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Organizational leaders and scholars have long regarded social sexual behavior in the workplace as deviant, harassing in nature, and something that organizations must eliminate to ensure maximal performance. Regardless of this perspective, however, social sexual behavior is an inescapable feature of human interaction that cannot be completely controlled in organizations. Moreover, there are many aspects of social sexual behavior that have not been considered or granted enough research attention to entirely warrant the broad assumption that social sexual behavior is always problematic to organizations and individuals. In the current paper, we highlight these under-researched or ignored facets of social sexual behavior. First, we consider the potential buffering effects that consensual social sexual behavior at work can offer to those involved, in terms of protecting them from the negative impact of workplace stressors. Next, we discuss the ways in which social sexual behavior is used as a tool of social influence at work. Finally, we consider the role of social sexual behavior at work as a precursor to the development of romantic relationships among employees. Throughout this discussion, we highlight both the potential benefits and drawbacks of engaging in social sexual behavior at work rather than adopting the perspective that all social sexual behavior at work is harmful. We encourage future research to consider all angles when investigating social sexual behavior at work, so as not to be completely detached from the reality that social sexual behavior can be consensual and sometimes enjoyed.
RUNNING HEAD: Sexual Behavior at Work
Karl Aquino
University of British Columbia
Leah Sheppard
University of British Columbia
Marla Baskerville Watkins
Northeastern University
Jane O’Reilly
University of Ottawa
Alexis Smith
Oklahoma State University
Organizational leaders and scholars have long regarded social sexual behavior in the workplace
as deviant, harassing in nature, and something that organizations must eliminate to ensure
maximal performance. Regardless of this perspective, however, social sexual behavior is an
inescapable feature of human interaction that cannot be completely controlled in organizations.
Moreover, there are many aspects of social sexual behavior that have not been considered or
granted enough research attention to entirely warrant the broad assumption that social sexual
behavior is always problematic to organizations and individuals. In the current paper, we
highlight these under-researched or ignored facets of social sexual behavior. First, we consider
the potential buffering effects that consensual social sexual behavior at work can offer to those
involved, in terms of protecting them from the negative impact of workplace stressors. Next, we
discuss the ways in which social sexual behavior is used as a tool of social influence at work.
Finally, we consider the role of social sexual behavior at work as a precursor to the development
of romantic relationships among employees. Throughout this discussion, we highlight both the
potential benefits and drawbacks of engaging in social sexual behavior at work rather than
adopting the perspective that all social sexual behavior at work is harmful. We encourage future
research to consider all angles when investigating social sexual behavior at work, so as not to be
completely detached from the reality that social sexual behavior can be consensual and
sometimes enjoyed.
Keywords: Social Sexual Behavior, Stress, Workplace Injustice, Conflict, Social Influence
1. Defining social sexual behavior
2. The psychological and social benefits of social sexual behavior
2.1 Self-esteem and Social Inclusion
2.2 Work engagement
2.3 Energy, vigor, and creativity
2.4 Stress relief
2.5 Group camaraderie and cohesion
2.6 Some caveats
2.6.1 Reaffirmation of institutionalized gender roles
2.6.2 Social exclusion of some employees
2.6.3 Social sexual behavior as a cover for sexual harassment
3. Social sexual behavior as a tool of social influence
3.1 Strategic sexual performance
3.2 Strategic sexual performance as a social influence tactic
3.3 Antecedents of strategic sexual performance
3.3.1. Erotic Capital
3.3.2. Gender
3.4 Conditions that determine the effectiveness of strategic sexual performances
3.4.1 Physical attractiveness
3.4.2 Self-monitoring and political skill
4. Social sexual behavior and workplace romance
4.1 Organizational-level predictors of workplace romance
4.2 Individual predictors of workplace romance
4.3 Consequences of workplace romance
4.4 Effects on performance
4.5 Effects on work attitudes
4.6 Effects on work relationships
5. Discussion
5.1 Embracing social sexual behavior
5.2 Research implications
5.3 Conclusion
“Maureen,” he said, moving up close and taking hold of the back of her chair, “if you’re
not too busy here I wonder if you’d help me find some stuff in the central file. You see this?” He
laid the brochure on her desk as if it were an intimate revelation, and she leaned forward from
the hips to examine it, so that her breasts swung close to his pointing hand.
“The thing is, it’s got to be revised. That means I’ve got to dig up all the material that
went into it, right from scratch. Now, if you’ll look in the inactive file under SP-1109 you’ll find
copies of all the stuff we sent to the agency; then if you check each of those papers you’ll find
another code number referring you to other files; that way we can trace the thing back to original
sources. Come on, I’ll help you get started.”
“All right.”
As he moved up the aisle behind her hips, he felt the promise of triumph in his expanding
chest, and soon they were alone together in the labyrinth of the central file, enveloped in her
perfume as they fingered nervously through a drawer of folders.
“Eleven-oh-what, did you say?”
“Eleven-oh-nine. Should be right there somewhere.”
Richard Yates, from Revolutionary Road
The scene described above is fictitious, but as many who have worked in organizations
where men and women spend long hours side by side can attest, it is not uncommon. The reality
that men and women think about one another as potential partners, flirt, tell salacious jokes, and
sometimes even end up having sex is the basis for television shows, movies, books, and everyday
office gossip. In her book Sex and the Office, Berebitsky (2012) traces the history of the sexual
culture in white collar workplaces from the Victorian era to the present day and shows that
sexual behavior is not a new development but has been a part of the organizational landscape
since women began entering the workforce in large numbers. Notably, Berebitsky (2012)
concludes her study by acknowledging, as other scholars have before her (e.g., Lobel, 1993;
Schultz, 2003; Williams, Guiffre, & Delligner, 1999), that the tensions generated by these
behaviors are likely to remain far into the foreseeable future despite the sometimes draconian
efforts made by organizational authorities to rid the workplace of any hint of sexuality. The
reason for the persistence of sexuality at work is simple: men and women do not suddenly
extinguish their identity and desires as sexual beings when they move from bedroom to
Sex is a fundamental part of the human experience that is expressed in countless ways of
varying depth and complexity. Yet when we survey the organizational behavior literature on
sexual behavior at work, we find that the majority of research on this topic has largely
emphasized its harmful and divisive side in the form of sexual harassment. Perhaps this emphasis
is not surprising because, as thinkers such as Weber, Foucault, and Freud have explained, sex has
long been viewed by many people as a problem for organizations. To Weber (1930, 1947), an
organizational theorist, sexual behavior violates the bureaucratic ideal whereby employees are
expected to act in accordance with the depersonalized requirements of their occupational roles.
In the Weberian model of bureaucracy, sexual behavior in the workplace is “irrational” and
should be relegated to the private realm of personal interaction because the comingling of
personal with occupational role relationships can lead to conflicts of interest that undermine
bureaucratic efficiency. Examples of these conflicts of interest include when decisions about
advancement and resource allocation are made on the basis of bonds of affection or kinship
rather than objective criteria such as performance (Acker, 1990; Burrell, 1984). Furthermore, as
Weber (1930) argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the ascendance and
success of capitalism as a system is dependent upon the development of a certain set of
prescribed behaviors and habits of mind among a sufficiently large segment of the working
population, among which are the repression and control of sexuality (Albee, 1977).
To Freud (1930/1961), whose interest was devoted more to analyzing the moral
implications of human sexuality than its economic consequences, the attempt to eliminate all
forms of sexual behavior at work is one manifestation of society’s broader effort to control
natural impulses such as aggression, jealousy, sexual predation, and unbridled selfishness that
can make group life the nasty, brutish place Thomas Hobbes envisioned as the norm among our
primitive ancestors. Analyzed from a Freudian model of the psyche, the thwarting of the sexual
drive is culture’s attempt to forge the superego, or conscience, among its members to act as a
countervailing force to the powerful and often malignant forces of the id. Similarly, Foucault
(1979) explains how the modern day effort to moralize sexual activity finds its origins in Greek
thought about what it means to engage in ethical practice, which, to the Greeks, was the ability to
exercise self-control over the irrational performance of pleasurable acts.
When we turn to the world of human resource practices, we find that the goal of de-
sexualizing human interaction in organizations is also a regnant theme. Its pursuit is reflected in
the increasingly rigid guidelines that many organizations have instituted to define ever more
precisely what constitutes inappropriate employee behavior (Burrell, 1984). For example, a
recent poll found that nearly one third of all U.S. companies regulate sexual activity through
some form of policy (Parks, 2006). The campaign to banish sexuality from the workplace can
also be seen in the legal system’s willingness to mete out ever harsher and more extreme
punishments to employees whose actions are interpreted by others as having unwanted, hostile,
or threatening sexual connotations (Schultz, 2003).
In the academic literature, the eradication of sexuality from organizations has been most
forcefully advocated by feminist social theorists and legal scholars (e.g., Dworkin, 1987;
MacKinnon, 1979) who have characterized sexuality as “the linchpin of gender inequality”
(Mackinnon, 1982, p 533). Although the more extreme views of these writers have been
criticized (Schultz, 2003), when we survey what management researchers typically have written
about sexual behavior in organizations, most of which focuses on sexual harassment, we often
discern an implicit assumption even among the more moderate voices that proscribing an ever
widening range of sexual behaviors would make organizations, society, and employees
themselves better off.
Yet despite all the efforts by polemicists within the academic community and
organizational authorities and human resource professionals outside it to eliminate sexual
behavior from the workplace, everyday observation and empirical data reveal that employees
continue to find ways to relate to one another as sexual beings. And not all of these relations
necessarily produce negative consequences for the parties involved. In fact, when we turn away
from the academic literature and survey how popular entertainment portrays sexual behavior at
work, we see that, rather than being depicted as bothersome, demeaning, or a tool of male
domination, such behavior is often cast as a natural way to bond with co-workers, influence
others, and find happiness in a meaningful relationship. Beyond the imaginary world of
television and movies, even harassment scholars (e.g., Franke, 1997; Schultz, 2003)
acknowledge that not all forms of sexual behavior at work are legally or psychologically
harassing. As Schultz (2003) reminds those who seek to rid the workplace of all traces of
sexuality: “When managers prohibit or discourage employees from dating each other, they
deprive people of perhaps the single most promising avenue available for securing sexual
partners. And, when managers punish employees for sexualized interactions with each other,
they create a climate that may stifle workplace friendships and solidarity more generally”
(Schultz, 2003, p. 2069).
In this paper, we take Schultz’s (2003) observations as a point of departure for reviewing
evidence suggesting that the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the unwanted and
harmful forms of sexual behavior in organizations obscures a crucial part of the story. In contrast
to the unequivocally negative tone taken by research on sexual harassment, we offer an
alternative and more agnostic perspective that does not assume all sexual behavior is necessarily
negative. Previous reviews of sexual behavior at work have made a similar point (e.g., Lobel,
1993; Williams, et al., 1999), and we have drawn on these works to inform our own synthesis of
the literature. We believe the time is ripe for a new look at these behaviors, and our paper adds
two insights that have not been thoroughly discussed in past reviews of workplace sexuality. The
first pertains to the possibility that sexual behavior can be a source of personal and social
affirmation that increases an employee's pool of psycho-social resources, which he or she can
later draw on to cope with other workplace stressors. The second pertains to ways in which
sexual behavior can be used strategically, as a tool of social influence.
Adopting a functional model of sexual behavior, we maintain that there is sufficient
empirical evidence to conclude that for some people, in certain contexts, what we will refer to in
this paper as social sexual behavior can have psychological, emotional, and relational benefits
for the parties involved. Under certain conditions, these benefits can also increase organizational
effectiveness. We further suggest that social sexual behavior can be functional for employees as
a means for attaining desired goals. Drawing from Watkins and colleagues’ (Watkins, Smith, &
Aquino, 2013) conceptualization of social sexual behavior as a strategic performance, and from
sociological writings on the concepts of erotic and sexual capital (e.g., Green, 2008; Hakim,
2010; Martin & George, 2006), we argue that such behaviors are part of a repertoire of influence
tools that employees have available to them to pursue their own and their organization’s interests
(e.g., Chan-Serafin, Brief, & Watkins, 2013).
