PULLMAN, Wash. — Casual flirting with your coworkers is relatively harmless and can even reduce stress – at least, according to new research out of Washington State University.
The study focuses on what researchers describe as positively experienced social sexual behavior in the workplace, such as light-hearted flirting and banter.
Researchers draw clear distinctions between flirtation and unwelcome acts of sexual harassment. Being the target of harassment creates stress, whereas WSU Assistant Professor Leah Sheppard and her colleagues found that flirting can relieve it.
The study also questions whether recent zero-tolerance policies toward workplace sexual behavior are missing the mark — including the five‑second stare limit reportedly in place at Netflix or NBC’s ban on sharing cab rides and guidelines for coworker hugging.
“Some flirting is happening and it seems pretty benign,” Sheppard said. “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.”
In the study, Sheppard and other researchers studied what they call sexual storytelling, which includes jokes and innuendoes, and flirtatious behavior comprised of coy glances and compliments on physical appearance.
The researchers analyzed a series of surveys with different sets of workers in the United States, Canada and the Philippines. The surveys involved hundreds of participants, and responses were collected from different groups of participants both before and after the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
“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.
In one survey, the researchers asked workers about their experience with both flirting and workplace injustice. The researchers then surveyed the workers’ spouses and coworkers to get outside observations on their stress levels. They found that workplace flirting helped alleviate stress and insomnia of those dealing with workplace injustice.
The surveys also revealed that employees enjoyed flirting when it came from coworkers but did not appreciate it as much from supervisors.
Sheppard said these results indicate that managers should look to find a balance, avoiding overly restrictive policies on flirting without promoting or engaging in it themselves.
“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,” Sheppard said.