New research investigates impacts of sexual behaviour at work


VANCOUVER – Be careful of that raunchy joke that gets all the laughs. As funny as folks at work may find it, it’s probably hurting morale.

That’s one conclusion of a groundbreaking new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and co-authored by researchers from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

The study’s authors looked at the effect of sexual behavior in the workplace such as sexual jokes, innuendo, discussions of sexual matters or flirtation. And in a research first, they investigated whether men and women got anything positive out of the behaviour, such as enjoyment and social bonding.

They found that some employees enjoyed sexual behaviour in the workplace – 25% of those exposed to it found it fun and flattering while half were neutral. But even employees who enjoyed the behaviour tended to withdraw from work, felt less valued and reported depressive symptoms more often than employees who experienced little to no sexual behavior at the office. The results were found among both women and men, working in manufacturing, social service and university jobs.

“We approached the study with an open mind,” said Prof. Jennifer Berdahl of the Rotman School, who co-authored the study with Sauder Prof. Karl Aquino. “We thought, ‘Maybe these behaviours are a positive thing for employees who enjoy them.’ And then we found that they weren’t.”

Despite some evidence that sexual behavior at work was negatively related to employee outcomes, Professor Aquino believes that more research is needed before drawing definitive conclusions about these relationships.

"Like all studies," he said, "ours has limitations. "For example, we sampled only a limited range of possible social sexual behaviors (6 total) and there are all kinds of ways that people can express sexual interest at work, such as paying someone a compliment about their appearance, that we did not include and that could possibly have a positive effect on employees."

Professor Aquino also noted that the study does not allow the researchers to rule out the possibility that people who have depressive symptoms may interpret sexual behaviors more negatively than those who are happier or generally feel better about their lives. "It's important for people to recognize that our conclusions are open to alternative interpretations and that other studies are needed to show that these findings are reliable."

The complete study is available here.

About The Sauder School of Business
The Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia is Canada's leading academic business school, recognized globally for its contributions to the transformation of business practices through innovative research and teaching. The school has over 29,000 alumni in 70 countries around the world.

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Derek Moscato
UBC Sauder School of Business