Like me, you’ve probably seen it all when it comes to women flirting on the job. From giggling at a male colleague’s comments to crossing legs provocatively when wearing short skirts and even casually leaning forward to reveal cleavage while wearing low-cut tops.
Ever wonder if flirting at work helps or hurts your career? There aren’t a lot of studies on this topic and the few that exist show conflicting information. What the results doshow is the need to tread carefully when it comes to exhibiting flirtatious behavior in the office.
The negative side
A 2005 study, “Sex as a Tool at Work: Flirting to Success or Flirting with Disaster”, by Tulane professor Arthur Brief and colleagues Suzanne Chan-Serafin, Jill Bradley, and Marla Watkins demonstrates how flirting at work can adversely affect a woman’s career. Even though the survey sample was small, 164 female business school graduates, the results should cause you to pause and think twice about being overly flirtatious at work. The study found:
- Of the respondents, 50.6% said they used various forms of flirting as a tool to get ahead while 49.4% said they never flirted
- Those who did NOT flirt at work reported earning between $75,000 and $100,000 per year while those who flirted averaged less, $50,000 to $75,000
- Women who did NOT flirt were promoted three times in their career while women who flirted were promoted twice
According to Suzanne Chan-Serafin, a co-author of the study, “When women use their sexuality at work, they are viewed as more feminine, and thus less than equal. Research shows sexuality is really a short-term power source.”
The positive side
A study released in July 2012 by the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business demonstrates how “flirtatiousness, female friendliness, or the more diplomatic description ‘feminine charm’ is an effective way for women to gain negotiating mileage.”
The study, “Feminine Charm: An Experimental Analysis of its Costs and Benefits in Negotiations,” was co-authored by Haas School of Business Professor Laura Kray, Connson C. Locke (the London School of Economics), and PhD candidate Alex B. Van Zant. In it, the authors examined ‘feminine charm’ as a perception and impression management technique to determine if women who flirt are more or less effective during negotiations than men who flirt.
The authors define ‘feminine charm’ as combining friendliness with flirtation, including playfulness, flattery, and sexiness with the aim of making “an interaction partner feel good to gain compliance toward broader interaction goals.” The difficulty for women is that we are often caught in contradicting impression management situations. If we are perceived as being too strong in negotiations it can hurt us and if we are perceived as being too warm and friendly it can also hurt us.
The study found that if women can strike the right balance between friendliness and flirtatiousness during negotiations, they could avoid that impression management issue while also obtaining economic benefits. While flirtation during negotiations can generate positive results, it’s important to remember that this refers to the ‘feminine charm’ characteristics of authentic playfulness, flattery and confidence with the goal of making the interaction partner feel good. Flirtatiousness does not mean overt sexual advances on your negotiating partner. Notes study co-author and professor Laura Kray, “The key is to flirt with your own natural personality in mind. Be authentic. Have fun. That will translate into confidence, which is a strong predictor of negotiation performance.”
Can women use flirtation as a tool to help them in their careers? Yes, but it should be used with caution. Avoid sexual flirtatiousness to specifically obtain power or curry favors in the workplace. Use authentic friendliness and confidence instead.
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