Flirting at Job Interviews Is Common

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 4, 2020
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​One in five job applicants say an interviewer flirted with them during a job interview, and more than half of them flirted back, according to a survey by background-screening firm JDP. Of the 1,997 people surveyed, 58 percent of the women flirted back, and 71 percent of the men reciprocated.

"I was shocked 1 in 5 flirted in what should be a professional setting," said Kylie Moore, a content strategist and researcher for Digital Third Coast in Chicago and the researcher for the study. Digital Third Coast, a marketing firm, conducted the survey on behalf of JDP.

The attraction may not have been mutual, though. Moore said that many job applicants may believe they have no choice but to flirt back in order to land the job.

Common flirting behaviors like complimenting the applicant on his or her attire or appearance, staring, winking, making comments or jokes indicating a sexual or romantic interest, probing about social activities outside of work, asking questions about the applicant's marital or relationship status, and touching are all problematic, noted Linda Jackson, an attorney with Arent Fox in Washington, D.C.

"Some applicants may ignore it, at least at the moment. Others may redirect the interaction, and others may call it out right then and there or report it back to their point of contact," Jackson said.

An interviewer's telling an applicant that he or she looks "really fit" and asking whether the applicant works out would not be job-related and would be inquiring too personally, said Jennifer Kearns, an attorney with Duane Morris in San Diego.

"If the interviewer makes several flirtatious comments over the course of an interview, a plaintiff's lawyer will argue that the applicant was implicitly required to put up with the comments as a condition of being considered for the job—quid pro quo [harassment]," she said. "Or [the lawyer] will argue that the comments were severe and pervasive, and that the applicant had no viable options other than to walk out and not get the job, or to stay put despite the uncomfortable hostile work environment that the interviewer was creating."

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Disciplining the Flirters

An employee who flirts during interviews should be counseled and then fired if he or she does not correct the behavior, according to Maria Rodriguez, an attorney with McDermott Will & Emery in Los Angeles. "They are a walking liability to the company," she said.

Kearns said that if a company finds out a hiring manager has been flirting with job applicants, "the company should consider immediately removing that hiring manager from the hiring process." She added, "If the hiring manager has already received sexual-harassment-prevention training and has nonetheless flirted with applicants, other and further disciplinary action may be warranted."

Other Survey Findings

The survey results revealed the following:

  • 63 percent of the job applicants polled said they believe they've benefited from their appearance in an interview.
  • 54 percent worry some aspect of their appearance could cost them a job.
  • 33 percent are uncomfortable discussing their personal life.

The top five issues female respondents said they worried about while at job interviews were:

  • Their weight (25 percent).
  • Their clothing (18 percent).
  • Whether they wore too little makeup (16 percent).
  • Looking too sexual (12 percent).
  • Frumpiness (9 percent).

The top five issues male respondents said they worried about while at job interviews were:

  • Their clothing (35 percent).
  • Their weight (24 percent).
  • Frumpiness (11 percent).
  • Looking too sexual (9 percent).
  • Looking too masculine (8 percent).

Among the women surveyed, 57 percent were comfortable discussing their personal life in interviews, while 71 percent of men were comfortable.

Many interviewers bring up topics deemed illegal: 37 percent of women said they've been asked about their plans for children, compared to 27 percent of men.

The survey also found that 86 percent of respondents prefer to be seen as competent rather than likable.

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