We are guided by Berdahl and Aquino’s (2009) admonition to examine the effects of
social sexual behavior without assuming that they are necessarily unwanted, threatening, or have
unequivocally harmful consequences for employees and organizations. This paper is not about
sexual harassment, although by necessity the concept enters into our discussion from time to
time. Sexual harassment has been dealt with extensively by other scholars (e.g., Berdahl &
Raver, 2011; Cortina & Berdahl, 2008; Fitzgerald, 1993). Instead, we attempt to draw
provisional conclusions about the role and function that social sexual behavior plays in
organizational life from a relatively smaller body of empirical work that has explored its
antecedents and consequences from a perspective other than as sexual harassment.
1. Defining social sexual behavior
We define social sexual behavior as workplace interactions occurring between two or
more organizational members (including clients and customers) that are construed by the parties
involved as having sexual connotations, but that are not necessarily perceived by one or more
parties involved as having a threatening or harassing intent. Such behaviors can include flirting,
complimenting each other’s physical appearance, gentle touching, sexual innuendos, banter
about sexual topics, sharing sexual stories, and dirty jokes. These interactions can occur between
men and women, as well as between employees of the same sex. Three attributes distinguish the
concept of social sexual behavior as we define it from the broader phenomenon of sexual
behavior, of which it is one possible form. First, social sexual behavior takes place within a work
environment, not within the context of a private or intimate environment where the expression of
sexuality is expected or assumed. Second, such behavior does not specifically require the
gratification of sexual desire or procreation to be primary goals, although it can be motivated by
and achieve such goals. As we will explain later, the motivations for social sexual behavior can
be quite diverse. Third, the “social” label in our term indicates that an employee cannot engage
in these behaviors in isolation. Thus, workplace behaviors that are sexual in nature but are
performed without others bearing witness to them would not be considered social sexual
behavior according to our definition.
Although our conceptualization of social sexual behavior does not assume that the person
who exhibits them has malicious intent or wants to demean or derogate another party based on
his or her gender, some observers may interpret their behavior as such, under certain
circumstances. Thus, our definition of social sexual behavior can include behaviors that very few
people are likely to interpret as harassing as well as those that most “reasonable” people would
agree to be harassing (Bowes-Sperry, & Powell, 1999). But to repeat, the focus of our paper is on
the former more so than the latter. Nevertheless, we share an assumption made by many
harassment researchers that the full impact of social sexual behavior must be understood in
context (Dellinger & Williams, 2002; Williams et al., 1999).
To illustrate the subjective and conditional nature of social sexual behavior, consider a
study by Giuffre and Williams (1994). The authors interviewed both men and women working in
a restaurant setting, a context wherein behaviors with sexual connotations tend to be
commonplace. They found that many women working in this setting did not label behaviors that
are often considered harassing in other contexts as “sexual harassment.” In addition, several
women reported feeling either neutral or positive about these sexual behaviors and found them to
be personally flattering and mutually entertaining. Beyond context, gender is associated with
different subjective interpretations of social sexual behavior. For example, men tend to interpret
ambiguous social sexual scenarios at work as less offensive and less harmful than do women
(Berdahl, 2007b; Gutek, 1985), and women tend to view a wider range of sexual behavior as
offensive and threatening compared to men (Rotundo, Nguyen, & Sackett, 2001). Men also tend
to enjoy being the recipient of social sexual behaviors more than do women (Berdahl & Aquino,
2009). What these findings imply is that, in addition to context, it is also important to take into
account the perspectives of the recipients of social sexual behavior. For example, even the most
well-intentioned form of sexual flattery can be interpreted by one recipient or observer as
threatening and inappropriate, whereas another person in the same work environment might view
it as enjoyable, humorous, or benign.
In addition to examining social sexual behavior from the recipient’s perspective, we also
take into account the initiator’s perspective, but in a way that does not presume that their
behavior is primarily or even partially driven by a desire to dominate, demean, or otherwise harm
others. Instead, we maintain that social sexual behavior can also be motivated by a more
pragmatic goal, to exercise social influence through the use of verbal and non-verbal
communications that are imbued with elements of sexuality but that are not sexually-motivated.
Having defined social sexual behavior, we turn first to research showing how such
behaviors are experienced by their recipients in ways other than harassment and what the
consequences of these experiences might be.
2. The psychological and social benefits of social sexual behavior
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking
on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the
soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.
-Walt Whitman, from I Sing the Body Electric
Gutek’s (1985) seminal work on sexual behaviors in the workplace showed that not all
employees experience behaviors with a sexual overtone as necessarily harassing. In fact, she
found that many employees actually enjoy being the object of a colleague’s sexual attention.
Accordingly, we review several studies that document some of the individual-level psychological
and social benefits that can accrue when social sexual behavior is not construed as harassment.
We also consider some of the group-level outcomes that can result when employees engage in
mutually satisfying forms of social sexual behavior. Throughout this section, we recognize that
the outcomes of social sexual behavior will be different across different occupations and age
groups. Indeed, more research is needed to determine the outcomes of this behavior in more
“sanitized” environments and those comprised of older individuals.
2.1 Self-esteem and Social Inclusion
Enjoyable social sexual attention is often interpreted by its recipients as flattering and
contributes to the recipients’ feeling more positive about themselves. For example, in a national
survey of United States residents, Gutek and colleagues (Gutek, Nakamura, Gahart,
Handschumer, & Russell, 1980) found that both men and women reported experiencing “ego-
enhancing” social sexual behaviors at work. Our review of the literature suggests that social
sexual behavior provides an “ego-boost” by making people feel attractive or desirable and
signaling to them they are accepted by others at work (e.g., Erikson, 2010; Giuffre, 1995, 1997;
Giuffre & Williams, 1994; Hall, 1993; Huebner, 2008; Loe, 1996; Salzinger, 2000; Yount,
1991). Motivated by a desire to study women working in a prototypical blue-collar industry,
Yount (1991) described how some women working in mining experienced a “rush” of self-
esteem when they were flirted with by their male colleagues. A participant in Pringle’s (1989)
study of secretarial work described how flirting was encouraged towards organizational members
who were having particularly hard days, ostensibly to help them feel better about themselves.
The pleasure employees experience when they receive sexual attention at work can even
influence the decision to enter a particular occupation. In a study of women working in a highly
sexualized restaurant, where the predominately male clientele were actively encouraged to flirt
and make sexual comments towards the predominately female wait staff, Loe (1996) found that
many of the female employees had been motivated to apply for their jobs because they found the
expected sexual attention appealing.
In addition to boosting self-esteem by enhancing feelings of attractiveness, social sexual
behavior can make employees feel a greater sense of belonging (Dellinger & Williams, 2002;
Erickson, 2010; Fleming, 2005, 2007; Giuffre & Williams, 1994; Lerum, 2004; Loe, 1996;
Yount, 1991). In a study of restaurant employees, Erickson (2010: 190) describes sexual play as
a “ritual of inclusion.” According to Erickson (2010), flirtation and sexual banter are viewed as
a form of sociality that signals friendship and trust. Similarly, Yount (1991) interviewed 25 male
miners and 37 female miners in addition to observing their social interactions at work. She found
that razzing, jovial teasing that is tolerated by the recipient and that often contains sexual
overtones, was accepted by both the men and women production crew members (Yount, 1991).
Rather than being harassing, such teasing signified that the recipient was socially accepted by the
group. Women who were receptive to and reciprocated razzing were more likely to be liked by
their male counterparts and would earn support to join particular production crews, boosting their
feelings of acceptance and respect. The need to feel that one belongs is a fundamental human
need (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and, in its absence, people experience a number of negative
personal (e.g., low self-esteem, health problems, negative affect) and work-related outcomes
(e.g., low affective commitment, higher psychological withdrawal, higher turnover) (Ferris,
Brown, Berry & Lian, 2008; O’Reilly, Robinson, Banki & Berdahl, 2013). Thus, to the extent
that being the recipient of social sexual behavior contributes to the satisfaction of this need, it
can be functional for employees to engage in various forms of sexual play.
Finally, it has been suggested that in organizations and work groups where the positive
expression of sexuality is actively encouraged and homosexuality is accepted, LGBT (lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender) employees can feel safer, more accepted, and more able to reveal
their “true selves” to their co-workers (Dellinger & Williams, 1994; Hall, 1990). This type of
openness towards LGBT employees stands in direct contrast to more traditional heterosexist
organizations in which gay men and women must hide or downplay their sexual orientation
identity or face the risk of discrimination and sexual harassment (Croteau, 1996; Fineman,
Gabriel, & Sims, 2009).
2.2 Work engagement
Social sexual behavior at work can be entertaining (Henningsen, 2004), and thus there are
reasons to believe that it can sometimes help alleviate the otherwise tedious and mundane nature
of most people’s jobs (Alvesson & Due Billing, 1997; Erickson, 2010; Fleming, 2007;
Kakabadse, Kakabadse, & Kouzmin, 2004; Lerum, 2004; Loe, 1996; Pringle, 1989). Supporting
this view, it has been suggested that flirting can be used to create less bureaucratic and friendlier
workplaces (Alvesson & Due Billing, 1997). So, perhaps not surprisingly, ethnographic studies
of workplaces described as promoting a “culture of fun,” where employees feel free to engage in
pleasant social interactions and laugh and joke around together, also tend to include some
mention of positively experienced social sexual behavior (Fleming, 2005; Roy, 1959).
In addition to the enjoyment derived from engaging in social sexual behaviors, some
employees report feeling a sense of pride in being able to interact with colleagues in such
personal and intimate ways (Lerum, 2004). Erickson (2010: 189) likened engaging in social
sexual behavior by restaurant workers as a “badge of craft pride,”, a unique perk that is available
only in certain workplace contexts. Some employees in Erickson’s (2010) study described social
sexual behavior as the key cultural advantage of their workplace, viewing it more favorably than
“uptight” professional environments that seek to sanitize the workplace of sexual expressions.
Job satisfaction, commitment, and overall engagement at work are strongly influenced by
the informal social interactions employees have with their colleagues (Roy, 1959). Social sexual
behaviors can be a catalyst for initiating such interactions (Erickson, 2010; Lerum, 2004). Some
organizational scholars have also argued that creating an informal, entertaining and flexible
organizational culture can be a legitimate and productive human resource strategy (Deal &
Kennedy, 1982; Pascale & Athos, 1981; Peters & Waterman, 1982). The research we reviewed
shows that employees are more eager to come to work – and enjoy their time spent at work more
– when they have fun with their coworkers (Fleming, 2005). Importantly, the fun they describe
can include certain types of social sexual behaviors.
2.3 Energy, vigor, and creativity
Anyone who has experienced a sexually-charged encounter can attest that among its
involuntary physiological consequences is a heightened state of affective arousal. This affective
arousal, which can be colloquially referred to as feeling “energized” is characterized by feelings
of excitement, happiness, and/or amusement in both the recipients and initiators of positive
social sexual behavior. A number of scholars have identified feeling energized as an important
variable for organizations because it can lead to increased well-being and improved health (Ryan
& Frederick, 1997), elevated cognitive function (Fredrickson, 1998), and creativity (Oldham &
Cummings, 1996). Studies of energy locate one of its principal sources in having strong ties and
positive interactions with colleagues (Spreitzer, Sutcliffe, Dutton, Sonenshein, & Grant, 2005).
Notably, energy can be generated from interactions that last for only a few minutes (Dutton &
Heaphy, 2003). Based on research into how individuals respond to being the target of sexual
interest with increased levels of affective arousal (Dellinger & Williams, 2002; Hakim, 2010;
Loe, 1996; Salzinger, 2000; Williams et al., 2002), it seems logical to hypothesize that being
flirted with by a work colleague can be psychologically stimulating enough to produce a
heightened sense of energy or vigor (e.g., Atwater & Carmeli, 2009; Dutton & Heaphy, 2003;
Quinn & Dutton, 2005), at least temporarily.
