With the conversation around the office focusing more on ethics than ever before, it’s become a sort of tricky subject when it comes to office flirting.
There’s a thin line between a harmless office crush to sexual harassment allegations seen across multiple workplaces over the last two years since the rise of the #MeToo movement. But while some might be hesitant to bat their eyelashes at a coworker, there are actually some health benefits when it comes to flirting with a coworker.
New research from Washington State University found that casual flirting is relatively harmless and can even reduce stress and help other issues like insomnia from workplace injustice. The new study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, focused on “positively experienced social sexual behavior” in the workplace, which can be interpreted as light-hearted flirting or some banter with coworkers. One of the key focuses for the study was to question whether recent “zero-tolerance policies toward workplace sexual behavior are missing the mark.”
“Some flirting is happening, and it seems pretty benign,” said Leah Sheppard, a Washington State University assistant professor, in a press statement. “Even when our study participants disliked the behavior, 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.”
For the study, researchers from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands took a deep look at “non-harassing social sexual behavior.” This type of flirting can be considered jokes and innuendoes with a sexual tilt. It also includes flirtatious behaviors, which coincides with “coy glances and compliments on physical appearance,” according to researchers.
Researchers collected surveys from workers scattered across the US, Canada, and the Philippines, which included responses that were from before and after the start of the #MeToo movement. Results based on the employee surveys revealed that workers sit “somewhat neutral” about sexual storytelling (jokes and innuendoes), but were more receptive toward 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.
One of the areas in which the surveys focused was around workers and their experience with flirtation and workplace injustice, like where they felt their boss treated them unfairly. Additional surveys were sent to employees’ loved ones and coworkers to get a read on stress levels, where they found that office flirtation boosted their self-esteem and lowered stress, according to others.
However, while employees enjoyed flirting with coworkers, it wasn’t the same when it came from a supervisor, according to the study.
Sheppard said that the study should make managers examine their policies regarding flirtation. She suggested finding a balance that avoids “overly restrictive policies” toward social sexual behavior.
“Zero-tolerance rules can add awkwardness into what are pretty naturally occurring behaviors within established friendships,” said Sheppard. “At the same time, we’re not encouraging managers to facilitate this behavior. 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.”