Bawdy Banter at Work Can be Constructive

Sometimes, sexual joking fosters workplace harmony, researcher says

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FRIDAY, March 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Is it boorish behavior, or harmless fun?

A new study -- by a professor who took jobs at restaurants and a strip club to further her research -- found that sexual banter can sometimes make for a better workplace.

During her first night ever as a working waitress, University of Washington sociology professor Keri Lerum said she "was shocked, and couldn't believe people were saying those things."

"I didn't know how to react at first, but I learned to toughen up to fit in," she said. "I got better and started dishing it back. After the first month, I felt pretty comfortable and realized that sexual banter was just part of the job."

In fact, in her 14 months waiting tables and serving drinks, Lerum concluded that in some workplaces -- where the gap between managers and employees isn't so wide -- sexual banter may actually improve relations between staff. In other cases, however, banter can turn into outright sexual harassment, she said.

The findings appear in a recent issue of Gender & Society.

To collect data, Lerum worked at three restaurants serving food and drinks -- an upscale Cape Cod restaurant she called the "Blue Heron," a Seattle family diner called "Annie's," and a Seattle strip club she nicknamed "Club X."

Sexual banter was a regular part of every shift, Lerum said. But she also stressed that the impact of this male-female dynamic depends on the individual workplace culture.

"Sexual banter is okay if people feel they are working in a safe environment and the banter is not disrespectful or a form of discipline," she said. And, "under the right conditions, sexual banter can build camaraderie, and camaraderie is a positive thing for workers and the organization, because if employees are happy and feel they belong they work harder and are more productive."

"This is not so much about sex, but about people being empowered and having ownership of their work life," she said.

In particular, sexual banter created more harmony in places with an informal heirarchy where managers worked alongside staff, as happened at the Blue Heron. On the other hand, at Club X it led to more conflict, because the perceived gap between managers and staff was much wider. According to Lerum, at Club X the line between banter and harassment was not so clear.

Lerum cautioned that no one should use her findings to dismiss cases of sexual harassment.

"Ultimately, if you are trying to assess an incident it would be important to have a cultural understanding of that particular workplace and the people's understanding of that culture," she said. "It's a complicated question."

More information

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more about sexual harassment.

SOURCES: University of Washington, news release, Feb. 23, 2005

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