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Study: Flirtatious Behavior Not Always So Innocent

Insecure men in subordinate roles more likely to behave this way

Two business people walking in an office building.

​Who's most likely to initiate sexual banter at work? Offer up flirty comments? Exude seemingly charming behavior laced with innuendo?

Most often, it's a man holding a less powerful position—who describes himself as a "charming flirt" with "sex appeal"—who initiates this behavior toward a woman in a more powerful position.

Typically, these are men "who are insecure about their role at work who use unwanted social sexual behavior [so as] to look more masculine and powerful to their female bosses, even when they know it's offensive to women," said Laura Kray, professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a psychologist who studies gender roles.

She, along with co-researchers Jessica A. Kennedy, associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, and Michael Rosenblum, visiting assistant professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, conducted the study on social sexual behavior (SSB).

"Most of the literature in this field focuses on men in power," Kray said in a press release about the study. "But through a number of studies, we've debunked the myth that social sexual behavior is something that only high-power men do—that somehow power is this aphrodisiac that makes people take advantage of others sexually" through harassment, flirting and sexual innuendo.

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Workplace Harassment and Bullying

Conducting the Study

The study incorporated a series of six online and laboratory experiments. Respondents lived in the U.S., were in their 30s and nearly all identified as heterosexual. The number of participants in each experiment ranged from as many as 733 individuals to as few as 203. Researchers also measured sexist attitudes using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory and used the Flirting Styles Inventory to learn how individuals communicate romantic interest.

In one experiment, participants could choose from SSB questions and nonsexual questions to ask a task partner of the opposite gender during an online get-acquainted meeting. For example, they could choose to ask if the other person ever had a workplace relationship versus asking if they ever had a workplace conflict.

The result: Low-power men initiated SSB questions 50 percent of the time; low-power women did so 30 percent of the time.

Another experiment instructed participants to choose from SSB questions from the previous study that they wanted to ask when meeting their work partner. The result: Male respondents who were told they would be subordinate to a female boss on the team asked SSB questions more often than male bosses, female bosses and female subordinates.

Participants were led to believe they would meet their task partner face-to-face, but actually only interacted "remotely," so the results, Kray told SHRM Online, "are directly relevant to remote interactions." 

What This Means for Employers

The study does not imply people in powerful positions are unlikely to be sexual harassers, according to Kray, who serves as faculty director of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at UC Berkeley.

"Harassment can come from all angles of the corporate hierarchy," she pointed out. The greatest gender difference in social sexual behavior at work "is among subordinates … towards bosses, where we see men engaging in this behavior more than women."

It's important, she added, "to pay attention to SSB from low-power individuals directed at high-power individuals, as for women this is just as unwanted as SSB from high-power individuals."

The research did not delve into whether it is good or bad to flirt. (Kray has done other research on how flirting can help women in negotiations.) However, while some behaviors Kray and her co-authors studied are "relatively benign," others are offensive and what most people recognize as harassment, they found.

"We examined a spectrum of SSB," Kray said. "With regard to 'unwanted' SSB, by definition it is not just teasing and banter. Men knew the behavior was unwanted, but they rationalized it as just teasing and banter."

SSB is predictive of a whole class of behaviors, according to the paper.

Kray suggested organizations include in their sexual-harassment-prevention training a session asking individuals to reflect on SSB that they identify as simply teasing or joking.

"People generally have positive associations with being a flirt or being charming or having sex appeal," she said. "But when we take on that identity, it leads to certain behavioral patterns that reinforce the identity. And then people use that identity as an excuse for engaging in inappropriate flirtation."

Their paper, "Who Do They Think They Are? A Social-Cognitive Account of Gender Differences in Social Sexual Identity and Behavior at Work" was published in the September 2022 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

Other SHRM resource:
Quiz: Is It Sexual Harassment?HR News quiz 


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