‘Zero-tolerance rules can add awkwardness into what are pretty naturally occurring behaviours within established friendships’
Light flirting with colleagues on the job can be relatively harmless and might even be beneficial, according to new research conducted in Canada, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands.
The study focused on “positively experienced social sexual behaviour” in the workplace, such as light-hearted flirtation and banter among peers.
“Being the recipient of enjoyed social sexual behaviour can provide psychosocial resources (such as feeling powerful, socially connected and physically attractive) that protect recipients from stress and its negative outcomes,” say the researchers in the study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
“Some flirting is happening and it seems pretty benign,” says Leah Sheppard, lead author and assistant professor at Washington State University. “Even when our study participants disliked the behaviour, it still didn’t reach the threshold of sexual harassment. It didn’t produce higher levels of stress, so it is a very different conceptual space.”
Three separate studies were conducted by the researchers. In the first, the researchers developed a measure of non-harassing social sexual behaviour that’s different from sexual harassment, and they uncovered two distinct forms: sexual storytelling and flirtation. They categorized this behaviour as not “demeaning or humiliating.”
In the second study, time-lagged data was used to demonstrate flirting can be enjoyed and lead to lower levels of stress. And in the third study, the researchers used multi-source data to “demonstrate that enjoyed flirtation buffers the relationship between workplace injustice and the stress-related outcomes of job tension and insomnia.”
Conversely, workplaces that allow harassment to flow unchecked can count on lower stock returns, according to a study from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Are sexual harassment policies missing the mark?
The study also questions whether policies around workplace sexual behaviour are missing the mark.
The research “communicates to organizational authorities the imperative of being discerning and reasonable when creating policies designed to regulate sexual behaviour, so as not to unnecessarily police otherwise enjoyable and psychologically beneficial social interactions among employees.”
“Zero-tolerance rules can add awkwardness into what are pretty naturally occurring behaviours within established friendships,” says Sheppard. “At the same time, we’re not encouraging managers to facilitate this behaviour. This is just something that probably organically happens.”
While employees enjoyed flirtation when it came from coworkers, it was less appreciated from supervisors, found the researchers. These results indicate that supervisors should look to find a balance, avoiding overly restrictive policies on social sexual behaviour without promoting or engaging in it themselves, says Sheppard.
“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.”