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.

While many people enjoyed flirtation when it came from coworkers, it was far less appreciated from supervisors.

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.

The study, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, focused on people's feelings about two types of sexual behavior — flirting, which includes coy glances and compliments on physical appearance, and sexual jokes and innuendoes. Some surveys were conducted before the advent of the #MeToo movement, while others came after.

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.

Workers Know Harassment When they See It
Things appear to be much simpler in Norway, which by international measures is considered a relatively gender-equal and sexually liberal country. That might be part of the reason why it ranked third in the 2019 World Happiness Report, behind only Finland and Denmark. The United States came in 19th.

The Norwegian study concludes that it's okay to hug a colleague at work, at least in Norway. A survey of hundreds of Norwegians found that men and women generally agree on which behaviors are okay and which aren't. Researchers presented study participants with eight scenarios, four featuring actions of men toward women and four similar scenarios featuring women's actions toward men.

  • Scenario 1: A man or woman tells a sexualized/debasing joke at lunch. The man tells one about how women become prettier when one has had a couple of beers. The woman tells one about how men with nice cars try to compensate for having a small penis. In each case some at the table laugh.
  • Scenario 2: A man or woman asks a coworker on a date while they are at a party at work. The coworker declines the request. Two days later the man or woman requesting the date asks again and is rejected again.
  • Scenario 3: A male or female worker has signed an important and lucrative contract. A colleague of the opposite sex comes up and gives him or her a hug that lasts just a little too long.
  • Scenario 4: A male or female professional is eating lunch alone in the cafeteria when a coworker of the opposite sex sits down. At first the coworker engages in polite conversation, but gradually he or she begins to ask about the other's private sex life and puts a hand on her or his thigh, mentioning that he or she might be able to help influence her or his career.
  • Where a line is crossed seems pretty obvious. When a hugger starts sliding their hand down a colleague's back, they are crossing a line. And while an off-color joke told to a group is more likely to be embarrassing than be considered harassment, it immediately becomes more serious when told to a single individual, especially if done habitually. And most importantly, “no” really does mean no.

    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.