously nice.

Posted by: The Modesto Kid | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 9:04 AM
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Yes, law firms are like icebergs.

Composed almost exclusively of water and bereft of edible flora.

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 9:07 AM
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22: Sounds like excellent advice to me. If you prostitute your way into a situation, you'll never feel at home among your new peers, wondering if you could have gotten the position on your own merits. I know that the world is rough for getting the right attention, but one never knows where something like that might lead, what further demands may be made.

Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 03-17-06 11:52 AM
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I was going to assume you'd read this by now, but no one has linked here. Probably you've read it by now, though.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 03-19-06 1:56 PM
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Gary Farber, Linda Hirshman. Linda Hirshman, Gary Farber.

Posted by: John Tingley | Link to this comment | 03-19-06 2:00 PM
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re: 28

Some of this give-and-take enters gray areas that may have as much to do with caution as it does with biases. Is a male boss reluctant to invite a younger female lawyer out for a drink because water cooler chatter might spark rumors of an affair or give rise to a sexual harassment suit? Is a female associate hesitant to address a male partner informally in a hallway because it will be derided as flirting?

Still, the sexes have been mingling in the workplace for some time now, and professionals, in all their adaptational glory, have found ways to manage these situations. Anyhow, female lawyers say, why is a woman who hunts down her male boss for a chat seen as overly aggressive or possibly flirtatious, while a male doing the same thing is seen as merely ambitious?

Seems particularly on topic.

Posted by: Idealist | Link to this comment | 03-19-06 2:18 PM
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"Seems particularly on topic."

Almost as if that's why I posted the comment/link.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Link to this comment | 03-19-06 4:13 PM
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