Negative Consequences of Sexual Behavior at Work

Why Sexy Isn't Better: How Sexual Behavior Can Submarine Your Career

professionally dressed workers
••• Lane Oatey/Blue Jean Images/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

Women who wear short skirts that display a lot of leg may be overlooked for promotion and pay increases. So says a recent study conducted by Tulane University. Overt sexual behavior at work, whether men and women are consciously aware of it, or not, can submarine your career.

Tulane professor Arthur Brief and colleagues Suzanne Chan-Serafin, Jill Bradley and Marla Watkins searched recent studies and literature and found little about the consequences of sexy dressing and sexual behavior at work. (Most available research studied sexual harassment.) So, they conducted their own study that was presented at an Academy of Management annual meeting.

The study sought to measure whether sexy dressing and sexual behavior negatively had an impact on the careers of women—and the researchers found that they did.

According to the article in USA Today, "in the first study to make plain the negative consequences of such behavior, 49% of 164 female MBA graduates said in a survey that they have tried to advance in their careers by sometimes engaging in at least one of 10 sexual behaviors, including crossing their legs provocatively or leaning over a table to let men look down their shirts."

Consequences of Engaging in Sexual Behavior and Sexy Dress

The researchers found that the women who claimed that they never engaged in such sexual behavior had earned an average of three promotions.

Women who stated that they had engaged in flirting and other overt sexual behavior had only earned two promotions. Women who did not engage in the sexual behavior earned, on average, in the $75,000 to $100,000 income range; the women who did earn, on average, $50,000 to $75,000.

While these results are new and the study may not reflect the results of additional research, the results are striking for two reasons. First, the percentage of women who admit they have engaged in sexual behavior such as sending flirty or risqué emails; telling a coworker that he looks “hot;” and emphasizing their sexuality while at work by the way they dress, speak, and act, is remarkable. Second, the negative impact of the behavior on the women’s careers taps into the gut feeling most HR professionals and managers have held for years.

Recently, in a sales office, a young woman wearing low rider pants and a short, tight, stylish top leaned over her briefcase to remove her computer. Half of her back was displayed to the whole office, and the people surrounding her cubicle had all eyes focused on her. Our entrance caused several to look away with guilty expressions and all were noticeably embarrassed.

In another office, an applicant for a managerial position asked us why several young women were wearing lingerie to work. A newly hired manager, in the same office, came to HR and suggested that a dress code would be a good idea. She had been embarrassed taking a customer to her office.

Recommended Actions to Address Sexual Behavior and Sexy Dress at Work:


Now that the negative consequences of sexual behavior and sexy dressing at work have been demonstrated, if you are an individual, take a look at how you dress for success in your workplace. Tops that cling and show cleavage belong on the beach or in a dance club.

If you are uncomfortable sitting where your legs are in view, chances are, your skirt is too short for work. Tank tops belong on the beach or in the exercise room.

Additional ways of dressing, while not sexually provocative, are still ill-advised if you want career success. Flip flops or casual sandals don’t work in the office either. In addition to being a safety hazard, (dropped items, stubbed toes) who wants to look at a bunch of bare feet in a professional work setting?

Sloppy, dirty, unpressed, and torn clothing present an image that will never earn a promotion for you. Even if “everyone else” is wearing trendy, tight tops and T-shirts, dress for the job you want to have next. Decision makers will appreciate your efforts to dress professionally

Examine your actions at work. Do you send inappropriate emails, view inappropriate material online, call people hot or sexy, display your physical self inappropriately, or touch other employees? Your actions could submarine your career. The people who make decisions about promotions, customer contact, and pay raises are watching your behavior.

Appearances matter. If you see your own actions in any of this material, do they matter enough to you to make the changes necessary for career success? After all, the statements measured in the Tulane study were taken directly from behavior that individuals had witnessed at work.

Employer or Manager

The cited research gives you factual information you can use to improve the professional behavior and dress code in your office. While people from different cultures and in different parts of the country have different ways of dressing for work, sexy is generally out.

Sexually provocative behavior can also bring charges of sexual harassment or hostile work environment, so it behooves you, as an employer, to address professional dress and actions.

It is recommended that you take these actions.

  • Make sure you have appropriate policies in place. A sexual harassment policy is required. A formal complaint process is essential. A non-fraternization policy is important as well as a nepotism policy. A code of employee conduct that defines professionalism provides additional support.
  • Develop a dress code that is well-supported by your managers and supervisors. They will have to enforce the policy when their reporting staff members dress sexily or unprofessionally for work.
  • Hold training sessions on the policies recommended in the first two points, especially on what constitutes sexual harassment. Marianne Newton, an HR Generalist at a Dexter, MI-based firm, ReCellular, Inc, suggested holding an employee fashion show so employees could see what clothing is appropriate for business casual or professional dress.​
  • You may need to speak directly to employees that engage in sexual behavior. Managers who have good relationships with their employees, assisted by Human Resources staff, when needed, can point out to people the error of their ways. Sexual behavior must be corrected to maintain a workplace culture that is comfortable and not harassing for all.
    Recently, a California court found that the preferential treatment of an employee, with whom the boss was having an affair, had constituted sexual harassment against several other employees. This is just another example of why, as an employer, you need to address inappropriate behavior.
  • Be prepared that you may need to talk with people individually who consistently break the dress code. Some companies send inappropriately dressed employees home. Others use progressive disciplinary action when needed to enforce the policy.

A well-written, broadly developed dress code, along with training in what constitutes sexual harassment or a hostile work environment, will send your employees a clear message about what is appropriate at work.

The Tulane study reinforces the need for and the professionalism required of your policies, particularly for women seeking career success. Sexual behavior and sexy clothing at work are not only an employer’s potential harassment nightmare. Sexual behavior and sexy clothing at work would appear to submarine promising careers, too.