Likewise, we can extrapolate from organizational research on the antecedents of
creativity to hypothesize that novel ideas and innovations in organizations might be stimulated
by experiencing mutually-enjoyed social sexual behavior at work. We make this connection
based on studies showing that creative ideas often are generated by employees who have strong
ties to one another that motivate them to work closely together (Chen, Chang, & Hung, 2008;
Sosa, 2011). There is also one study that has directly examined the relationship between
sexuality and creativity, and its findings lend some support to our hypothesis. In this study,
Griskevicius, Cialdini, and Kenrick (2006) found that male participants who were primed by
looking at photographs of attractive women wrote more creative stories. They also found that
women showed a boost in creativity when they were primed with thoughts of a committed long-
term mate.
2.4 Stress relief
Several scholars have documented the stress-relieving effects of engaging in social sexual
behaviors (Dougherty, 2001; Giuffre, 1997). In a qualitative study of hospital employees,
Dougherty (2001) found that male hospital workers associated engaging in social sexual
behavior at work with a means of coping with stress. Participants reported that making sexual
jokes and engaging in illicit banter helped to take their minds off of distressing and anxiety-
provoking situations. According to Dougherty (2001), social sexual behavior plays a stronger
stress-reducing role for men than women. However, Giuffre (1997), in a study of doctors and
nurses, found that both male and female healthcare professionals reported that sexual banter and
flirting with tcolleagues alleviated stress. Furthermore, both men and women have been shown to
use sexual humor to deal with disturbing life events (Fitzgerald, Swan, & Fischer, 1995). Based
on these findings, it is reasonable to conclude that the functional benefits of social sexual
behavior are potentially available to both male and female employees, but the extent to which
engaging in sexual exchanges with colleagues offers stress-alleviating effects likely depends on
the nature of the relationships between the colleagues involved and the context in which such
behavior occurs.
Thus, the link between pleasurable social sexual behavior and stress-relief has been
documented in the literature. What has not been clearly shown or systematically studied is why
social sexual behaviors can have this positive impact on employees. One potential answer is that
pleasurable social sexual behaviors trigger a hormonal reaction that can contribute to stress
relief. Social endocrinology research on how flirting leads to hormonal release supports this
effect (Lopez, Hay & Conklin, 2009; Roney, Lukaszewski, & Simmons, 2007; Roney, Mahler &
Maestripieri, 2003; van der Meij, Buunk, & Salvador, 2010). Another possible explanation is that
social sexual behavior may reduce stress through its impact on mood. Positive mood is a
generalized positive affective state that can be induced by commonplace events (Isen & Baron,
1991). In their review of literature, Pressman and Cohen (2005) found that both trait and state
positive affect is associated with better health-related outcomes, including fewer physical
symptoms of stress. They proposed that positive affect can promote directly better health and
well-being, as well as counteract the otherwise detrimental impact of stressful events. Presuming
that the targets of social sexual behaviors enjoy these interactions and feel a sense of generalized
positive affect as a result, then social sexual behavior may promote indirectly better health and
well-being through its effects on individuals’ positive mood.
A third explanation for the stress-relieving effects of positively experienced social sexual
behavior is that it can lead to the accumulation of a reservoir of psycho-social resources that can
be drawn upon later to help people cope with stressful situations. A popular conceptualization of
stress is that it occurs when significant and valued personal resources are threatened or lost due
to experiential or environmental circumstances (Grandey & Cropanzano, 1999; Hobfoll, 1988,
1989, 1998; Janssen, Schaufeli, & Houkes, 1999; Shirom, 1989). According to conservation of
resources theory, having abundant psychological and social resources can help people respond
more effectively to workplace stressors (Hobfoll, 1998; House, 1981). For example, one social
resource that is often cited in the stress literature as reducing work-related stress is social support
(Cohen & Wills, 1985). Another psychological resource that can be used as a buffer to stress is
self-esteem (Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Rosenblatt, Burling, Lyon, Simon, & Pinel,
1992). As we noted earlier, receiving sexual attention can be flattering and lead to heightened
self-esteem and increased feelings of belonging. Both of these outcomes can be conceptualized
as psycho-social resources that may be drawn from to deal with stressful life events. If our
conjecture is correct, it could explain one finding in the literature showing that positively
experienced sexual behavior does not seem to have a direct effect on reducing stress (Berdahl &
Aquino, 2009). Perhaps the reason why these researchers failed to find evidence for a direct
relationship is that its positive impact is most reliably observed in resource depleting situations.
2.5 Group camaraderie and cohesion
There is evidence that the benefits of social sexual behavior can extend beyond the
individual employee to affect outcomes at the group level. Specifically, some studies suggest that
social sexual behaviors can help contribute to the development and maintenance of group
camaraderie and cohesion. The fundamental role of sexual banter and illicit horseplay has been
documented in several studies of male bonding (Curry, 1991; Fine, 1987; Lyman, 1987; Spradley
& Mann, 1975). Curry (1991, p. 119) described the fraternal bond as “…a force, link, or
affectionate tie that unites men.” In building this bond, men must display traditional masculinity,
and sexual banter through illicit jokes, sexual gossip, and bragging about one’s sexual prowess,
which is often considered prototypical hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1987).
The ritual is slightly different in all-female workgroups, but it appears that women also
use sex as a topic to form social bonds. In a study of women working for a feminist magazine,
Dellinger and Williams (2002) found that many female employees felt that sharing intimate
information made them feel closer to one another, and they likened their workplace to a college
“dorm room.” Camaraderie through social sexual interactions between men and women can also
be naturally cultivated (Dellinger & Williams, 2002; Erickson, 2010; Lerum, 2004; Saguy, 2003;
Vaught & Smith, 1980). Through her investigation, Erickson (2010) described social sexual
behavior as a “social lubricant.” Similarly, Lerum (2004, p. 773) noted that under certain
conditions, “a sexualized dynamic between workers may act as a bonding agent or work
adhesive, a way to smooth over differences and show respect and allegiance to one’s coworkers.”
The extent to which social sexual behaviors can build group camaraderie and cohesion
will likely depend on the demographic, attitudinal, and occupational characteristics of the group
members. In the ethnographic studies we reviewed, cohesion was most often fostered when
group members were demographically homogenous. Depending on the context, younger and
single employees may find social sexual behaviors with their colleagues more enjoyable than
older employees or employees involved in long-term relationships. Similarly, certain
organizational contexts are likely to be less supportive of relying on social sexual behaviors as a
social lubricant for building group cohesion than others. An obvious contrast would be between a
religious organization and a gentlemen’s club.
2.6 Some caveats
We have highlighted some of the psychological and social benefits of social sexual
behavior, but our review of the literature also revealed several negative externalities associated
with social sexual behavior, even when it is enjoyed by participants.
2.6.1 Reaffirmation of institutionalized gender roles
Some scholars have argued that positively experienced and consensual sexualized
interactions can reaffirm institutionalized and dominant gender roles (Guiffre & Williams, 1994;
Hall, 1993; Pringle, 1989). The explanation is that social power in these interactions is generally
held by heterosexuals and, in most contexts, white men (Rich, 1980). As Guiffre and Williams
(1994, p. 380) explained, “The fact that men and women may enjoy certain sexual interactions in
the workplace does not mean they take place outside of oppressive social relationships, nor does
it imply that these routine interactions have no negative consequences for women.” For example,
while the women in Loe’s (1995) study reported that they enjoyed the flirtatious attention they
received from the male customers, they also understood the likelihood that they would be fired
if they did not flirt with the customers or if they reprimanded customers who crossed the line by
engaging in overtly demeaning sexual exchanges. The women also knew that it was important
(and perhaps necessary) to look sexually attractive to, and flirt with, the customers to receive
large tips. In some workplaces, flirtatious behaviors from women in particular follow a social
script that is not only accepted but implicitly mandatory (Hall, 1993; Loe, 1996), as advances
from men are often considered to be “part of the job” (Huebner, 2008; LaPointe, 1992). Other
research suggests that although masculine environments (those characterized by competition,
ambition and aggression) may encourage women to behave flirtatiously, female flirts in these
environments are derogated, treated rudely, and ostracized (Smith et al., 2013). Thus, while there
may be benefits for individual employees when they enjoy sexual exchanges at work, these
interactions should be considered within the context of power dynamics that exist between men
and women in wider society to recognize how such interactions can be used to maintain the
subordinate and subservient roles of women in that society (Giuffre & Williams, 1994; Hall,
1993; Salzinger, 2000).
Scholars have also noted that even when sexual banter is shared by both men and women,
these interactions generally reflect a heterosexual and masculine protocol. To gain acceptance,
female employees must become “one of the boys” (Fine, 1987; Yount, 1991). For example, in
her study of miners, Yount (1991) described how the women who participated in razzing were
accepted by the men and reportedly enjoyed participating in sexual banter. However, they also
indicated that a woman needed to have a “thick skin” to work in this environment. Dellinger and
Williams (2002) reported a similar finding after interviewing men and women working for a
pornographic magazine. Dellinger and Williams (2002) likened the women’s experiences to a
form of emotional labor and suggested that the women had to suppress their negative reactions to
enjoy these experiences and work effectively in a workplace environment where sexualized
interaction was part of the culture. This research suggests that it might be difficult to determine
when women truly enjoy social sexual behavior and when they are simply managing their
2.6.2 Social exclusion of some employees
Although social sexual behavior can create an enjoyable work environment for some
employees and contribute to feelings of social inclusion, it can also lead to feelings of exclusion
for employees who do not wish to participate in the social sexual dynamic of their colleagues
(i.e., bystanders). Social sexual behavior might also be used to segregate employees who are
different from the majority because of their sexual orientation, race, weight, or physical
Among those who might experience social exclusion when those around them engage in
social sexual behavior are employees who may not be comfortable talking or joking about sex
because of their moral beliefs or because they feel that they are betraying their partner or spouse.
Folgerø and Fjelstad (2005) pointed out that in overtly sexualized workplaces where there is no
pretense of hiding sexualized interactions, the line between “fun” social sexual behavior and
demeaning sexual harassment can become blurred. As a result, employees are often given a “take
it or leave it” option. Those who are offended by sexualized interactions and who vocalize their
discomfort or refuse to participate can be ostracized as a result (Erickson, 2010; Lerum, 2004;
Williams, et al., 1999; Yount, 1991). As a result, it has been argued that social sexual behavior
acts as a “filter” for employees in sexually-liberated workplaces (Dellinger & Williams, 2002;
Erickson, 2010). Those who cannot tolerate social sexual behavior may feel pressured to leave
the organization or avoid social interactions with their colleagues (Flemming, 2007).
Earlier we presented evidence suggesting that LGBT employees feel that they can be
more open about their sexuality in sexually liberated workplaces. However, it is also possible
that LGBT employees might feel excluded or even stigmatized when heterosexual employees tell
sexual jokes that reinforce the heterosexual lifestyle and marginalize other lifestyles (Willis,
2009). Another concern is that flirtatious attention will be discriminatory such that more
physically attractive employees will enjoy the benefits of sexual attention, whereas individuals
who are deemed unattractive will not. This discrimination could lead the latter to feel unwanted,
inadequate, or excluded. It might also provoke envy and resentment among those who might
crave attention only to see it go to someone else. Research has also revealed that racial minorities
may be left out of workplace sexual banter altogether (e.g., Lerum, 2004) or have their sexual
behavior perceived by others as more inappropriate and offensive than the same behavior
enacted by members of the dominant ethnic group (e.g., Erikson, 2010; Giuffre & Williams,
1994; Schultz, 2003). Male minorities appear to be particularly vulnerable to having their social
sexual behavior construed as harassing (Schultz, 2003). In the case of female minorities, it has
been suggested that they will be more vulnerable to sexual objectification and commodification
by others than will female members of dominant ethnic groups (Forbes, 2009).
2.6.3 Social sexual behavior as a cover for sexual harassment
Finally, when the line is blurred between acceptable and unacceptable social sexual
behavior, employees can more easily shroud sexual harassment under the guise of innocent
banter or flirtation. In many cases, such incidents are perpetrated by heterosexual men towards
women (Pringle, 1989; Salzinger, 2000; Williams, et al., 1999). However, the use of social
sexual behavior to make others feel uncomfortable is not reserved for straight men. Dellinger and
Williams (2002) found that one gay male interviewee used social sexual behavior as a means of
pushing the boundaries of his straight colleagues’ tolerance level and making them “squirm”
with particularly explicit sexual banter (see Giuffre & Williams, 1994 for a similar example). We
suspect that organizations where employees report experiencing high levels of pleasurable and
fun social sexual behavior are also more likely to have more reports of uncomfortable and
negatively experienced social sexual behavior. These subjective judgments and perceptions are
likely to covary because they arise from the same basic set of human sexual behaviors. They are
construed differently by different people.
