Men and women engage in office flirtation—but one gender is more likely to use it to advance at work

Man and woman talking in office
Workplace flirtation might seem benign, but it can quickly escalate to harassment.

Good morning!

It’s no secret that employees sometimes flirt in the office. But just who is doing the bulk of the flirting might surprise you. A new study from Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Laura Kray finds that men in “low-power” positions are often the biggest culprits of workplace flirtation. And while this behavior might seem benign or even charming, it can escalate into full-blown harassment if left unchecked. 

Debunking office stereotypes—for example, women as flirts—and expanding the definition of workplace harassment are critical to promoting a workplace where employees feel safe. “We need to dispel the myth that harassment necessarily resides in the behaviors of high-power people,” Kray says. For HR leaders, that means it may be time to expand the scope of their company’s sexual harassment training.

The research, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, examines how people perceive their sex appeal and the ways in which it influences flirting, sexual innuendos, and harassment in the workplace. 

“We connected this social sexual identity to measures of sexual harassment proclivities,” Kray says. “Having this identity as a flirt actually predicts people’s willingness to [engage in] really extreme sort of behaviors.” Most would assume that men in high-status positions are more likely to flirt at work in an effort to achieve or assert dominance. But the study finds that men in lower positions who are looking to gain power are the most likely to engage in flirtatious behavior. 

“Overall, men self-identify more as flirts, [and] it’s especially true when they are in a low-power position relative to a high-power woman,” says Kray. 

In one experiment, research participants were given a scenario in which a male subordinate and a female supervisor come together for a conversation. When the male subordinate asks his manager what she’s looking for in a teammate, she lists out a number of attributes, including passion and hard work. In the devised scenario, the male colleague expresses that he can provide passion, then questions whether she’s ever worked with someone she wanted to date. 

Study participants were then asked to rate how powerful the male subject seemed in relation to his female boss. The result: more powerful. 

“What we find is that when he engaged in this inappropriate flirting it closed the power gap. Even though she’s a boss and he’s subordinate, he was perceived as more powerful,” says Kray. “To flirt in this way is a norm violation, so if you have the freedom to do it, it suggests that you must be powerful.”

These dynamics can unfold in ways that might not immediately be recognized. Thus, employers risk a situation that might have started off as relatively harmless only to escalate into a serious harassment case. Kray suggests that employers widen their view of what harassment looks like, and arm their leaders with tools to spot early warning signs. 

Sexual harassment training tends to focus on the more extreme cases, she adds, but understanding that people have different responses to actions like flirting will help leaders create safer and more inclusive workplaces.

Kray notes that training is not only about broadening one’s perspective and raising awareness. “We need to also be humble and check our biases and blind spots.”

Amber Burton

Reporter's Notebook

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