Research explores the blind spots of workplace ‘suitors’

Vanessa Bohns

New ILR School research investigates why initiators of unwanted romantic advances in the workplace often misunderstand the intense discomfort they can cause those subjected to their overtures.

In “Rejecting Unwanted Romantic Advances is More Difficult than Suitors Realize,” Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior, and Lauren DeVincent, M.S. ’19, Ph.D. ’21, find that a failure to understand the perspectives of their targets is at the center of why perpetrators are often baffled by a “no” response. That blind spot is why suitors view their actions as less coercive than those who experience them.

The research has implications for sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond, and on the dynamics underscored by the #MeToo movement, Bohns said.

While the paper doesn’t excuse men who are accused of sexual misconduct, the findings suggest why some perpetrators appear clueless, she said. It might offer an opportunity for learning – by actively taking in the perspectives of others – how disconnects between two people’s interpretations of the same event arise, she said.

The findings also suggest that increasing suitors’ understanding of their targets’ experience of events might help prevent attempts at romance from escalating to sexual harassment.

After polling more than 1,000 people, Bohns and DeVincent found a consistent pattern: Suitors don’t grasp the discomfort they cause targets. And, they don’t recognize how targets change behavior in order to cope with the distressing situation.

“Underestimating the role of discomfort in driving targets’ reluctance to say ‘no’ may lead suitors to misattribute this reluctance to genuine romantic interest,” the researchers write, “hence perpetuating – and potentially escalating – a cycle of romantic pursuit and uncomfortable evasion.”

As to why targets don’t just say “no” to undesired advances, previous research by Bohns and colleagues has found that rejecting another person is more awkward and uncomfortable than we realize.

The new paper builds on additional Bohns research that finds requesters “are egocentrically focused on their own fears of imposition and rejection, and are consequently oblivious to their targets’ concerns.”

The research is based on two studies by Bohns and DeVincent. One surveyed 942 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduate students about their experiences of being rejected or rejecting a potential suitor.

One in four of the students reported being targets of unwanted pursuits. The survey findings suggest that suitors did not realize the discomfort their targets experienced in rejecting them.

One in three women reported receiving unwanted attention, whereas one in seven men reported unwanted attention. When women were the pursuers, they were no better than male suitors in gauging the discomfort of their targets. However, male and female participants who had been targets of unwanted attention were better able to appreciate the discomfort they cause their targets.

The questions were explored with students in STEM fields because of potential implications for retention of women in those fields, the researchers said.

The second study asked 385 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a web service used to recruit research participants, to respond to a hypothetical vignette in which a single, sexually compatible worker asks a single, equal-status co-worker for a date.

Findings reflected what the first study revealed: Targets reported feeling extremely uncomfortable saying “no,” but suitors seemed not to grasp targets’ concerns.

Other findings:

  • 52 percent of targets tried to avoid their suitors after rejecting them, but only seven percent of suitors thought their targets had tried to avoid them.
  • 14 percent of targets had trouble focusing on work after receiving unwanted attention; only two percent of suitors thought targets would have work-focus troubles.
  • 33 percent of targets reported spending energy thinking about the interaction after it occurred; initiators placed the figure at six percent.

Mary Catt is assistant director of communications at the ILR School.

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