Having taken stock of the positive and negative consequences of being the recipient of
social sexual behavior, we now consider one possible source of motivation for such behaviors in
organizations. Specifically, we conceptualize social sexual behavior as a type of performance,
and we discuss how it can be used instrumentally, and sometimes effectively, to influence others.
3. Social sexual behavior as a tool of social influence
When we couldn’t pay the mortgage, she almost
Climbed into the bank manager’s lap.
Motorcycle cops pulling over our sputtering car,
teachers, principals, my father’s bosses,
she had only one weapon, shameless silent
promises redeemable for absolutely nothing
but an ego job on the spot, frothing over.
- Marge Piercy, from I have always been poor at flirting
Going as far back as the Biblical story of Delilah, who beguiled Samson into revealing
that the secret of his power lay in the length of his flowing hair, it can be argued that the public’s
image of the person who most often uses sexuality as a tool of influence often bears a female
face. In the modern organization, the role of Delilah is frequently assumed by the type of female
worker to whom Kanter (1977) refers as a “seductress” – one who presents herself as “sexually
desirable and potentially available” (p. 234) and therefore gets an “in with the high-status male”
(p. 235). Presumably, such women use their favored status to achieve their goals. But it would be
erroneous to conclude that only women use sexuality in this way, for men do so as well (cf.
Bergin, 2006; Collinson & Collinson, 1989; Schultz, 2003). One fictional portrayal of how men
employ their sexuality, which was likely based on many real-world exemplars, is in the movie
“Love and Other Drugs,” where actor Jake Gyllenhal plays a salesman who flirted with, gave
compliments to, and ultimately bedded a woman so that his prescription drugs would have prime
placement at her medical office. There are also notable examples of real-world male leaders –
former U.S. President John F. Kennedy comes to mind – who used their charm and good looks to
persuade others to yield to their desires. Clearly, the strategic use of social sexual behavior is not
bounded by gender.
Anthropologists and sociologists (e.g., Hakim, 2010; Loe, 1996; Salzinger, 1997) have
devoted more attention to strategic uses of sexuality in the workplace than have management
scholars. However, a handful of studies in the organizational behavior literature have explored
this topic (e.g., Chan-Serafin et al., 2013; Kray, Locke, & Van-Zant, 2012; Loe, 1996; Smith,
Eisenkraft, Christian, Salvador, Netchaeva & Brief, 2013), and some findings reveal that social
sexual behaviors can be used to attain outcomes such as achieving a preferred result during
negotiation or extracting high tips from customers (e.g., Kray et al., 2012; Loe, 1996). Perhaps
more importantly, a fair number of people seem to believe that these behaviors work. For
example, a focus group of female MBA alumni admitted that they often and intentionally used
their sexuality by acting seductively, dressing provocatively, and flirting to gain favor with
others (Chan-Serafin et al., 2013). According to these alumni, they generally found these
strategies effective. Even female lawyers have admitted that they sometimes “…wear short
skirts, low cut blouses, and body-hugging knits to the office and to court” in order to obtain a
competitive advantage in the courtroom (Bergin, 2006, p 197).
What we can glean from studies of how social sexual behavior is used strategically by
men and women at work is that these behaviors are part of a larger repertoire of social influence
tactics that are available to employees. Watkins and her colleagues (Watkins, et al., 2013) refer
to this particular type of social sexual behavior as strategic sexual performance (SSP). They
contend that SSP is a type of ingratiation tactic that, when deployed effectively, can increase the
performer’s social attractiveness to others and/or enhance the influence target’s perception of
him or herself as having desirable qualities. They further discussed differences in how men and
woman use SSP, some of the contextual factors that can regulate its use, and the potential
consequences to employees when they engage in these behaviors. Here we extend their ideas by
addressing two questions they did not answer: “What factors are likely to be reliable
determinants of whether an employee will use SSP?” and “What factors can influence the
effectiveness of SSP?”
3.1 Strategic sexual performance
Watkins et al. (2013) define strategic sexual performance (SSP) as “behavior that is
imbued with sexual intent, content, or meaning by its performers, observers, or both, and that is
intended to influence a target person or persons in some way” (p. 174). In line with our definition
of social sexual behavior, we consider SSP to be a form of this behavior because the motivation
for engaging in it need not be driven by the desire for sexual gratification or procreation. It must
also, by necessity, be displayed to at least one other person for any of its benefits to be realized.
We further propose that for a particular type of social sexual behavior to qualify as SSP, three
additional conditions must be met. First, the performer must be intentionally trying to influence
others by displaying the behavior. Thus, a woman who prepares for a presentation and
deliberately chooses an outfit that will draw attention to her décolletage is acting intentionally
and therefore exhibiting SSP. However, a woman who touches a colleague lightly on the
shoulder as a spontaneous response to a funny joke he made would not fit our definition. Second,
the performer must be motivated to portray an image that they themselves are sexually desirable
or that they perceive the target as desirable in a sexual way. The SSP does not require the
performer to experience actual desire, but in keeping with the definition of social sexual behavior
as performance, he or she must intend to “create and maintain a definition of reality to which
other parties will respond” (Grove & Fisk, 1989, p. 430). Finally, the person’s motive for
enacting his or her sexual performance must be to achieve a goal of which the performer (but not
necessarily the target) is aware and for which the target’s complicity is required. It can be seen
that our conceptualization of SSP focuses on the initiator of social sexual behavior more than its
recipient. However, as the outcomes of influence attempts necessarily depend on the latter’s
responses, we take their perspective into account when we discuss some of the conditions that
can render SSP effective.
3.2 Strategic sexual performance as a social influence tactic
Management researchers have proposed several typologies of influence tactics (e.g.,
Kipnis Schmidt & Wilkinson, 1980; Yukl & Fable, 1990). Drawing from these typologies,
Watkins et al. (2013) conceptualized SSP as an ingratiating tactic. Ingratiating tactics are meant
to induce people to experience a positive mood or think favorably about the ingratiator (Yukl &
Fable, 1990). In the latter case, the tactic can also be conceptualized as a form of impression
management because it involves an attempt to influence a target’s images of one’s character,
skills, or performance (Bolino & Turnley, 1999; Jones & Pittman, 1982).
If Watkins et al. (2013) are correct in their assertion that SSP can induce a positive mood
in its recipient, then the enjoyment or pleasure that the target derives can partly explain why SSP
would be an effective tool of social influence. There is research showing that people are more
likely to comply with messages when they are in a positive mood state (Milberg & Clark, 1988),
and numerous studies show that people are more likely to help others when they experience
positive affect (Isen & Baron, 1991; Isen, Clark, & Schwartz, 1976). Based on these findings, it
seems reasonable to conclude that an adroitly executed SSP that produces a positive emotional
state in its intended target can make the target both more susceptible to suggestion and also more
inclined to help the person who induced this state.
Importantly, evidence shows that both women and men can experience positive emotions
when being the target of SSP. In the case of women, many societies treat sexuality as central to
the female gender role, so females are socialized to view their sexuality and attractiveness as
important assets (Lipman-Blumen, 1984). To the degree that a substantial number of women in
organizations consider part of their female identity to include attractiveness and sexual
desirability, then female recipients of SSP may enjoy influence attempts that affirm these
qualities. Indeed, the many studies we reviewed in our discussion of the psychological and
emotional benefits of social sexual behavior support this possibility. Our review of the literature
also showed that men can find delight in being the target of female sexual attention that takes the
form of ingratiatory behavior. As one woman working in a firm that had few women in senior
positions observed, “some of the guys- especially the ones that got there because they have a lust
for power-love it when women flirt with them. Part of the accoutrement of the power is having
women love you. And if you don’t act like you really love them, you know, I think you suffer”
(Ely, 1995, p. 617). In another study of female attorneys, some reported using what they referred
to as “sexualized advocacy” to win over male judges, juries, and clients (Bergin, 2006). The
inducement of positive affect through the use of SSP can also enhance the perceived likability of
the performer, which, like positive affect, can increase the chances that they will comply with the
performer’s requests (Cooper, 2005; Tedeschi & Melburg, 1984; Yukl & Fable, 1990).
The two pathways through which SSP exerts its effects – the elicitation of positive affect
in the target and the enhancement of the performer’s likability – have been suggested previously
by Watkins and colleagues (Watkins, et al., 2013). We submit that there is another plausible
pathway to add to theirs, that a SSP can elicit compliance by initiating a social exchange
relationship based on reciprocity.
The principle of reciprocity is a universal social norm that obligates people to repay both
good and bad deeds (Gouldner, 1960). We suggest that when SSP is received favorably by its
target, it can be conceptualized as a valued resource that one person offers to another in a social
exchange. This argument is based on models proposed by scholars who view organizations as
marketplaces whose processes and outcomes are the product of actors who exchange a variety of
incentives and pursue different goals (Barnard, 1938; Georgiou, 1973; Kuhn, 1974). If we are
correct, then it is logical to assume that SSP can sometimes produce a feeling of obligation for its
recipient to reciprocate with something of value at a later time. According to Foa’s (1980) social
resources theory, humans exchange six basic resources in social relationships: money,
information, goods, services, status, and love. We contend that SSP that effectively enhances the
target’s perception of their sexual desirability confers the resource of status and, by doing so,
creates a basis for further social exchange and reciprocity. Crucially, social resources theory
assumes that the reciprocated resource does not have to be in the same form or currency as the
one that initiated the exchange. To use a familiar example, consider an interaction between a
female customer and a handsome male waiter. The waiter showers her with compliments about
her appearance, tells jokes laced with subtle sexual innuendo, and smiles at her in a sly, inviting
way that signals his receptiveness to sustaining the interaction. In this case, the customer might
fully recognize the waiter’s thinly veiled attempt at strategic flirtation, but still leave a large tip
in exchange for the pleasure of having her ego elevated and her mood enhanced, if only for a
short time. This example suggests that the positive feeling derived from being seen as sexually
desirable may offset the perceived inauthenticity of even a less than artfully executed SSP.
Having identified three pathways through which SSP exerts its influence on its intended
targets, we now consider two factors that previous theory and research suggest are likely to
predict the frequency with which it will be used.
3.3 Antecedents of strategic sexual performance
3.3.1. Erotic Capital
Most societies place a high premium on physical attractiveness and sexuality
(Hamermesh & Biddle, 1994). Hence, there is reason to expect that employees are more likely to
use SSP if they perceive themselves as possessing large amounts of what Hakim (2010) refers to
as erotic capital, defined as “a combination of aesthetic, visual, physical, social and sexual
attractiveness to other members of your society, and especially to members of the opposite sex”
(Hakim, 2010, p. 3). The concept of erotic capital represents the potential value of one’s sexual
assets (Hakim, 2010). Also known as sexual capital (Green, 2008; Martin & George, 2006), like
other forms of non-economic (e.g., social, human) capital, erotic capital allows people to gain
material advantages or acquire higher social status through its effective deployment. In this
paper, we contend that having erotic capital can also motivate employees to use SSP more
frequently as a way to achieve their goals.
According to Hakim (2010, 2011) erotic capital consists of several specific but related
attributes, including beauty, sexual attractiveness, social skills, liveliness, presentation, sexuality,
and possibly fertility, depending on the gender of the actor as well as socio-historical and cultural
contexts. We suggest that five of these elements (beauty, sexual attractiveness, social skill,
liveliness, and presentation) are directly relevant for explaining who is likely to use SSP in
organizations because they represent a suite of resources and capabilities for conveying sexual
desire or appearing sexually desirable. We exclude sexuality and fertility from our list because
these two components describe the actor’s proficiency with sexual acts and their ability to
procreate, respectively. With rare exceptions, neither seems germane to the vast majority of
workplace interactions.
