Is it safe to flirt at work anymore? Well, that may depend on where you work. A study based on surveys of employees from the United States, Canada and the Philippines found workplace flirting to be relatively harmless and often beneficial as a stress reliever.
Concerns over sexual harassment have led many companies to institute zero tolerance policies on sexual behavior at work. NBC's guidelines for hugging and Netflix's five-second rule are two that have attracted a great deal of media attention. But not all sexual interaction at work is coercive or demeaning.
Many people enjoyed being flirted with, even at work, according to a study by researchers at Washington State University. Participants said flirting made them feel good about themselves and in some instances even helped relieve workplace stress. Even those who disliked flirting generally found it only mildly disturbing, well below a level that could be considered harassment.
While many people enjoyed flirtation when it came from coworkers, it was far less appreciated from supervisors.
While many people enjoyed flirtation when it came from coworkers, it was far less appreciated from supervisors, and the authors caution managers about abusing their power. "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," said Leah Sheppard, study lead author and Assistant Professor of Management at WSU. Unlike flirting, people in the study felt much more neutral about storytelling — coworkers telling sexual anecdotes or jokes.
Excessively strict policies intended to reduce sexual harassment can backfire, inadvertently sending the message that all forms of social sexual behavior, even lighthearted ones, must be monitored, controlled and punished. A recent Norwegian study offers a little more guidance.
Yet the main findings weren't ones of conflict, they were of agreement and harmony. “It's not true that men and women can't be friends, work together or even flirt at work after #MeToo,” said Andrea Melanie Kessler, first author the study, published in Sexuality & Culture and a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU).
The Norwegian study makes clear that men are also victims of sexual harassment. The notion that women are almost always the target is widespread, but inaccurate, as is the idea that only opposite-sex harassment takes place.