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Workplace compliments becoming a thing of the past

Tuesday - 5/7/2013, 7:10am  ET

WASHINGTON - Sometimes it can be hard to figure out when it is appropriate to compliment someone and how to do it.

A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama started off well when talking about California attorney general Kamala Harris. He called her brilliant, dedicated and tough. Then he added that she also happens to be the best looking attorney general in the country.

"It probably wasn't the smartest thing to say," says Monica Strobel, author of "The Compliment Quotient."

The president took a lot of criticism for those comments and later apologized.

Strobel doesn't think the comments were necessarily wrong, but is glad it opened the doors for conversation about workplace behavior.

"If you compliment someone and they take it wrong, apologize and don't say it again," Strobel says.

But what happens when you don't know what to say?

"When you're in doubt, you might want to withhold your compliment or to make it as general as you think might be needed," says Amy Maingault, quality and training manager for Society for Human Resource Management.

"For example, if you are talking about a dress, don't talk about how it clings to a person's body. Instead, talk about what a great pattern the fabric is."

Strobel and Maingault both advise to treat coworkers kindly and interact with them respectfully. Strobel says to be mindful of the tone of voice used in the workplace, as well as the context and the pattern of compliments given.

Maingault says it's all about professionalism.

"It's more appropriate to compliment someone on their accomplishments than to compliment their appearance," she says.

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