The first element of erotic capital - beauty - is a culturally bound concept that reflects a
combination of features a given society generally perceives as physically attractive. In the West,
both men and women are considered beautiful when they possess photogenic facial features such
as symmetry, flawless skin, and large eyes and lips (e.g., Fink, Neave, Manning, & Grammer,
2006; Hakim, 2010). The determinants of bodily beauty, though, appear to differ by gender. For
men, height; large, wide shoulders; and athletic builds are considered beautiful; while beauty in
women is dependent on thinness or a small waist-to-hip ratio (e.g., Schmalt, 2006; Singh, 1993).
Although the specific definition of beauty is culturally and temporally bound, it tends to be held
in high regard, and many studies have shown that being considered beautiful produces numerous
tangible rewards in the workplace (e.g., higher salary, greater chances of being hired or promoted
(Hamermesh, 2011; Hamermesh & Biddle, 1994; Judge, Hurst, & Simon, 2009; Marlowe,
Schneider & Nelson, 1996).
Sexual attractiveness is “about a sexy body…personality and style, femininity or
masculinity, a way of being in the world, a characteristic of social interaction…the way someone
moves, talks and behaves” (Hakim, 2010, p. 2). This element of erotic capital translates into SSP
in ways that are commonly understood as communicating desire or desirability. Examples
include walking seductively, touching other people during conversation, and emphasizing one’s
femininity or masculinity through verbal or non-verbal displays.
Social skill is “grace, charm, social skills in interaction, the ability to make people like
you, feel at ease and happy, want to know you, and, where relevant, desire you” (Hakim, 2010,
p. 2). We propose that this element of erotic capital is important for enabling a person engaging
in SSP to do so in a manner that will not be perceived by its intended recipient as intimidating,
demeaning, or harassing.
Hakim describes liveliness as “a mixture of physical fitness, social energy, and good
humour…[being] the life and soul of the party” (2010, p. 2). Liveliness can translate into a SSP
when it enhances one’s sexual attractiveness by conveying energy and charisma. For example,
displays of vivacity and enthusiasm during social events such as happy hours or company parties
can increase others’ perceptions of the performer’s liveliness.
Finally, social presentation describes the “style of dress, face-painting, perfume, jewelry,
or other adornments, hairstyles and the various accessories that people carry or wear to announce
their social status and style to the world” (Hakim, 2010, p. 2). This element of erotic capital is
deployed when actors manipulate their appearance in an effort to increase the potency of an
anticipated influence attempt. For example, a woman who dons provocative clothing and applies
her makeup to accentuate her lips and eyes prior to making a sales pitch or a manager who
chooses to wear stylish, Italian-made suits that reveal his broad, muscular shoulders would be
enhancing the social presentation component of erotic capital.
We assume that the five elements of erotic capital described above work additively such
that more of each is likely to increase an employee's awareness of their erotic capital and their
subsequent willingness to engage in SSP. We further assume that because erotic capital tends to
be viewed favorably by others and confer benefits in many arenas of social life (Hakim, 2011),
men and women in organizations are likely to recognize the benefits of possessing this resource,
irrespective of whether there are organizational policies and norms that constrain the expression
of social sexual behaviors. Whether such recognition ultimately leads people to engage in SSP in
these different contexts is a question we address later.
3.3.2. Gender
Watkins et al. (2013) argued that the nature of men’s and women’s SSP often differ, with
women emphasizing physical appearance-based aspects of sexuality and men emphasizing the
competence-based aspects of sexuality. We suggest that gender may not only influence how one
engages in SSP, but also how often SSP is used as an influence tactic. Our reason for making this
argument is based on a structural condition that continues to prevail in much of the developed
world and within the majority of organizations. This condition is a disparity along gender lines
such that men dominate powerful positions, have more control over economic and political
resources, and are accorded higher status than women (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Ridgeway & Bourg,
2004). Thus, underlying the relationship we propose between gender and the use of SSP are
power dynamics created by societal arrangements that are reproduced in organizational structure
and culture (Acker, 1990, Cleveland & Kerst, 1993).
In addition to structural differences in power, another reason women may engage more in
SSP than do men is that women perceive these tactics to be generally more effective than men
do, because of the greater positive value society places on female sexuality. This assumption is
central to sexual economy theory (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004) and one that also appears in
Veblen’s (1934) discussion about how, for men, being seen in the presence of an attractive
female is a form of conspicuous display that signals their success to observers. In support of this
assumption, consider a statement made by the chairwoman of a global advertising agency who
recommended that women use their sexuality to achieve their goals because, “one of the great
tools, or weapons, we have as women is flirting, and men always respond well to positive
attention”!(DiSesa, 2008, p. 105). Or one made by a female banker in a study by McDowell
(1995, p. 81) who admitted that, “some of my clients that are men, I have no doubt deal with me
because they like my legs.” By making such statements, these women appear to recognize that
in many societies a woman’s worth is strongly associated with her physical appearance and
sexuality (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997). The principles of the sexual economy perspective
suggest that when the worth attached to women’s sexuality in society is higher than men’s, its
value as a resource that can be offered and exchanged in organizations will also be greater for
women than for men (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). Thus, it is arguably rational for women to
make more frequent use of this advantageous resource than do men.
In addition to the positive value that society assigns to female sexuality, social norms and
unequal power relations in organizations often prescribe particular types of sexualized, gendered
roles where women are sexual objects and men sexual subjects (Alvesson, 1998; Flax, 1987;
Gutek & Morasch, 1982). In some workplaces, these roles are reinforced through gendered
divisions of labor and vertical segregation. For example, many industries and jobs are structured
such that women’s physical attractiveness and sexuality are emphasized either as job demands or
potential assets (e.g., waitresses; Loe 1996).
The arguments presented above suggest that there are theoretical and empirical reasons
to predict that women will use SSP more frequently than do men. Nevertheless, as we noted
earlier, men also use SSP; so this leads to the question of what determines SSP’s effectiveness
used either by men or women. This is an important question to answer because even though we
presented a number of anecdotal observations from employees who found SSP to be an effective
tool of influence, some studies suggest that SSP does not always work and actually may be
detrimental to the interests of those who exhibit them (Chan- Serafin, et al., 2013; Smith, et al.,
2013). Thus, in the following section we discuss potential moderating factors. Our list is by no
means exhaustive. It is meant to provide initial guidance to researchers seeking to study the
benefits and limitations of using SSP in organizations.
3.4 Conditions that determine the effectiveness of strategic sexual performances
3.4.1 Physical attractiveness
A copious body of empirical evidence shows that being physically attractive is generally
beneficial for both men and women (e.g., Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991; Hosoda,
Stone-Romero, & Coats, 2003). Attractive people of both sexes are perceived as more popular
(Langlois et al., 2000), more intelligent (Hosoda et al., 2003; Jackson et al., 1995), more likely to
be selected for a position (Jawahar & Mattsson, 2005), and having better social skills (Eagly et
al., 1991). Hosoda et al. (2003) conducted a meta-analysis to examine the relationship between
physical attractiveness and various career outcomes (e.g., performance evaluations) and
concluded that the advantages of physical attractiveness redound equally to men and women.
Although some studies have yielded conflicting evidence suggesting that physical attractiveness
can be detrimental to women working in or seeking male-typed jobs (e.g., Heilman & Stopeck,
1985), taken as a whole the evidence more strongly indicates that physically attractive women
are not disadvantaged by their looks. Further, Haas and Gregory (2005) found that attractiveness
is a source of power for women, such that attractive women are better able to influence others
than less attractive women. Based on the multitude of findings showing the advantages of
physical attractiveness, it seems logical to propose that SSP is more likely to be effective when
deployed by attractive rather than unattractive actors.
3.4.2 Self-monitoring and political skill
Some people will be more adept at SSP than others. Like any influence tactic, proficiency
will depend on an understanding of the situation, the target, and the behaviors that may or may
not be appropriate for that situation. A well-established individual difference construct that
reflects the extent to which a person will be able to adapt his or her use of SSP to fit situational
demands is self-monitoring (Snyder, 1987). High self-monitors are more concerned about
exhibiting appropriate behaviors in certain situations than are low self-monitors and are better
able to adjust their self-presentations to align with situational and normative demands (Snyder,
1987). Thus, we expect men and women who are high self-monitors will be more attuned to
situations in which SSPs may or may not be well received, and they will be more effective at
modifying their performances to fit the situational demands.
Supporting this argument, one study found that high self-monitors are more likely to
engage in impression management behaviors by focusing on their attire because they recognize
that dressing appropriately can influence the way they are perceived by others, positively or
negatively (e.g., Peluchette, Karl, & Rust, 2006). High self-monitors in general tend to be more
skilled at using a variety of impression management tactics such as SSPs than are low self-
monitors (e.g., Turnley & Bolino, 2001), and this difference could explain why the former
receive higher performance ratings and advance more rapidly through organizations than do the
latter (see Day, Shleicher, Unckless, & Hiller, 2002) for a review).
The strategic nature of SSP suggests that an individual performer’s political skill can
also determine how effectively he or she is able to use SSP to achieve desired goals. Political
skill is defined as “the ability to effectively understand others at work, and to use such
knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organizational
objectives” (Ahearn, Ferris, Hochwarter, Douglas, & Ammeter, 2004: 311). People who are high
in political skill are strategic in their behaviors and are better able to influence others, network,
and monitor their behaviors in social situations (Semadar, Robins, & Ferris, 2006) to achieve
their goals. In addition to being socially astute, people who have political skill also are better
able to use their social information to appear sincere, trustworthy, and influential (Semadar et al.
2006). Political skill appears to be a key variable in understanding effectiveness at influence. A
study by Kolodinsky, Treadway, and Ferris (2007) found that subordinates who had high political
skill and used rationally-based influence tactics were better liked by their supervisors and
received high job performance ratings. Subordinates with low political skill who used rationality
in their influence attempts had the lowest ratings of liking by their supervisors. Empirical
evidence also shows that high political skill can increase the effectiveness of impression
management tactics, such as ingratiation, because it can reduce the chances that the targets of
these tactics will infer that the person who engages in them has largely selfish motives (e.g.,
Treadway, Ferris, Duke, Adams, & Thatcher, 2007). Since people high in political skill tend to be
more aware both of social situations and how others perceive them, possessing this skill can
allow men and women to be more successful at using their sexuality to influence others.
To conclude our exploration of social sexual behavior, we turn to what may arguably be
the most common motivation for employees to engage in these behaviors at work; namely, that
they are seeking to find a partner with whom they can share a workplace romance.
4. Social sexual behavior and workplace romance
My struggle is harsh and I come back
with eyes tired
at times from having seen
the unchanging earth,
but when your laughter enters
it rises to the sky seeking me
and it opens for me all
the doors of life.
Pablo Neruda, from Your Laughter
Social sexual behavior can be a prelude to one of the most sought after sources of
physical, psychological, and emotional satisfaction available to human beings: a long- or short-
term sexual relationship with another person, which we refer to in this paper as a workplace
romance. A workplace romance has been defined as “a consensual relationship between two
members of an organization that entails mutual sexual attraction” (Pierce, Karl, & Brey, 2012, p.
238). Statistics show that workplace romances are fairly common. For example, one survey
found that approximately 40% of employees in the U.S. report having been involved in a
workplace romance at least once in their lives (Parks, 2006). According to research conducted by, an online matchmaker, about 38% of relationships that result in marriage begin
either in the workplace or at secondary school/college (Gonzaga, 2011). It is reasonable to
speculate that the number of workplace romances that do not result in marriage is even higher.
Research indicates that romantic relationships at work are most often undertaken with
genuine, love-related intentions (Dillard, Hale, & Segrin, 1994), which raises the question of
whether the social sexual behaviors that inevitably precede the blossoming of these relationships
should be regarded by management with suspicion or dread. Like all animal courtship patterns,
workplace romance typically follows an organized sequence of behaviors that are meant to signal
sexual interest and potentially propel the parties toward increasingly intimate forms of physical
contact (Morris, 1971). Morris (1971) divides the human courtship sequence into twelve stages.
