Some of the most inappropriate behaviors at the office, in Americans’ minds, are also the most common — yet almost no one admits to them, in a new poll on workplace behavior from NPR and Ipsos.
Americans broadly agree that certain behaviors — spreading rumors, speculating about coworkers’ sexual preferences — are inappropriate at work, according to the poll. However, most people have experienced many of those same behaviors. In addition, Americans’ opinions shift on just how inappropriate certain behaviors are — sometimes dramatically — by age and by sex. In particular, young men are more likely than women or older men to consider several of these behaviors okay.
To conduct the poll, Ipsos offered people a range of potentially objectionable office behaviors along with a range of options for each behavior, from 1 to 7 (always, mostly, and sometimes inappropriate; it depends; and sometimes, mostly, or always appropriate). The poll of 1,130 American adults was conducted online, between January 25 and 30, 2018. The full results have a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
We broke down the results, and here are a few of the things that we found:
People view gossip as some of the most inappropriate office behavior
Spreading rumors about a coworker’s romantic or sex life, discussing coworkers’ sex lives, deliberately touching coworkers, and telling sexual stories or jokes were all considered “inappropriate” by roughly equal shares of people — around 9 in 10.
Most of the behaviors we asked about were considered inappropriate by a clear majority of people. Still, there were a handful — commenting on an opposite-sex coworker’s appearance, asking about coworkers’ social lives, and asking an equal-rank coworker on a date — where there was no clear consensus.
This chart just reflects whether people saw such behaviors as inappropriate or not — yes, no, or it depends. But when it comes to the magnitude of which behaviors are worst, once again, gossip came out on top. Taking those scale-of-seven scores and averaging them together (1 being “always inappropriate,” 7 being “always appropriate”), spreading rumors got the lowest rating, at 1.2. Talking about someone’s sexual preferences or history, deliberate touching, and telling sexually suggestive stories all came in at around 1.5.
It may come as no surprise that people see spreading rumors about someone’s sex life as abhorrent. But amid a national conversation about sexual misconduct in which things like unwanted advances have gotten a lot of attention, this poll shows that many other behaviors beyond those grabbing headlines make plenty of Americans uncomfortable.
The behaviors people view as the worst still happen — a lot.
To sum up one troubling finding of our survey: Just because a behavior is frowned upon doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Some of the behaviors that people found most inappropriate were also the ones that a majority of people have seen around the workplace.
Around 8 in 10 people, for example, find it inappropriate to call a female coworker “girl” or “babe” or “sweetie,” but around 6 in 10 people have seen it happen at work. Likewise, 9 in 10 people think sexual jokes or stories are inappropriate, but more than half have seen it happen.
That said, there wasn’t a single behavior we asked about that a majority of people admitted to doing. Just 41 percent of people said they had ever asked questions about a coworker’s social life, for example. Around a third of men said they had commented on a female coworker’s appearance, and around a third of women said the same of commenting on a male coworker’s appearance.
Young men often stand apart
While an overwhelming majority of people agreed on certain behaviors being inappropriate, men age 18 to 34 stood out in being less absolute than others in thinking some things are always bad.
For example, only 51 percent of these men considered it “always inappropriate” to talk about someone’s sexual preferences or history at work, while 72 percent to 88 percent of men and women in other age groups said so.
Another example: roughly one-third of young men considered it “always inappropriate” to refer to adult women as “girl, babe, sweetie, or honey,” compared to half or more among other age groups.
A few more behaviors young men were less likely than everyone else to find “always inappropriate”: a supervisor flirting with an employee and believing the feelings are mutual, a supervisor asking an employee on a date, and telling sexual stories or jokes at work.
Though they varied in what they thought was “always inappropriate,” that doesn’t mean these young men were more likely to find all of these behaviors appropriate. While young men were more likely than other groups to find suggestive jokes and stories appropriate, they were about as likely as everyone else to find a supervisor asking an employee on a date always, mostly, or sometimes appropriate. On this question, they were more likely than everyone else to say “it depends.”
Young men aren’t the only ones to stand out. Different demographic groups stood out on particular questions. Older people were much more likely than younger to think that asking about a coworker’s social life is inappropriate. Around six in 10 men and women alike over 55 thought this was inappropriate to some degree, compared to 3 in 10 18-to-34-year-olds and 4 in 10 35-54-year-olds.
Non-employed people were also more likely than employed people to think that asking about social lives was inappropriate.
And women 55 and older were significantly more likely than other groups to think that referring to an adult female coworker as “babe” “sweetie” or “honey” is “always inappropriate.”
Lots of questions still unanswered
One concern inherent in this poll (and other polls on sexual misconduct) is social desirability — the phenomenon of people giving poll answers that they feel are “right” or paint themselves in a better light.
It’s true that this was an online poll — meaning one wouldn’t have to admit to a living, breathing person at the other end of the phone line that one has told a sexual joke at work — but it’s possible some people didn’t want to admit, even to themselves or a computer, that they had done so.
In addition, one thought-provoking question this survey can’t answer is how much people’s opinions have changed since the #MeToo wave caused many to rethink how they function at work. It’s possible that this increased scrutiny has changed people’s opinions on what behaviors are and aren’t okay.
It’s also possible that behaviors some respondents saw as innocuous — for example, commenting a coworker’s appearance — sounded inappropriate in the context of #MeToo, or even in the context of this poll. What one person may have imagined as “Hey, cool dress,” to another may have been a leering “That dress looks great on you.”