The 12 Most Inappropriate Office Behaviors, Ranked

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Sexual Harassment at Work

© anyaberkut / AdobeStock

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
May 19, 2024 at 8:4AM UTC
Americans broadly agree that just because a behavior is frowned upon doesn't mean that it isn't happening in their workplaces. In fact, some of the behaviors that people find the most inappropriate in the workplace are also the ones that a majority of people have seen occur. But their opinions on many workplace behaviors are largely dependent upon their age and sex. That's at least according to a poll on workplace behavior from NPR and Ipsos.
Ipsos offered 1,130 American adults a range of potentially objectionable office behaviors along with a range of options for each behavior, from one to seven (always, mostly and sometimes inappropriate; it depends; and sometimes, mostly or always appropriate).

The 12 Most Inappropriate Workplace Behaviors

Most Americans polled have experienced behaviors like the following 12, which are ranked from most to least inappropriate, according to respondents:
  1. Spreading rumors about coworker's sex life
  2. Discussing coworker's sexual preferences, history
  3. Deliberate touching, leaning, or cornering
  4. Telling sexual stories or jokes
  5. Referring to female as girl, babe, sweetie, etc.
  6. Supervisor flirting, believing it's mutual
  7. Supervisor asking employee on date
  8. Standing close, brushing up against coworker
  9. Male commenting on female's appearance
  10. Female commenting on male's appearance
  11. Asking questions about coworker's social life
  12. Coworker asking equal-rank coworker on date
Spreading rumors about coworkers and speculating about coworkers' sexual preferences or history topped the chart for the most inappropriate behaviors, followed by deliberate touching and telling sexual jokes. These were considered “somewhat,” “mostly” or “always” inappropriate by around nine in 10 Americans. And when it comes to the magnitude of which behaviors are worst, gossip also came out on top.

How Do Employees View These Inappropriate Behaviors at Work Differently?

But there were still behaviors that some coworkers didn't find so bad. 
Specifically, young men are more likely than women or older men to consider several of these behaviors okay.
Only 51% of men ages 18 to 34 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 were against doing so.
Likewise, about 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. Men were also less likely than everyone else to find "always inappropriate" for a supervisor to be flirting with an employee and believing the feelings are mutual, for a supervisor to be asking an employee on a date, and for telling sexual stories or jokes at work.
But young men weren't the only ones with sometimes conflicting opinions. 
Older people were also much more likely than younger people to think that asking about a coworker's social life is inappropriate.
Around six in ten men and women over 55 thought doing so inappropriate to some degree, compared to three in ten 18-to-34-year-olds and four in 10 35-to-54-year-olds. And women 55 years old and up were also much more likely than other groups to think that referring to an adult female coworker as "babe" "sweetie" or "honey" is most definitely "always inappropriate."

How Rampant Are These Inappropriate Behaviors in the Workplace?

But even though most people viewed all the aforementioned behaviors as uncalled for in the workplace, they've all witnessed them quite a lot. For example, around eight in ten people find it inappropriate to call a female coworker "girl" or "babe" or "sweetie," but around six in ten have heard it happen at work. Likewise, nine in ten people think sexual jokes or stories are inappropriate, but more than half have been told or heard others being told sexual jokes or stories.
And, to little surprise, people weren't admitting to their own behaviors either. Maybe change in the workplace to combat sexual harassment starts by being honest with ourselves and reflecting on our own behaviors. Because if everyone's witnessing it, but no one's owning up to it, then we're not going to get anywhere.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.

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