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Study says flirting at work can be a good thing, and zero-tolerance policies are misguided

Study says flirting at work can be a good thing, and zero-tolerance policies are misguided
[Photo: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash]

Though workplace flirting can get you canned, new research indicates that flirtation on the job can be advantageous. “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,” said Leah Sheppard, an assistant professor of management and lead author of a new study from Washington State University.

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The researchers find zero-tolerance policies to be misguided, including NBC’s recent hug guidelines, and Netflix’s ban on looking at a coworker for more than five seconds. “It is not friendly interactions between colleagues that require intervention, but rather the dynamics that allow for powerful organizational members to serially engage in all forms of mistreatment, of which sexual harassment is often just one,” they write.

Flirtation is quite different than sexual harassment, and often it’s a “naturally occurring behavior within established friendships,” says Sheppard, allowing pleasant positive affirmations in day-to-day work life.

The researchers looked at surveys from 1,354 workers in the United States, Canada, and the Philippines about two types of nonharassing sexual behavior: flirtation, such as compliments or coy looks that make someone feel attractive, and sexual storytelling, such as sexually related gossip, personal stories, or romantic confidences. Most employees felt neutral about sexual storytelling but felt positive about flirtation, which reduces stress.

Important caveat: Workers enjoyed flirtation from coworkers, not superiors. “Managers 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,” says Sheppard.

Sheppard calls for organizations to discern between sexual harassment, which creates stress, and other forms of sexual-social behavior, which do not. She is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year she published research showing that highly attractive businesswomen are considered less trustworthy and truthful.

That shuffling sound you hear is HR departments everywhere heading back to the drawing board to consider nuance in their policies.

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