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Flirting with your colleagues could be a means to reduce stress, researchers from Washington State University (WSU) have concluded.
Such findings might seem odd in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a global movement against sexual harassment and assault that has seen high-profile authority being called out – most notably disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Yet the study, published in the Organizational and Human Decision Processes journal, centres around so-called “benign” flirting, or non-harassing social sexual behaviour, and clearly distinguishes this from “persistent, unwanted acts of sexual harassment which are often perpetrated by those in positions of authority”.
Non-harassing social sexual behaviour, according to the researchers’ definition, could encompass what they termed “sexual storytelling” (involving jokes and innuendos), and flirtatious behaviour including coy glances and compliments on physical appearance.
The researchers, from the US, Canada and the Netherlands, analysed a series of surveys conducted among groups of workers in the U.S., Canada and the Philippines. The surveys involved hundreds of participants in total.
"Some flirting is happening, and it seems pretty benign," said WSU Assistant Professor Leah Sheppard, who was the first author on the paper. "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."
Sheppard added: "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.”
In their report, the researchers questioned what’s known as “zero-tolerance rules” towards flirtatious behaviours, which they said “add[ed] awkwardness” in workplace scenarios.
They cited examples of high-profile zero-tolerance policies against sexual harassment including a five-second stare limit said to be in place at the Netflix offices, and US television network NBC’s ban on sharing cab rides and guidelines for co-worker hugging.
"Zero-tolerance rules can add awkwardness into what are pretty naturally occurring behaviours within established friendships," said Sheppard. "At the same time, we're not encouraging managers to facilitate this behaviour. 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."