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Workplace Suitors' Unwanted Advances Can Have Harmful Consequences

Being the unwanted object of affection can cause great personal discomfort, and even impact careers.

You know that co-worker who keeps asking you out? The one who can't take a hint, and whose all-too-obvious but totally unreciprocated interest is producing feelings of dread as you contemplate coming to work?

New research suggests he's probably not a sadist, let alone a sexual predator. He just has no idea what an uncomfortable situation he is putting you in.

"Initiators of unrequited romantic advances fail to appreciate the difficult position their targets occupy," write Vanessa Bohns and Lauren DeVincent of Cornell University. Specifically, they don't understand "how uncomfortable it is for targets to reject an advance," and how this discomfort can impact their targets' personal and professional lives.

"This bias does not appear to be limited to suitors who are in positions of power over their targets," the researchers report in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The first of their two studies featured graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This group was chosen because women are traditionally underrepresented in these fields; the researchers wondered whether unwanted sexual advances were prompting some to drop out.

Of the 942 students who completed a survey, 277 reported they "either made an advance on someone in their field or lab who was not interested in them, or having been the target of an unwanted advance by someone in their field or lab." Not surprisingly, "women were more than twice as likely to report having been pursued by someone whom they were not interested in."

These participants were asked to think about an incident in which they were either the pursuer or the pursued party, and answer a series of questions about the experience.

For example, those who had been approached were asked "How uncomfortable did you feel saying no to this person, or telling them you were not interested?" Pursuers responded to a parallel question, "How uncomfortable did this person feel saying no to you?"

The results revealed a real disconnect: "Participants who revealed real instances in which they pursued someone who was not interested in them imagined that the targets of their advances felt more comfortable saying no, were less worried about the repercussions of saying no, and experienced fewer downstream behavioral consequences than participants who revealed being pursued."

Among those "downstream consequences," 14 percent of those who had been pursued reported they subsequently had trouble focusing on their work. Ten percent reported their productivity suffered, 4 percent considered switching labs, and 3 percent considered changing their career.

A follow-up study, in which 385 people recruited online imagined themselves in either the role of pursuer or unwanted target, replicated these results; those in the former role consistently underestimated "the difficulty and discomfort of saying no."

Bohns and DeVincent suggest one answer to this problem could be "interventions designed to foster perspective-taking." Perhaps a required course in emotional intelligence should be part of the college curriculum.

It could instill an important message: You don't have to be an outright aggressor to make the target of your desire deeply uncomfortable. Being clueless will do.