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Is Flirting Ever Ethical in Sales?


Written by: Debra Carpenter | HireVue

In a previous article, we explored sexism in the sales industry. That article generated a lot of discussion. Perhaps this article on flirting in sales will generate a lively debate also.

According to John Nelson, a well-known sale coach:

“Sex will always play a part in women’s sales to men.”

This article is my attempt to bring light to this controversial topic; I take no sides, but want to simply declare that there’s the proverbial elephant in the room.

Salespeople employ various tactics in order to sell to their prospects. Some of those tactics are straightforward–talking about the advantages of using your product, for example–while others are more subtle and might rely on manipulating the unaware prospects’ mental state at the time of negotiation.

Flirting falls under the latter category, and for this reason, many in the industry regard it as an unethical sales tactic.

But studies have shown that men do respond positively (that is, they tend to buy more often) when a saleswoman openly flirts with them as opposed to just being friendly, professional, and straightforward.

Effective, yes, but is flirting in sales ever ethical?

The Great Divide

It seems as though there are two schools of thought here:

The first is that flirting in business is unethical, regardless of the effectiveness. To those in this school of thought, employing feminine wiles and charm for professional gain is immoral, degrading, and serves only to perpetuate antiquated gender stereotypes.

The second school of thought is that occasional flirting enables a woman to sell more and feel empowered in the process. They see it as a smart sales tactic, not an unethical business practice.

So, how can we explore a behavior as complex as flirtation and judge its’ merits and negative consequences in the workplace?

First, we should define what, to most of us, actually constitutes flirting.

I Know It When I See It

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, in reference to the difficulty of operationally defining pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

That’s a sentiment most of us can agree with. It’s hard to concretely define flirting because we all employ different behaviors to signal to another person that we’re attracted to them. Another difficulty is that flirting and friendliness resemble each other quite closely.

However, psychologists have identified a few behaviors as inherently “flirtatious.” Take a look:

Body Language

Like Olivia Newton John sang, “Let me hear your body talk.” Smiling, being playful, leaning forward, standing close to or touching someone you don’t know well, and making prolonged eye contact are all behaviors that can signal romantic interest, even when that’s not the intention.

Simply being perceived as an attractive woman can cause the receiving party to construe even innocent actions as flirtatious. This is when it becomes important to know what behaviors others consider flirtatious cues so you can adjust your pitches and casual conversations accordingly.

Verbal Cues

The words you speak to a client, supervisor, or coworker can come across as professional and friendly or flirtatious, depending on the context and subject matter.

Studies have found that giving compliments, referencing your romantic availability, and using sexual innuendo are usually interpreted as flirty behavior by both men and women.

Playful banter is more ambiguous, meaning some people will interpret it as flirting, while others see it as friendly behavior.

Sticking to “safe”, impersonal topics (weather, news, industry topics, etc.) can ensure you don’t cross any lines, but could also stifle a natural connection from growing between you and your client.

Flirting Styles

Not everyone employs the stereotypical flirting behaviors when trying to land a sale (or a partner). One study defined 5 general flirting styles:

Traditional flirt Usually introverted, people who use this style are likely to take it slow and flirt only in “acceptable” scenarios–at the bar, a party, or at school. They aren’t pushy, but have no issues conveying their interest to someone.
Playful flirt The playful flirt is usually extroverted, and unlike the traditional flirt, no setting is off-limits for signaling their romantic interest. This is probably the type you imagine when you picture a “stereotypical flirt.” Sometimes, the flirtation is sincere and sometimes it’s out of habit or in pursuit of a goal.
Physical flirt Physical flirts rely heavily on body language to show their romantic interest. These types are likely to touch you during conversation, hug you as a greeting and send-off, and make prolonged eye contact.
Sincere flirt and polite flirt Sincere flirts and polite flirts are two different types, but share many characteristics. Both prefer to be introduced to the object of their interest and don’t usually relish approaching someone, even in a setting where flirting is socially accepted. They seek to make the other party as comfortable as possible when flirting.

A Fine Line

In a sense, every time a woman communicates with a man in the workplace, she’s walking a fine line between being perceived as flirty or friendly.

We’ve seen that there are clear benefits to flirting in sales (i.e., more sales and promotions), but there can also be heavy drawbacks.

In fact, David Nour, author of Relationship Economics, maintains that “Flirting at work is simply dangerous and very career limiting.”

How so? Reasons might include misinterpretation of interest, awkward situations with the other party, and erosion of trust between the parties, not to mention the professional restrictions and a negative reputation that could follow you throughout your career.

This is why many women in sales choose to avoid flirtation as a sales tactic altogether. They don’t want to be seen as a woman who is successful solely because of her charm, appeal, and beauty, but rather as a smart, capable person who is deeply knowledgeable about their product or service.

Active Listening

So, how can you stand out if flirting isn’t acceptable? Many salespeople rely on active listening skills to develop and deepen connections with clients and prospects.

Active listening is a method of communication that involves the listener restating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said, along with offering nonverbal cues of understanding and interest, like smiling, nodding, making appropriate eye contact, and slightly leaning toward the speaker.

Notice any similarities between active listening and flirting?

If you did, that’s because a driving component of flirting is communicating interest, just as with active listening. People enjoy feeling that others are interested in what they have to say, and this is part of the reason flirtation is so flattering to many of us. It’s also why active listening works.

But while flirting may connote that you are interested for sexual reasons, active listening simply reinforces that you are genuinely following what the speaker has communicated and are interested in hearing more.

The Ethical Approach

It may be beneficial to glean a few positive, socially accepted behaviors from the so-called flirting handbook and combine them with traits of active listening to ensure there is no miscommunication or awkwardness when interfacing with a client, higher-up, or colleague.

For example, many women in sales would be wary of touching a male client’s arm, smiling, and leaning forward during conversation because it would almost certainly be interpreted as flirting and could convey or misrepresent an intention they don’t really have. That spells trouble.

A better way to approach it: Try focusing on what your prospect is saying and conveying your interest and understanding by nodding, making eye contact in appropriate intervals, paraphrasing what they’ve communicated to you, and smiling to reinforce your interest. These are all indicators that you are actively listening and understanding their points.

This way, you’re making a personal connection, showing understanding, and showcasing your friendliness without crossing boundaries or appearing unprofessional.

It’s Your Call

With all this being said, it’s important to remember that your own beliefs should guide your communication with others in the workplace. If flirting in business seems unethical to you, or if a prospect, colleague, or client ever makes you feel uncomfortable, you are responsible for speaking up and steering the communication in a direction you feel more comfortable with.

Sometimes, that might mean severing ties with a client or losing a sale because you weren’t willing to play the flirtation game with a prospect. In cases like those, you probably won’t be full of regret after making the call—rather, you’ll feel instantaneous relief.

That’s the best indicator of what is ethical in the sales world and what is not: Your own feelings. Trust your gut and remember to employ active listening behaviors to ensure those you work with see you as a professional, savvy, and successful salesperson instead of a potential date.

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