Does flirting still have its place?

Employers are working hard to clamp down on sexual harassment, but does that have to mean the fine art of flirting has to disappear? Academics Jane O’Reilly and Leah Sheppard don’t think so

Does flirting still have its place?

In the last two years, there has been a momentous, societal shift in attitudes toward sexual harassment in the workplace. Sparked in part by the #MeToo movement, organizations and their leaders have come to realize the importance of having clear and measurable policies and procedures in place to respond to complaints of sexual harassment.

This shift is undoubtedly overdue. Just prior to and throughout the height of the #MeToo movement, Canada had been rocked by several high-profile workplace sexual harassment cases, such as those involving Jian Ghomeshi, the RCMP and MP Kent Hehr, to name a few. These cases served to underscore the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment and to highlight its distressing and sometimes debilitating impact on victims.

As a result, it is not surprising that many organizations are adopting zero-tolerance policies toward any sort of sexually imbued behaviour in the workplace. For example, in the wake of the Matt Lauer scandal, it was reported that NBC created policies to punish workplace flirting. This included opening a tipline for employees to report on their colleagues.

Such a kneejerk reaction begs the question: Is it better to be safe (as opposed to sorry) by taking such a punitive stance toward any type of sexually imbued interaction in the workplace — including flirtation and office romance? Or do these policies impose costs that demand further consideration? In our opinion, it is the latter.

The art of flirting

Flirtation is comprised of subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviours, such as provocative eye contact, gentle or playful touch, compliments on physical appearance and light, suggestive teasing. There is a tendency to equate flirting with the desire to forge a sexual or romantic relationship and, indeed, these behaviours typically precede the development of romantic relationships.

But people flirt for a myriad of other reasons. Flirting is an affiliative social behaviour that can occur naturally, even in platonic relationships. In other words, it is a means through which people bond, connect and maintain rapport.

Zero-tolerance policies that target flirting can interrupt this bonding ritual, disrupting employees’ ability to engage in playful interactions and form friendships in the process.

Flirting can also have personal benefits. In our research, we discovered through a series of studies that when people receive and enjoy flirtatious behaviour from their coworkers, it can alleviate stress. The rationale for why is fairly simple: When people enjoy flirtatious attention, it serves as an ego boost. Enjoyable flirtation can make someone feel more attractive and, given its affiliative properties, contribute to a positive sense of belonging and personal influence.

These psychological resources can then be applied to helping people cope with common workplace annoyances, such as an obnoxious boss or a boring job. Notably, we found similar results for both men and women in our research for our study “The stress-relieving benefits of positively experienced social sexual behavior in the workplace” in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Genuine flirting is consensual

It is important to note that flirtation is distinct from sexual harassment. Genuine flirting is consensual and likely reciprocated. It is a give-and-take social dynamic, where each party involved has a sense of agency. When flirting becomes one-sided, such that a flirter repeatedly fails to recognize social cues suggesting that the other party is not engaging in or enjoying this dynamic, the line between flirting and sexual harassment admittedly becomes more blurred.

However, we found that when people reported not enjoying flirtatious exchanges, it still wasn’t nearly as psychologically harmful as sexual harassment. This is not entirely surprising — perpetrators of sexual harassment typically want to make their targets feel humiliated, demeaned or threatened. While hapless flirting is certainly an annoyance, it does not set out to degrade.

Herein lies another unforeseen downside of zero-tolerance policies that target workplace flirting: When someone is the recipient of unwanted flirting, they might be reluctant to seek advice or intervention from a superior if they fear the flirter will receive a harsher penalty than deserved. When employers take a punitive stance on flirting, it can dissuade someone who simply needs advice on establishing and enforcing social boundaries with a colleague from seeking that help.

Hopefully, organizational leaders and HR managers will be encouraged to think critically and creatively about how they can create a safe and harassment-free workplace, while refraining from policing enjoyable and consensual flirtatious behaviour. Formally recognizing the difference between workplace flirting and sexual harassment is a good starting place.

Jane O’Reilly is an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. Leah Sheppard is an assistant professor of management at the Carson College of Business at Washington State University. O’Reilly can be reached at jane.oreilly@telfer.uottawa.ca and Sheppard can be reached at leah.sheppard@wsu.edu.

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