How to compliment colleagues: a five-step guide

Want to pay a compliment to a workmate? It’s important to get the tone right or you could end up causing offence. Here’s a guide to help.

By Ernest Richardson

When Donald Trump met France’s First Lady, Brigitte Macron, last year, his comments to her were regarded by many as distasteful. “You’re in such good shape,” he remarked, before turning to Mrs Macron’s husband, President Emmanuel, and repeating, “She’s in such good shape, isn’t she? Beautiful.”

Sportswear maker Reebok was quick to identify the social media potential of Trump’s awkward comments, and posted a flow chart online that highlighted their inappropriateness. Basically, it concluded, the only time it’s legitimate to utter the words, “You’re in such good shape. Beautiful,” is if you’ve just found a childhood toy that you thought you’d lost, and it’s done a good job of standing the test of time. You definitely shouldn’t say them if you’re addressing the wife of a fellow world leader.

So the world, not for the first time, was united in its sense that POTUS had spoken out of turn. But once the mickey-taking has subsided, the encounter raises an interesting question: is it ever appropriate to remark upon another person’s appearance?

In a workplace, this is a particularly tricky area. Most of us love to receive a compliment, and it would be a sad world indeed if people didn’t feel able to remark upon a colleague’s nice suit or new haircut. But when does a casual compliment become inappropriate? And how do you marshal the boundaries?

Here’s a five-step guide to help you discern when it’s appropriate to comment, and when you’d be better, as with Trump, to fermes la bouche.

1. Are you commenting on a colleague’s physical appearance?

If the comment that comes to mind concerns a colleague’s body, it’s best not to say it. Some people may be delighted that you think they’ve lost weight, or that their bottom looks nice in a particular outfit. But it’s probably not appropriate to voice such opinions in the workplace, even if it’s in the name of cheery banter, or perhaps even flirtation (of which more below). As Trump’s comments evidence, such remarks can very easily seem creepy, or downright weird. Best to avoid putting yourself in that position. 

2. Could your comment be misconstrued?

We’ve all been there. You think you’re paying someone a compliment but actually it comes out as an insult. “Wow, you look so much younger now you’ve dyed your hair,” could be construed as, “You looked like an old git with those specks of grey in your hair.” 

The point is simple: if it’s not absolutely clear that what you’re saying is positive, appropriate and not in any way barbed, don’t say it. 

3. Are you telling the truth?

No one likes being told a lie, even if it flatters their ego. More often than not, if this happens, the recipient of such disingenuousness will become suspicious, assuming they’re being buttered up for some nefarious reason. So unless your compliment has a resounding ring of truth, button it. Barry from accounts won’t enjoy being told he has a great public-speaking voice when he and you both know he sounds like a poorly maintained foghorn. 

4. Would you be happy for your partner to hear you make the comment?

This is a test of your conscience, but it’s also a helpful way of assessing a comment’s appropriateness. If you’re complimenting someone, ask yourself how your partner would feel if they heard you. This ensures your comment doesn’t broach into the dodgy waters of flirtatiousness – something that can quickly become tricky in a working environment. So, it’s not principally about keeping the peace at home. It’s about working out whether what you’re saying has a deeper meaning, either intended or not. If it does, you know what to do: button it. 

5. Is there a power dynamic in play?

When Donald Trump, leader of the free world, basically tells a fellow president’s wife that she’s hot stuff, there’s a clear power play at work. We’ve already seen this in the way the two leaders shake– a process that very quickly comes to resemble a wrestling match. 

You need to be mindful of the same dynamics in the workplace. If you’re in charge, your comments will have extra weight, and the standards of behaviour expected of you will be different. It’s a hackneyed old cliché, but you can’t be one of the gang if you’re the boss. If that means your compliments to staff are limited to encouraging comments about the quality of their work, that’s probably no bad thing. 

In fact, that’s pretty good advice for any workplace compliment: keep it to positive assessments of professional output, and you’ll most likely be in the clear. 

© Copyright Just Recruitment 2018

If you liked this article you may like to read – How to communicate with your employees 

You may also like to read – Five habits of great employees

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