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The psychological effect of sexual behaviour at work

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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 from the Journal of Applied Psychology co-authored by researchers from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Management.

The study’s authors looked at the effect of sexual behaviour in the workplace such as sexual jokes, innuendo, discussions of sexual matters or flirtation. And in a research first, they investigated if 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 behaviour 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 Prof Karl Aquino of the Sauder School. "We thought, ‘Maybe these behaviours are a positive thing for employees who enjoy them.’ And then we found that they weren’t."

Prof Berdahl suggested the study’s findings should be treated as "sage advice" for employees and employers to avoid engaging in sexual behaviour while on the job.

"In our culture, sexuality has these connotations of domination, subordinance and vulnerability," she said. "Often a dominating behaviour is a way of making someone squirmy. Why bring this into the workplace?" The complete study is available here.

The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is redesigning business education for the 21st century with a curriculum based on Integrative Thinking. Located in the world’s most diverse city, the Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables the design of creative business solutions. The School is currently raising CAN$200 million to ensure Canada has the world-class business school it deserves.

(Source: University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management: Journal of Applied Psychology: April 2009)

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Posted On: 16 April, 2009
Modified On: 16 January, 2014

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