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.