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Who Gets Ahead by Flirting at Work? It's Not Who You Think

So who flirts the most at work? Women, wanting to get ahead? Bosses who want to put the moves on their employees? How about male subordinates?

Turns out it's the latter. A new study says that it’s actually men in subordinate positions who are most likely to flirt, use sexual innuendo, and even harass female bosses as a way to demonstrate their masculinity and power for personal gain at work, according to

The issue, raised in a paper by co-author Haas School of Business professor Laura Kray, challenges the perception "that men in powerful positions are the most prone to 'social sexual behavior' that can cross into outright harassment," says the website.

Also authored by Jessica A. Kennedy of Vanderbilt University and Michael Rosenblum of New York University, the research is something many might like to know about as it offers a new perspective on workplace power dynamics.

“Most of the literature in this field focuses on men in power," says Kray, a psychologist who studies gender roles, tells newswise. "But through a number of studies, we’ve debunked the myth that social sexual behavior is something that only high-power men do—that somehow power is this aphrodisiac that makes people take advantage of others sexually,. In fact, we found that it’s more often men who are insecure about their role at work who use unwanted social sexual behavior to look more masculine and powerful, even when they know it’s offensive to women.”

Newswise points out that prior research on social power has speculated that women "are especially likely to engage in social sexual behavior when they are in subordinate positions." One research paper even argued that it’s low-power women who flirt strategically at work, because they stand the most to gain. According to newswise, these experiments showed that when people are asked to define themselves, a strong social sexual identity can serve as a predictor of how they behave at work.

That self-perception as a flirt is “important for understanding what potential harassers think they are doing and how they come across to themselves, which sheds light on how they justify their problematic behavior to themselves,” the researchers wrote. But that's not what they discovered in their study.

They found that men—but not women—turn up the harassment with coworkers, including bosses, when they perceive that they have little power and want to portray a more powerful image. “In other words, it’s a desire for more power—not holding power—that corrupts,” says Kennedy, PhD 12, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt. They then rationalize the behavior, saying it’s a result of their being 'big flirts.'”

This new research isn’t about whether it’s good or bad to flirt, notes Kray, who is faculty director of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership and has previously studied the effects of women’s use of flirtation as a way to show power during negotiations.

"The study also does not imply that people in powerful positions are unlikely to be sexual harassers, she cautioned," at newswise. "In fact, harassment by a superior is particularly pernicious because it can involve a quid pro quo (e.g., telling someone that if they agree to a date they’ll get a promotion or other perk).

And guess what? Past research has shown that the most common type of workplace harassment happens not between subordinate and superior but between colleagues of relatively equal power, Kray says.

“Harassment can come from all angles of the corporate hierarchy; however, our research finds that the only direction that exhibits a gender difference is among subordinates directing social sexual behavior towards bosses, where we see men engaging in this behavior more than women.," she concludes.

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