The first six stages are the ones most likely to occur in the public context of organizational
activity, so they fall within our definition of social sexual behavior. These stages include: 1) eye
to body, where each person looks at the other from a distance, assesses physical qualities and
evaluates attractiveness; 2) eye to eye, where prolonged gazing into one another’s eyes, perhaps
coupled with a smile, presents a signal of sexual interest; 3) voice to voice, which is where
language, intonation, and pitch are used to indicate closeness, familiarity, and deepening bonds
of affection; 4) hand to hand, which in the early stages of an emerging workplace romance could
involve disguised efforts by one or both parties to establish physical contact through provisions
of “supporting aid,” as when someone helps the other get out of a car, or light touching on the
hand as a way of offering “directional guidance”; 5) arm to shoulder, where one party attempts
to bring the others’ body into closer physical contact, perhaps by using a playful shoulder
embrace when conversing at an office function; and 6) arm to waist, which is an advance in
intimacy over the previous stage, as the initiator’s arm is now situated much closer to the other
party’s genitals. We contend that the remaining stages of the human courtship sequence –mouth
to mouth, hand to head, hand to body, mouth to breast, hand to genitals, and genitals to genitals –
are, with very rare exceptions, not likely to occur publicly within the workplace environment, so
they do not fit within the definition of social sexual behavior we adopt in this paper.
The first six stages of the human courtship sequence consist of a host of suggestive and
mildly flirtatious forms of social sexual behavior of the kind that are the main focus of our paper.
Thus, we argue that another way in which social sexual behaviors are functional in organizations
is that they can be part of the natural, biologically driven process by which the human animal
attempts to forms durable pair bonds. It is for this reason that writers like Schultz (2003) have
cautioned that by proscribing an ever widening range of social sexual behaviors, organizational
authorities also create obstacles for employees to form the kinds of relationships that, for some at
least, may turn out to be the most important and profound source of meaning and happiness in
their lives.
In the sections that follow, we turn our attention to identifying some of the factors that
can influence the development of a workplace romance and we discuss what the consequences of
such romance might be for individuals and organizations. Our review of the pertinent studies
emphasizes heterosexual romantic relationships simply because there are very few studies in the
literature that investigate same-sex workplace romance. We recognize that the “traditional” view
of romance as being cross-sex does not fully represent the experiences of individuals in modern,
Western Democracies with progressive attitudes toward same-sex relationships because it
excludes homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual couplings. Unfortunately, we are limited by what
research is available. Nevertheless, we believe that a number of the variables we identify as
facilitating the expression of social sexual behavior as part of the human courtship sequence
could apply to either cross- or same-sex relationships.
4.1 Organizational-level predictors of workplace romance
Previous research shows that both geographic (e.g., physical closeness) and functional
(e.g., ease of interpersonal interaction) proximity are common precursors to interpersonal
attraction (Byrne & Neuman, 1992; Quinn, 1977). It makes logical sense that people who work
closely with one another or who communicate regularly about work-related matters have many
more opportunities to form romantic relationships than do those who are far apart or seldom
interact (Pierce, Byrne, & Aguinis, 1996; Pierce et al., 2012). And even though many
organizations remain sex segregated (Padavic & Reskin, 2002), the level of segregation is
steadily declining across most organizational levels, except at the highest echelons (Catalyst,
2012). Thus, we can expect interpersonal interaction and sexual attraction among men and
women in organizations to occur with even greater frequency in the future. Supporting the
effects of proximity, Salvaggio, Streich, Hopper, and Pierce (2011) found that workplaces with
higher task interdependence and more frequent male-female social contact had higher rates of
workplace romances.
Structural arrangements can facilitate the development of workplace romance by
increasing interaction between potential mating partners. Culture and climate that surrounds
these arrangements also matters. In a survey of 100 female executives, Maniero (1989) found
that 86 percent of those who worked in what she described as traditional, conventional, and
conservative cultures reported that their organizations formally or informally discouraged
workplace romance. However, 50 percent of those working in liberal, dynamic, and action-
oriented cultures reported that romances were neither encouraged nor discouraged.
Focusing on climate rather than culture, Mano and Gabriel (2006) postulated that there
are three types of climates that describe the organization’s attitudes toward workplace romance.
In cold organizational climates, emotional and romantic expressions and attachments are
discouraged by rigid rules and even punishment (Mano & Gabriel, 2006; Powell & Foley, 1998).
According to Mano and Gabriel (2006), this climate type may actually increase the likelihood of
workplace romances among employees because it can motivate employees to pursue romances as
a form of rebellion against a repressive environment. In contrast, hot organizational climates are
those in which workplace romances or flirtatious displays are a natural extension of on-the-job
behavior (Mano & Gabriel, 2006). In hot climates, flirtation with customers might be a natural
part of the job, as is often the case in nightclubs, restaurants, advertising, retail, and the tourist
industries (Adkins, 1995; Guerrier & Adib, 2000; Hall, 1993). Given the context in which
employees interact with one another, romantic relationships are not entirely unexpected in hot
climates and, therefore, social sexual behavior is less likely to be vigorously restricted by
organizational policies. Finally, in temperate or “mixed” organizational climates, workplace
romances develop at the margins of organizational life as a consequence of naturally occurring
events like employees working overtime, going to happy hour socials together, or accompanying
one another to out-of-town conferences (Mano & Gabriel, 2006). When they emerge in
temperate climates, romantic relationships do not necessarily contradict organizational policies.
From Maniero (1989) and Mano and Gabriel’s (2006) research, we can infer that the social
sexual behaviors that precede workplace romance are likely to occur more frequently in hot and
liberal organizational climates that are also characterized by dynamism, fast-paced work, and
intense pressure and activity that generates high levels of emotional arousal.
4.2 Individual predictors of workplace romance
Studies show that men hold more favorable attitudes toward romantic workplace
relationships than do women (Pierce, 1998; Powell, 1986). According to Pierce (1998), the
reason for this discrepancy is that women have less power than men and therefore believe they
have less control over the consequences of pursuing romantic relationships with fellow
employees. This might be a legitimate concern, as studies show that women have more to lose in
terms of promotions, terminations, and relocations as a result of workplace relationships gone
bad (Anderson & Fisher, 1991; Driscoll & Bova, 1980; Quinn, 1977). The evidence we cited
earlier indicates that men tend to view a wider range of social sexual behavior as being less
offensive than women do. (Berdahl, 2007b; Gutek, 1985). Consequently, it seems reasonable to
presume that men should be more willing than women to engage in the social sexual courtship
behaviors that precede workplace romance. But it may be that, given the amount of time that has
elapsed since Pierce (1998) and Powell (1986) published their findings, the gender gap they
reported regarding attitudes toward workplace romance may have narrowed and that today
women are as likely to initiate workplace romances as are men. We speculate that even if gender
attitudes have converged, the continued existence of power differences in organizations between
men and women are still likely to inhibit many women from engaging in the courtship behaviors
that are required to move what might be a friendly and cooperative professional relationship
toward a workplace romance. We leave it to future research to determine whether this is the case.
It stands to reason that people who are more open to having sexual relationships in
general will be more willing to engage in the behaviors that could lead to workplace romance. A
construct that captures this proclivity is sociosexual orientation (Penke & Asendorpf, 2008).
Sociosexual orientation is broadly defined as one’s attitudes toward uncommitted sex. It is
comprised of three specific dimensions that relate to one’s past sexual experience, attitudes
toward casual sex, and generalized interest in sexual relationships (sociosexual desire) (Penke &
Asendorpf, 2008). Penke and Asendorpf (2008) discovered that students who scored higher on
sociosexual desire and had more past sexual experiences engaged in more flirting behavior with
an attractive opposite-sex confederate. This was particularly true for male students. Based on this
finding, we propose that individuals with higher sociosexual desire will be more likely to initiate
and be receptive to flirting with colleagues. While flirting might initially be undertaken in pursuit
of short-term, uncomplicated sex -- colloquially referred to as “a fling” -- it might also culminate
in a long-term, committed relationship, or even marriage.
4.3 Consequences of workplace romance
As anyone who has felt the euphoria, excitement, and longing of being in love can attest,
at the early stages of a workplace romance, employees might be distracted by thoughts of the
other person, which could potentially take their minds away from work. They could also be
distracted by more unpleasant ruminations and negative feelings at the dissolution of a romance.
But given that the early stages of any romance are characterized by a host of positive thoughts
and emotions whose intensity is probably heightened if the lovers interact routinely at work,
there are reasons to suspect that at these stages, workplace romance probably has more benefits
than costs to the people involved. Indeed, there is evidence that the start of a new relationship is
associated with higher levels of happiness than being married (Balas & Dorling, 2007).
The consequences of workplace romance are an understudied topic in the management
literature. A review of the empirical research that does exist suggests a few negative
consequences but mostly positive or negligible consequences of workplace romance. In an
earlier section of this paper, we reviewed studies showing relationships between social sexual
behaviors in general and various employee outcomes. Hence, in what follows, we focus only on
studies that directly examined workplace romance.
4.4 Effects on performance
A study by Dillard (1987) asked observers of and participants in workplace romances to
report on performance changes they detected as a result of workplace romances. The results
indicated that most workplace romances were linked to no discernible changes in performance
(as rated by both participants and observers) and when there was a change, it was generally in the
direction of improving performance. Moreover, observers were more likely to perceive positive
changes in performance when the relationship was pursued for the sake of love, rather than for
the sake of improving status or boosting one’s ego. Dillard and Broetzmann (1989) reported
similar findings when investigating indicators of performance like absenteeism and tardiness.
They discovered that being involved in a workplace romance was perceived as increasing
absenteeism, but only when the observer believed that the romance had been pursued for
instrumental (e.g., work-related) reasons. In a more recent study, Liberman and Okimoto (2008)
discovered that participants rated hypothetical male and female employees involved in
workplace romances as less effective bosses. Notably, the authors were able to mitigate this
effect by including information about the target, indicating that he or she was always on-task and
an especially productive worker. Finally, in an interview study of British pub employees, Riach
and Wilson (2007) reported that many tended to agree that involvement in a workplace romance
increased productivity. In contrast to findings that show generally positive consequences of
workplace romance on performance, a study by Anderson and Hunsaker (1985) found that 24
percent of females and 14 percent of males in their sample were characterized as having lower
performance quantity and quality, a result that replicated findings in an earlier study by Quinn
Our discussion of how social sexual behavior can have benefits for employees reported a
finding by Griskevicius et al. (2006) showing that experimental participants primed with a
romantic motivation displayed heightened subjective and objective creativity. Similarly, a study
by Forster, Epstude, and Ozelsel (2009) revealed that when participants were primed to think
about their romantic relationships, they reported more holistic and creative problem solving
during a laboratory test. If creativity is part of the role demands of a job, then these findings
support a possible relationship between workplace romance and in-role performance.
Investigators who study workplace romance have generally concluded that there are null
or weakly positive relationships between participation in a workplace romance and job
performance (Dillard & Broetzmann, 1989; Pierce, 1998; Pierce & Aguinis, 2003). Our reading
of the literature leads us to a similar conclusion but, again, the number of studies directly testing
this relationship is scant; more research is needed that considers various dimensions of
performance, including those that are not necessarily required by one’s role.
4.5 Effects on work attitudes
The aforementioned study by Dillard and Broetzman (1989) found that being involved in
a workplace romance was perceived as being associated with greater enthusiasm and job
satisfaction, as reported by those involved. Increased happiness was also reported by some
participants in Riach and Wilson’s (2007) study, and studies by Pierce (1998) showed that
regardless of whether a romance is in or outside of the workplace, feeling love for one’s partner
was positively associated with satisfaction with his or her type of work. Pierce and Aguinis
(2003) reported a similar finding with regard to job satisfaction and also showed that workplace
romance was associated with organizational commitment. Despite finding generally significant
and positive relationships between workplace romance and various job attitudes, more studies
are needed to establish a causal link and test the proposed mediating mechanisms of this
relationship. It would also be useful for future research to examine which variables moderate this
relationship. For example, if organizations prohibit workplace romances, thereby forcing
employees to hide their romantic relationships, the effort to maintain secrecy about their
relationship might be associated with decreased satisfaction and commitment, and greater
resentment directed at the organization.
