But researchers warn about the difference between casual flirting and sexual harassment
Casual flirting between co-workers may be considered relatively harmless – even beneficial – to workers who are experiencing stress, according to a new study.
Researchers at Washington State University examined the impact of workplace flirtation between colleagues, and found social sexual behaviour, such as light-hearted coquetry and banter among officemates, can help relieve stress in workers.
However, the research team differentiates what it views as positive social sexual behaviour from acts of sexual harassment, which are often perpetrated by people in positions of authority. Such negative behaviour serves to reinforce stress levels among employees rather than alleviate them.
The WSU study also explores the effectiveness of policies that are meant to discourage sexual behaviour in the workplace. The researchers believe that rules, such as Netflix’s five‑second stare limit or NBC’s ban on cab ride sharing and guidelines on hugging between co-workers, may be misguided at best.
What is positive social behaviour?
Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor at WSU and one of the authors of the study, said they are aware that some level of flirtation occurs in the workplace and this – they believe – is harmless.
“Even when our study participants disliked the behaviour, it still didn’t reach the threshold of sexual harassment,” Sheppard said. “It didn’t produce higher levels of stress, so it is a very different conceptual space.”
For their research, Sheppard and her team analysed non-harassing social sexual behaviour among co-workers, such as telling jokes and making innuendos that are sexual in nature. They also looked at what could be considered flirtatious behaviour, such as making coy glances at colleagues or complimenting others on their physical appearance.
The researchers surveyed hundreds of workers in the US, Canada, and the Philippines. The responses were collected from different groups of participants both before and after the #MeToo movement, which exposed instances of sexual harassment committed by prominent people across industries.
While most of the participants were somewhat neutral about sexual storytelling, they had a more positive response regarding workplace flirtation.
“What we found is that when flirtation is enjoyed, it can offer some benefits: it makes people feel good about themselves, which can then protect them from stressors in their lives,” Sheppard said.
On the other hand, the researchers identified workplace injustice as one of the stressors that employees have to deal with. Workers often feel stressed when they think they are not being treated fairly by their boss. The team found workplace flirtation helped reduce the effects of stress and insomnia that subjects reportedly experienced.
Despite these positive results, not all organisations are receptive to workplace flirtation occurring between their employees. Many of them have policies in place that discourage all forms of social sexual behaviour, including those that may prove beneficial to workers, according to researchers.
The study showed workers and supervisors having different views on flirtation in the office. While employees felt more positively about such behaviour, bosses weren’t as thrilled about the idea.
To help find balance when leading their team, supervisors should avoid placing overly restrictive policies on social sexual behaviour, according to Sheppard. But they should also avoid encouraging or taking part in such behaviour themselves.
“Zero-tolerance rules can add awkwardness into what are pretty naturally occurring behaviours within established friendships. At the same time, we’re not encouraging managers to facilitate this behaviour,” Sheppard said.
“This is just something that probably organically happens. Managers also should be careful in engaging in flirtation themselves, especially with anyone at a lower level. As soon as there’s a power imbalance, you risk entering the domain of what might be perceived as sexual harassment.”
Do you agree with the findings of the study? Let us know in the comments section.