Sexual Banter At Work

Sexual jokes, propositions and a little bit of flirty behaviour are harmless fun, even pleasant parts of work life, right?

No, say Jennifer Berdahl at the University of Toronto and Karl Aquino of the University of British Columbia.  In a study, the two reported that even men and women who say they enjoy the sparks and sexy behaviour at work experienced negative effects on their work and psychological well-being.

The study, published in a 2009 edition of The Journal of Applied Psychology, surveyed 1,242 manufacturing, social service and university workers about how much they experienced sexual behaviour at work and how much they enjoyed or were bothered by it. The researchers studied the effects of sexual innuendo and related things on worker’s psychological well-being, drug use, work withdrawal and sense of being valued at work.

The authors differentiated between sexual harassment and bullying and sabotaging behaviours.  Not all sexual behaviour at work is sexual harassment

(unwanted, unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour).  Some consider sexual jokes to be fun and part of work camaraderie.  As well as being flattering, many believe sexual talk at work can lead to office romance. It’s considered to be a way to build an informal, enjoyable and humorous workplace, and is thought of as beneficial by some.

The researchers set out to understand the effects on workers and the workplace of this kind of non-harassing sexual behaviour. Contrary to proponents of non-offensive sexual chat at work, the researchers found that while many surveyed reported that they enjoyed the sexual behaviour they experienced, they did not, in fact, benefit from it.

They tended to withdraw from work, avoid tasks, think about quitting and neglect their work even if they enjoyed the sexual banter or attention.  The more frequently they experienced sexual jokes and the like, the less they felt valued, appreciated or listened to.  They reported more symptoms of depression, more drug and alcohol use, anxiety and lack of hope.

Only staff who experienced little to no sexual banter at work had higher levels of psychological well-being, and tended not to use drugs and alcohol to relax. The authors were not claiming that bawdy behaviour at work caused depression and alcohol and drug use, they are making a connection between workplace sexual talk and increases in these symptoms in workers who reported higher incidences of this kind of behaviour.

The authors observed that flirty, sexually fun jokes and stories, sexual innuendo, being shown pictures or cartoons, sexually charged touches, engaging in sex talk and sending sexy e-mails detracted from the work environment and employee well-being even when staff said they liked the behaviour.  They likened the effect of sexual behaviour at work to a stealth poison.  Like unhealthy food that’s fun to eat, or behaviour that feels risky or rebellious, or risqué behaviour that makes the staffer feel good about themselves, the potential harm to their health makes the pleasure less attractive given the costs.

Employers need to be aware of the unhealthy atmosphere created by seemingly harmless sexual behaviour at work.  Workplaces that maintain a respectful, professional and neutral environment, contribute more to staff health and productivity than ones where sexual humour and the like, are prevalent.

Discussing the issue and taking steps to change sexually charged environments   can take time and deft handling, but it’s worth it. There are three ways to do so if  you are concerned about the tone in your workplace:

  1. Staff:  Don’t engage in, laugh at or join in sexually oriented talk or behaviour.  Walk away, change the subject and appear uninterested.  Stick to work-related topics.
  2. Employers: Talk privately to individuals in the department or on the plant floor who are engaging in this behaviour.  Say you’re concerned about the tone set in the building and that you’d like them to keep the sexual jokes and talk for outside the workplace.
  3. Staff and Employers:  Raise the bar for professional behaviour in your everyday interactions.  Be courteous, friendly, collaborative and team oriented.  Act with dignity, treat everyone as valued and important, re-think behaviour that has lowered the tone at work.  Find jokes and ways to have fun that don’t involve sexual references.

It is everyone’s responsibility to act in a way that promotes good will, ease and comfort at work, refusing to engage in sexually charged interactions takes discipline.  It’s easy to say “Everyone’s doing it.” In the long run you will be more psychologically healthy if you choose to behave professionally at work.

If you are genuinely interested in an office romance, check the company policy about these kinds of relationships and ask the person for coffee, you don’t need to engage in bawdy behaviour to get their attention. Leave that for outside work hours.

Behaviour that reflects workplace priorities might land a promotion, while activities that detract, make the staffer appear less competent and professional.  In addition, the organization could benefit from happier, appreciated and valued workers who don’t feel depressed, anxious, devalued or need to use alcohol and drugs to relax after a long day.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at: sunmail@newmangrigg.com

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