4.6 Effects on work relationships
The potential for workplace romance to disrupt work relationships by undermining
efficiency and producing conflicts of interests between the needs and goals of romantic partners
and those of the organization lies at the heart of Weber’s (1947) assertion that bureaucratic
rationality demands that employees relate to one another based on their occupational roles and
not on the basis of their personal roles as a friend, lover, or spouse. The two outcomes of
compromised efficiency and conflicts of interests are also among the most frequently reported
negative consequences of a workplace romance in empirical studies. For example, the research
by Quinn (1977) and Anderson and Hunsaker (1985) reported that workplace romance led to
negative outcomes such as increased hostility and gossip within the workgroup, distorted
communications, and perceptions of favoritism. Problems of favoritism along with jealousy, both
arising from workplace romances, were also documented by Riach and Wilson (2007).
Among the many kinds of workplace romances that might emerge in organizations, those
involving partners at different levels of the organization, such as a boss and subordinate, are
perhaps the most problematic. Generally, such relationships are discouraged by organizations
and many have policies that formally prohibit employees from becoming romantically involved
with their subordinates lest it cloud their ability to make objective and unbiased decisions. Of
course, such relationships do happen, and studies show that, more often than not, observers
believe that they tend to produce more costs than benefits for organizations and the people
involved. For example, a study by Powell (2001) showed that female employees engaged in
workplace romances with higher-status male employees were more likely to be perceived by
observers as embarking on the romance in an attempt to improve their career-related outcomes.
Moreover, the belief that the lower status employee was involved in the relationship for
instrumental reasons led participants to conclude that the relationship would be more disruptive
to the workplace. A study by Jones (1999) suggests a possible a qualification to this finding. In
Jones’s (1999) study, participants read about a hierarchical workplace romance in which a team
leader was romantically involved with one of their hypothetical coworkers. Team leaders were
blamed more for their involvement with a subordinate, particularly when either or both were
married. Finally, Brown and Allgeier (1995) discovered that managers were more likely to
intervene in the case of workplace romance between two employees of unequal status because
they found these relationships most disruptive to work group performance.
The potential for jealousy and envy to arise among those who witness a highly visible
workplace romance should certainly be a concern for organizations. These emotions can erupt
when employees believe that a co-worker is treated preferentially because of his or her romantic
entanglement with another employee. They can also arise when an employee has romantic
feelings for a co-worker who is involved with another employee. Previous research shows that
envy (Duffy, Scott, Shaw, Tepper & Aquino, 2012) and jealousy (Vecchio, 2000, 2005) can both
have negative consequences for work group functioning, so it behooves researchers to study the
conditions under which workplace romance is likely to generate these emotions. Moreover,
failed romantic relationships might, at times, leave in their wake residual feelings of distrust or
resentment that then spill over into other workplace interactions and disrupt performance.
Former lovers might have difficulty working together or even within the same workgroup, and
the organization might be forced to reorganize employees accordingly. However, we have no
reason to believe that this type of conflict would necessarily be any worse than conflict
stemming from coworkers who dislike each other strongly for reasons other than a romance gone
awry. Accordingly, we view these consequences as a reality of organizations comprised of
living, imperfect beings whose interactions do not always go smoothly rather than as something
that should be (often unsuccessfully) circumvented with restrictive policies.
In sum, our review of studies looking at the effects of workplace romance on those other
than the people directly involved suggests that they can often be disruptive to effective group and
organizational functioning, as models of bureaucratic rationality would predict (Weber, 1947).
At the same time, preventing workplace romance from occurring for this reason alone would
seem to be an excessively severe response by organizational authorities, especially since we also
found evidence that, for the lovers at least, workplace romance can also produce some positive
5. Discussion
The argument we have advanced in this paper is that social sexual behavior at work has
been understudied because the literature has focused primarily on only one side of the story, the
one that casts such behavior in a detestable and incriminating light. We completely agree that if
all or even the majority of interactions at work that have sexual content or innuendo are
experienced as undesirable, emotionally disturbing, or disempowering, then a campaign to rid
the workplace of such behaviors would be practically and morally defensible. However, our
review of the literature suggests that this strong conclusion is not supported by the data and
evidence suggests that an open but not entirely permissive policy towards such behaviors can
yield personal, social, and economic benefits.
5.1 Embracing social sexual behavior
At this point we want to revisit one of the benefits of social sexual behavior that we have
discussed in our paper; namely, that it can be used as a tool of social influence. To some readers,
highlighting this particular benefit might be viewed as perpetuating pernicious gender
stereotypes about how women get ahead at work by sleeping their way to the top. But as we
pointed out in our discussion of strategic sexual performance, both men and women can use their
sexuality to advance their own and the organization's goals. Indeed, contrary to the stereotype
that unqualified women use their sexuality to compensate for a lack of competence, we suggest
that the highly political and contested environments that characterize most organizations often
require the smart deployment of a variety influence tactics to achieve desired goals. For better or
worse, societies (and organizations) have given instrumental power to women’s sexuality, and so
it seems to us that there is no overwhelmingly compelling moral or practical argument for not
putting this power to use. Given that sexuality in its myriad forms is a highly desirable resource
for many people, it seems logical to assume that it can be exchanged, offered as tribute, or be
bought or sold like any other resource that human beings in all their ingenuity have used for
personal or political purposes.
Although we have discussed many of the benefits of social sexual behavior at work, there
are obviously many contingencies that determine whether these benefits can be realized and
whether the costs might exceed what could be gained from having less restrictive policies about
social sexual behavior. For this reason, managers will have to be both wise and informed when
deciding when reasonable levels of permissiveness cross the line into territory that tolerates and
perhaps even encourages behaviors that border on predatory violence or malicious sexual
depravity. It is in providing such guidance to managers that researchers can play an important
role. Toward this end, we would like to offer some suggestions for how a more balanced research
agenda might proceed.
5.2 Research implications
First, we advocate that more studies of social sexual behavior at work adopt Berdahl and
Aquino's (2009) approach for assessing the experience of social sexual behavior, using measures
that allow respondents to rate not only whether they were the recipients of such behavior, but
also how much they liked or disliked it. This approach would provide us with more accurate
information about whether such behaviors are indeed experienced by employees as generally
negative or whether most of their experiences are largely benign or even enjoyable.
Second, inspection of the most widely used measure of sexual harassment -- the SEQ-R
(Fitzgerald, Gelfand, & Drasgow, 1995) -- shows that the items are written in a way that
precludes researchers from testing whether any behaviors that are assessed by the instrument
might be experienced as positive rather than as harassing. Although the nature of the items is
entirely appropriate for the construct it purports to assess, this approach necessarily captures only
a small part of the total social sexual experience of employees as it is played out in organizations.
As a way of providing broader coverage of the social sexual behavior construct space, we
suggest that future studies construct scales that explicitly measure enjoyed social sexual
behavior. These scales could be included along with more conventional measures of sexual
harassment in the same study, so that we could simultaneously assess the relative frequencies of
each type of social sexual behavior and also compare their relationships to different workplace
Perhaps the most challenging and controversial form of social sexual behavior to study is
its strategic use. Recall that our definition assumes that the performer intentionally displays such
behavior for the purpose of increasing his or her social influence. It may be that employees will
be hesitant to reveal having used sexual behavior in this way and, if we relied on external sources
to report on such behavior, it is unclear whether they could report such behavior without being
influenced by gender stereotypes about who is more or less likely to use sex as a tool of social
influence at work. Indeed, a scale developed by Chan-Serafin et al. (2013) to measure women’s
use of sexual behaviors to get ahead at work showed a low base rate for these behaviors.
Perhaps the women in the study were reticent to disclose their use of sexuality in this manner, or
maybe they were afraid to admit it. For testing hypotheses about the strategic use of social sexual
behavior, qualitative studies or even carefully designed experiments that capture behavior on
videotape (so it can be analyzed systematically) would seem to be more fruitful approaches than
conventional field surveys. Furthermore, it would be interesting to assess whether men and
women differ in their detection and labeling of these behaviors. For example, research suggests
that men may label certain behaviors of women as sexual even when they were not intended to
be (e.g., Gutek, 1989). This finding suggests that, even though women may not report engaging
in behaviors that are considered as SSP, observers may label them as such.
Testing hypotheses about the buffering effects of social sexual behavior might pose the
fewest methodological obstacles. Once appropriate measures of social sexual behavior have been
developed, it becomes relatively straightforward to test the possibility that such behaviors can
contribute to psycho-social resource accumulation. Researchers can then show that these
resources can be drawn upon later by employees to help them cope with job-related stressors.
There are some obvious practical and methodological difficulties that face researchers
who might want to study social sexual behavior more neutrally. The topic can be uncomfortable
and threatening for employees to discuss, so organizational decision makers may be hesitant to
grant access to researchers whose data could potentially be used in legal actions aimed against
the company. Those who choose to study sex at work must therefore be resourceful and creative
in gathering their data. It is our hope that this paper has made the case for why doing so is both
theoretically necessary and practically useful. We leave it for the reader to decide whether we
have been persuasive enough to encourage the pursuit of this daunting but important topic in
organizational behavior.
5.3 Conclusion
Sex, like all of the other appetites that human beings have struggled to master and control,
has been the subject of much polarizing debate between those who seek to restrict this source of
pleasure to only the most intimate and private spaces of our lives and those who believe that sex
in all its manifestations should be celebrated and enjoyed, even in the company of strangers.
With rare exceptions – perhaps in a monastery or at the Playboy mansion -- social sexual
behavior in organizations occupies the middle ground between these two extremes. What we do
know from reading the literature is that there are many ways that human sexuality reveals itself
at work and that not all of them should or even can be entirely eliminated. We also know that
there are many reasons social sexual behavior occurs, and this behavior is not always driven by
malicious or ignoble motives. As is in many other arenas of life where human sexuality finds
expression, people engage in these behaviors at work because they feel lonely, or daring, or
playful, or bored, or curious, or distressed, or excited, or anxious, or, perhaps more often than
management scholars want to admit, simply because they are possessed by that most primordial
and mystifying of human emotions, a state which James Joyce once described with characteristic
eloquence as the “deep unending Ache of love!”
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... Flirting is defined as a deliberate behavioral attempt to attract attention (Moore, 2002) through physical gestures (e.g., random or intentional touching), encroachment on another's personal space (e.g., a lengthy stare), flattery and compliments. It can be defined as a social sexual behavior occurring between two or more people (such as clients and customers) that is construed by the parties involved as having sexual connotations, but which is not necessarily perceived by one or more of the parties involved as having a threatening or harassing intent (Aquino et al., 2014). According to Sheppard et al. (2020) the vast majority of recent research on workplace sexual behavior has largely emphasized its harmful and divisive side in the form of sexual harassment. ...
... According to Sheppard et al. (2020) the vast majority of recent research on workplace sexual behavior has largely emphasized its harmful and divisive side in the form of sexual harassment. Although flirting is a fairly common behavior in organizations, or at least more common than people would like to admit (Watkins et al., 2013), it has only recently attracted research interest (Aquino et al., 2014). Scholars have begun to explore its understudied consequences in the workplace (Sheppard et al., 2020) and specifically in the hospitality sector (Seger-Guttmann and Medler-Liraz, 2018). ...
... First, it extends the conceptual space of non-harassing workplace sexual behavior to flirting. While scholars in the management literature have typically explored the painful experience of sexual harassment (Aquino et al., 2014;Sheppard et al., 2020;Watkins et al., 2013), the current research focuses on flirting which can be experienced as enjoyable, benign or negative. ...
... Researchers argue that nonharassing sexually-oriented behavior in the workplace can have both positive and negative consequences. Specifically, Aquino et al. (2014) argue that flirting can act as a buffer for organizational stressors (Aquino et al., 2014), such that sexually-oriented behavior at work can be a form of social influence. No such conversation exists for sexual harassment, established as harmful and unethical for nearly 40 years (Willness et al., 2007). ...
... Researchers argue that nonharassing sexually-oriented behavior in the workplace can have both positive and negative consequences. Specifically, Aquino et al. (2014) argue that flirting can act as a buffer for organizational stressors (Aquino et al., 2014), such that sexually-oriented behavior at work can be a form of social influence. No such conversation exists for sexual harassment, established as harmful and unethical for nearly 40 years (Willness et al., 2007). ...
