NEW YORK — When Lisa Parker was new to corporate coaching, a senior-level colleague she respected brought her in as his No. 2 for a series of training seminars. Time and time again, he introduced her as smart, capable and beautiful.
"I was so uncomfortable," she said. "The first time it happened I remember standing there waiting to take the front of the room and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe he just said that.'"
Parker asked him to stop. Embarrassed, he responded: "But you ARE beautiful." That was a decade ago and he never did it again. The two have happily worked together many times since.
Sound familiar? Fast forward to April 4, when President Barack Obama introduced California's Kamala Harris at a Democratic fundraiser as brilliant, dedicated, tough and "by far, the best looking attorney general in the country."
The remark — the two are friends — raised a few eyebrows over whether it amounted to sexism. The president, who has similarly complimented men before, called Harris and apologized. A Harris spokesman assured the world she remains an Obama supporter.
But the question lingers. Male-to-female, female-to-male, peer-to-peer, superior-to-subordinate: Are workplace compliments focused on looks or other personal details, like dress, ever OK? Is the alternative a more sterile professional life? When do such remarks rise to actionable harassment, or become worthy of a friendly rebuff or a trip to HR?
"If we all end up trending toward the center we become pure vanilla. It's boring and it's a huge loss," said Parker, the New York author of the March book "Managing the Moment."
Parker, compliance experts and human resource managers agree that tone, context and a pattern of behavior are everything when it comes to unwanted remarks.
"Personally I'm not offended by a compliment, but I do take the issue very seriously," said labor lawyer Ingrid Fredeen, once in-house counsel for General Mills and now a vice president for ethics and training at Navex Global, a supplier of computer-based training tools.
"Whenever you're in some kind of a male-dominated world, there are always many sides to a compliment. Some of them are just pure. They don't mean anything other than, 'You have a nice jacket on.' End of story," she said.
Others are dripping with innuendo. "They're about power, and so using a compliment is a way to change the power dynamic between two individuals, and there's some tension there. That happens very frequently."
According to the nonprofit group Catalyst, which works to expand opportunities for women in business, sex discrimination charges amount to about 15 percent of allegations handled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011. That includes sexual harassment, defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" that unreasonably affects employment or a work environment.
Nearly all large employers in the United States had harassment grievance policies in 1998 and 70 percent of U.S. companies provided training related to sexual harassment, according to research published in 2007 in the American Journal of Sociology by Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Erin L. Kelly of the University of Minnesota.
But where does that leave the casual remark? "If it's made in public, laugh it off in the moment and then privately speak to the person," Parker counsels.
Fredeen notes: "When you're thinking about the legal landscape, compliments alone don't typically constitute unlawful sexual harassment."
Donna Mazzola, who recently retired after 30 years in HR in the banking and insurance industries, said the way codes of conduct are enforced is important. Even then, atmosphere from department to department, floor to floor, is everything.
"In the sales office, the women gave it right back to the guys and you would almost never have a complaint," she said of one large insurance company where she worked. "It's very common to have a sales guy say, 'Gal, were you out drinking, what the hell are you wearing today? Jeez, your dress is awful short.' In corporate you would have never said something like that."
Much also depends on personal relationships, Mazzola said. "Is this someone you hang out with in the lunch room? Or is this a more senior person or a colleague who you're not that close with?"
Such remarks are definitely not restricted to men, she said, recalling a female senior executive who once hauled a female vice president into her office to chide her about the way she dressed.
"'You dress way too sexy for this company and for your role,'" Mazzola recalled. "The VP said, 'Well, have there been complaints?' And this woman said, 'No, but I see the way men look at you in training sessions.'"
The vice president's response? "Well, if there are no complaints, I don't understand."
Parker said appearance can indeed be a legitimate target of complaints if a person creates a distraction.
But falling short of that, is it OK to compliment an outfit or a coworker's new hairdo? Why risk a compliment or a casual remark if the intent is innocent? Why not stick with ball scores, the weather or the latest movie?
"We're human and we form close bonds with the people we work with and we care about them," Fredeen said. "At the end of the day, for most, nothing bad is going to come of me telling you, 'Gee, you look terrific.'"