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Why flirting at work might be good for you

Do you have an office crush? Image: Getty
Do you have an office crush? Image: Getty

An office crush can make the work day a bit more exciting, and give you something to look forward to in the morning.

And now science agrees.

According to a new study published in the Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes journal, consensual and mutual flirting between colleagues can reduce stress and boost self-esteem.

The study noted that most research on sexual behaviour in the workplace focuses on the “decidedly painful” experience of sexual harassment, and said this research had been instrumental in fighting back against workplace sexual harassment and creating safer workplaces.

“This emphasis, however, inadvertently suggests that most or all sexual behaviour at work is harassing and demeaning,” the researchers said.

This study excluded harassment, instead focusing on ‘social sexual behaviour’ which it broke down into ‘sexual storytelling’ in the form of stories, jokes, innuendo and confiding, and flirtation, which includes compliments and provocative looks.

And it found that while people are neutral about sexual storytelling, they’re generally positive about flirtation - as long as the flirtation wasn’t coming from someone in a senior position.

"Some flirting is happening, and it seems pretty benign," said Washington State University’s Leah Sheppard, the study’s lead author.

"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."

To reach these findings, the researchers analysed a series of surveys from workers from the US, Canada and the Philippines, with results from surveys collected before and after 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," said Sheppard.

Additionally, positive flirtation can also help workers cope with moments of workplace injustice where they feel their supervisors are treating them unfairly.

It found that workplace flirtation actually helped reduce stress and insomnia for people in that situation.

What does this mean for the office?

Flirting at work can be good, but what does it mean? Image: Getty
Flirting at work can be good, but what does it mean? Image: Getty

Sheppard noted that flirtation from a supervisor was less appreciated, saying that this means managers need to find a balance.

"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."

According to US jobs platform, Monster, flirting at work can be fun but should be kept to verbal flirting.

“Once it starts to get physical, you’re taking it to a whole other level that can damage your job and your career. Do not cross the line, as it has been proven that most affairs start in the workplace between colleagues.”

It’s also worth considering why your colleagues might be flirting with you.

According to a 2011 study from Surrey University, flirty men have lower levels of job satisfaction, suggesting the flirtatious behaviour could be due to sheer boredom.

Another study from the UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business study asked participants if they’d used their “personal charm” to get ahead, with participants evaluating each others’ negotiating skills.

It found that men who said they used charm weren’t necessarily regarded as better negotiators, but women who did were rated as better negotiators.

"Women are uniquely confronted with a tradeoff in terms of being perceived as strong versus warm. Using feminine charm in negotiation is a technique that combines both," said Professor Laura Kray.

She said flirting is not unprofessional as long as it remains friendly and playful.

"The key is to flirt with your own natural personality in mind. Be authentic. Have fun. That will translate into confidence, which is a strong predictor of negotiation performance."

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