Purpose The goal of this study is to examine the association between managers' sexually-oriented behavior in publicly traded firms and subsequent stock market reactions. Both sexual harassment and nonharassing sexually-oriented behavior (i.e. workplace romance) are associated with negative shareholder reactions. The authors also examine factors that may alter the stock market reaction and those that may reduce the risk of lawsuit in sexual harassment cases. Design/methodology/approach Information about incidents of sexually-oriented behavior was collected from media reports and content coded. An event study with a stock market reaction was used to measure the impact of disclosed sexually-oriented behaviors. Logistic regression was used to assess the relationship between incident characteristics and sexual harassment lawsuits. Findings Disclosure of managers' sexually-oriented behavior is associated with a negative stock market reaction. Interestingly, the reaction was not more severe for sexual harassment disclosures compared to nonharassing behavior (i.e. workplace romance). Results also suggest that terminating a manager prior to disclosure of an event is negatively related to a harassment lawsuit. Originality/value The authors report this as the first study to focus on the stock market reaction of sexually-oriented harassing and nonharassing behavior of managers. This work complements research that documents the negative impact of sexual harassment on individuals by demonstrating these behaviors are associated with loss and risk at an organizational level.
... Although sexual behaviors at work are sometimes welcomed and may serve effective functions (Aquino et al., 2014;Sheppard et al., 2020), they negatively affect employees when they pervade the workplace. For instance, Nicole Salvaggio et al. (2011) observed that SWE decrease job satisfaction (see also Burke & McKeen, 1992) and increase turnover intentions, in particular among female employees. ...
The present research investigates whether employees' perceptions of being dehumanized by their organization act as an underlying mechanism in the relationship between sexualized work environments (SWE) and their detrimental consequences. The research also examines the moderating role of enjoyment of sexualization (ES) in the relationship between SWE and organizational dehumanization (OD). First, a cross‐sectional study ( N = 350) showed that SWE positively relate to OD which, in turn, negatively affects employees' well‐being (i.e., increased emotional exhaustion, increased psychological strains), attitudes (i.e., decreased job satisfaction), and behaviors at work (i.e., increased turnover intentions). A second study ( N = 433) replicated these findings and further revealed the moderating role of employees' ES. Specifically, the relationship between SWE and OD proved to be stronger at lower levels of ES. Finally, additional exploratory analyses highlighted that the moderating role of ES was not conditional upon employees' gender. Theoretical contributions and promising avenues for future research as well as are discussed.
Assertion of the word “sexual behavior” always creates a conflicting state of mind, as it is considered offensive, harassing, and harmful in nature. However, studies have determined it as an inevitable phenomenon that could be harmless and create a positive, enjoyable, and good work climate at the workplace. Considering this, the present study is aimed to determine the impact of social sexual behavior in two forms, that is, ambient sexual behavior and direct sexual behavior on various dimensions of employee wellbeing (work engagement, burnout, and job satisfaction). For the present study, 423 employees of the civil aviation industry have been surveyed working on different profiles. With the application of structural equation modeling, a statistical model has been developed and analyzed. The findings of the study have unveiled the black (negative) and white (positive) shades of social sexual behavior at the workplace. Ambient sexual behavior was found to reduce burnout among employees and enhances work engagement and job satisfaction. Further, the study has analyzed the negative relationship between direct social sexual behavior and the positive dimension of EWB (work engagement and job satisfaction). However, this relationship is found positive in concern to burnout.
Purpose Scholars have acknowledged gender-role ideology as a central factor in flirting style. This study aims to exam the combined effect of flirting type and flirter's sex on positive and adverse customer reactions. Design/methodology/approach In Study 1, participants ( N = 555) were divided into four scenario conditions in a 2 × 2 between-subjects experimental design: server sex (male vs female) and flirting type (authentic vs fake). Study 1 scenarios explored positive customer outcomes (i.e. loyalty and tip size). Study 2 applied the same research design, presenting participants ( N = 404) scenarios relating to negative outcomes (i.e. anger and sense of threat). Findings The findings revealed that the flirter’s sex significantly moderated the relationship between flirting type and customers’ (the targets’) reactions. Originality/value This research offers three primary contributions. First, it elaborates on the dynamics of flirting in service settings (i.e. face-to-face interactions between the service provider and customer). Second, as the effects of flirting on its targets have been reported as equivocal (perceived as pleasing and flattering or, in contrast, annoying, deceptive and misleading), this study explores its positive and negative customer-related outcomes. Third, the study seeks to better understand the impact of a flirting service employee’s sex on customers’ outcomes.
Workplace romance (WR), a terminology used to describe romantic relations between individuals in an organization, represents a phenomenon that has attracted academic attention for decades. However, despite its lure, the sensitive nature of WR has resulted in a limited quantity of empirical investigations, fragmented literary results, and an elusive understanding of how organizations should approach workplace romances. This study performs a systematic assessment of the WR research and uses an integrated approach to identify the antecedents, outcomes, and gaps in the literature to address in future WR research. Based on this conceptual backdrop, a CUPID (considerate, uncharacteristic, pragmatic, informed, and diligence) framework is proposed that may provide guidance for human resource managers grappling with WR.
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To understand who initiates social sexual behavior (SSB) at work, we examine the strength of individuals’ social sexual identity (SSI), a self-definition as a person who leverages sex appeal in pursuit of personally valued gains. Using a social-cognitive framework that explores the intersection of personality, motivation, and situations, six studies (N = 2,598) establish that SSI strength is a novel predictor of SSB, including sexual harassment, and SSI strength mediates gender differences in SSB tendencies. We find that men’s (but not women’s) propensity to initiate SSB increases when pursuing self-enhancement goals (e.g., a powerful image), and these gender differences are mediated by momentary SSI strength. By contrast, the adoption of self-transcendence (e.g., affiliation) goals mitigates gender differences in SSB. Together, these findings illustrate the central role of the self-concept in explaining why and when gender differences emerge in patterns of SSB.
Social status is highly consequential in organizations but remains elusive for many professional women. Status characteristics theory argues that women are particularly status disadvantaged in masculine organizational cultures. These types of cultures valorize traits and abilities stereotypically associated with men, making it difficult for women in these settings to be seen as skilled and gain status. In the present study, we build and test novel theory explaining when and why masculine organizational cultures create the conditions for some women—those willing and able to skillfully navigate the espoused norms—to disproportionately gain status. We introduce and define the construct of a sexist culture of joviality, a type of masculine organizational culture representing the intersection of sexism and joviality that emerged inductively from our initial qualitative data. A sexist culture of joviality is characterized by norms promoting frequent sexist joking and teasing, along with underlying values and assumptions that support these sexist jovial behaviors. In a longitudinal mixed-methods field study, we demonstrate that participation in a sexist culture of joviality via engagement in sexist jovial norms is positively related to status for women but negatively related to status for men. In a follow-up experiment, we replicate this effect and demonstrate that differential perceptions of social skill mediate this interaction. Our findings illuminate the subtle ways sexism is perpetuated in organizations despite changing societal norms, underscoring the importance of disrupting these dynamics and revealing insights into how to do so.
Purpose The advent of the #MeToo movement has brought forth increased national and global attention to sexual assault, abuse, misconduct, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, especially by prominent executives against subordinate female employees. Accordingly, in this article, we are thoroughly analyzing one aspect of office romance and sexual conduct in the workplace, mainly sexual favoritism in the era of the #MeToo movement. Design/methodology/approach This is a legal and case-based human resource policies paper. It reviews actual workplace romance cases, policies and court-based decisions to create practical recommendations that can be used by managers, entrepreneurs and corporations for their organizations. One delimitation of this paper is the fact that it focuses on the US context. Another is that, while organizational behavior researchers have empirically studied various workplace romance policies and practices, the paper is a case-by-case analysis of sexual favoritism. “Specifically, the legal research for this article was conducted on the law database, Nexis Uni Legal, in the Cases (both federal and state) and Law Reviews and Journals sub-databases, using the direct key words in quotations “workplace romance,” “office romance,” “sexual favoritism,” and/or “paramour preference,” as well as the indirect key words “appearance discrimination, “preferring the pretty,” and/or “lookism.” As the authors' intent was to examine the legal and practical consequences emanating from the #MeToo Movement, the authors concentrated their search on cases and law reviews from 2012 to February 2021. Findings Research shows that about 35–42% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment or sex discrimination at work. Many of the high-profile sexual cases that generated the #MeToo movement involved powerful executives asserting that their romantic relationships with subordinates in the workplace were “merely” consensual office romance or sexual favoritism. As a result of the #MeToo movement, employers have been compelled to reconsider how they should respond to sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, office romance and sexual favoritism in the workplace. This article offers best practices for policymakers and human resources professionals. Research limitations/implications This article's recommendations are limited to workplaces in the US and may not be relevant in other countries as the local laws might vary. Practical implications There are policy and behavioral implications for companies, managers and employees regarding workplace romance and sexual favoritism. As such, we provide policy recommendations to human resources department and management on how to provide a healthy work environment for all employees and avoid liability for sexual harassment cases pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Social implications The awareness of policies and laws regulating office romance can help educate managers and employees in local communities as to their rights regarding relationships with coworkers and those who report to them. When people are able to date whomever they desire outside of the workplace, employers can regulate some aspects of sexual relationships in the workplace. Originality/value This is an original paper by the authors.
In the last decade, the concept of “social support” has become increasingly prominent in both scientific and applied or policy-related discussions of stress and health. By the mid-1970s in the United States, social support was the topic of invited addresses to the American Public Health Association and Psychosomatic Society by two of our most distinguished social epidemiologists, the late John Cassel (5) and Sidney Cobb (6) respectively. The very first recommendation of the 1978 report of our President’s Commission on Mental Health (28, p. 15) was that: “A major effort be developed in the area of personal and community supports which will: (a) recognize and strengthen the natural network to which people belong and on which they depend; …”.
Using a 2 x 2 x 2 experimental design and data from 158 subjects, this study assessed the effects of three romance participant characteristics and respondent gender on reactions to working with team members involved in a hierarchical workplace romance. The romance participant characteristics included: (a) marital status of the team leader (married versus single); (b) marital Status of a coworker (married versus single); and (c) gender of the team leader-coworker dyad (male-female versus female-male). Significant effects were found for team leader; marital status, coworker marital status, and gender of the respondent. This study also examined attributions of blame and attributions of motive (job-related, ego, or love) to the romantic couple for engaging in the workplace romance. Results indicated:that the team leader was more frequently attributed blame, yet attribution of blame was:affected by the marital status of both the team leader and the coworker. Both the team leader and the coworker were most frequently attributed an ego motive for the involvement. Implications for work teams and managerial policies are discussed. Copyright (C) 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
In France, a common notion is that the shared interests of graduate students and their professors could lead to intimate sexual relations, and that regulations curtailing those relationships would be both futile and counterproductive. By contrast, many universities and corporations in the United States prohibit sexual relationships across hierarchical lines and sometimes among coworkers, arguing that these liaisons should have no place in the workplace. In this age of globalization, how do cultural and legal nuances translate? And when they differ, how are their subtleties and complexities understood? In comparing how sexual harassment-a concept that first emerged in 1975-has been defined differently in France and the United States, Abigail Saguy explores not only the social problem of sexual harassment but also the broader cultural concerns of cross-national differences and similarities.
The paper explores gender relations and genderidentity, based upon an ethnography of a Swedishadvertising agency. The organization is of specialinterest as it has a strong gender division of labor,where men hold all senior posts, at the same time ascreative advertising work seems to have much moresimilarity with what gender studies describe as"femininity" rather than with forms of“masculinity”. The paper discusses how gender is constructedin an organizational context. Emphasis on workplacesexuality is related to identity work of men in responseto the highly ambiguous and contested context of advertising work. Tendencies toward the“femininization” of the work and clientrelationships put some strain on (gender) identity formen, triggering a structuring of gender relations andinteraction at the workplace to restore feelings ofmasculinity. The paper problematizes ideas ofmasculinities and femininities and argues for arethinking of their roles in nonbureaucraticorganizations. Also assumptions about a close connection between domination ofmasculinity and of males are criticallydiscussed.