Workplace behaviours and norms are gaining increased prominence in the literature on start-up enterprises. Research attention has focused on the critical role that these behaviours and norms play in influencing start-up effectiveness but our understanding of their role in influencing trust in a start-up environment is underdeveloped. The present article investigates the role that workplace social sexual behaviours play in shaping co-worker trust within start-ups. Using data from the GUESSS (2018) international study of entrepreneurial attitudes and experiences, we find that certain social sexual behaviours undermine trust, and related outcomes such as the willingness to delegate and the sense that co-workers are honest. In particular, experiencing inappropriate looks, flirtation, or sexual gossip predict lower levels of co-worker trust. Our findings also indicate that characteristics of the source of the behaviour are important in terms of gender and hierarchical relationship. In our discussion section, we consider the mechanisms underlying these relationships and in particular how social sexual behaviour may influence trustworthiness. Taken together, our results point to a significant efficiency cost to new enterprises that take a permissive view of social sexual behaviour in the workplace.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
The data used in this study was compiled as part of the Global University Entrepreneurial Spirit Students Survey (GUESSS). See the GUESSS website for details on accessing the data http://www.guesssurvey.org/.
For more information on the GUESSS project, see http://www.guesssurvey.org.
The international project was developed by Prof. Dr. Philipp Sieger (Swiss Research Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Gallen).
Acs, Z. J., Audretsch, D. B., Lehmann, E. E., & Licht, G. (2016). National systems of entrepreneurship. Small Business Economics, 46(4), 527–535. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-016-9705-1.
Acs, Z. J., Estrin, S., Mickiewicz, T., & Szerb, L. (2018). Entrepreneurship, institutional economics, and economic growth: an ecosystem perspective. Small Business Economics, 51(2), 501–514. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-018-0013-9.
Adikaram, A. S. (2018). Making sense of sexual harassment: narratives of working women in Sri Lanka. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 56(1), 102–123. https://doi.org/10.1111/1744-7941.12154.
Aquino, K., Sheppard, L., Watkins, M. B., O’Reilly, J., & Smith, A. (2014). Social sexual behavior at work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 34, 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2014.02.001.
Baer, M. D., & Colquitt, J. A. (2018). Why do people trust?: Moving toward a more comprehensive consideration of the antecedents of trust. In The Routledge companion to trust (pp. 163–182). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315745572-12.
Baker, A. N. (2016). Antecedents and consequences of observing workplace sexual behavior. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 31(1), 265–279. https://doi.org/10.1108/jmp-05-2014-0167.
Bell, M. P., McLaughlin, M. E., & Sequeira, J. M. (2002). Discrimination, harassment, and the glass ceiling: women executives as change agents. Journal of Business Ethics, 37(1), 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1014730102063
Bendickson, J., Muldoon, J., Liguori, E., & Midgett, C. (2017). High performance work systems: a necessity for startups. Journal of Small Business Strategy, 27(2), 112
Berdahl, J. L., & Aquino, K. (2009). Sexual behavior at work: fun or folly? Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(1), 34–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012981.
Bowes-Sperry, L., & O'Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2005). To act or not to act: the dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), 288–306. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2005.16387886.
Chatman, J. A. (1991). Matching people and organizations: selection and socialization in public accounting firms. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36(3), 459.
Chen, M. H., & Wang, M. C. (2008). Social networks and a new venture's innovative capability: the role of trust within entrepreneurial teams. R&D Management, 38(3), 253–264. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9310.2008.00515.x.
Cooper, C. (2008). Elucidating the bonds of workplace humor: A relational process model. Human Relations, 61(8), 1087–1115.
Cooper, C. D., Kong, D. T., & Crossley, C. D. (2018). Leader humor as an interpersonal resource: integrating three theoretical perspectives. Academy of Management Journal, 61(2), 769–796. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2014.0358.
Davidsson, P., & Honig, B. (2003). The role of social and human capital among nascent entrepreneurs. Journal of Business Venturing, 18(3), 301–331. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0883-9026(02)00097-6.
Daykin, A. R., & Moffatt, P. G. (2002). Analyzing ordered responses: a review of the ordered probit model. Understanding Statistics: Statistical Issues in Psychology, Education, and the Social Sciences, 1(3), 157–166. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15328031US0103_02.
De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: a meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1134–1150. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000110.
De Winne, S., & Sels, L. (2010). Interrelationships between human capital, HRM and innovation in Belgian start-ups aiming at an innovation strategy. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21(11), 1863–1883. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2010.505088.
Dellinger, K., & Williams, C. L. (2002). The locker room and the dorm room: workplace norms and the boundaries of sexual harassment in magazine editing. Social Problems, 49(2), 242–257. https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.2002.49.2.242.
Dietz, G. (2011). Going back to the source: why do people trust each other? Journal of Trust Research, 1(2), 215–222. https://doi.org/10.1080/21515581.2011.603514.
Dietz, G., & Den Hartog, D. N. (2006). Measuring trust inside organisations. Personnel Review, 35(5), 557–588. https://doi.org/10.1108/00483480610682299.
Downey, S. N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K. M., & Plaut, V. C. (2015). The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(1), 35–44. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12273.
Fackler, D., Fuchs, M., Hölscher, L., & Schnabel, C. (2018). Do start-ups provide employment opportunities for disadvantaged workers? ILR Review, IAB-Discussion Paper. https://doi.org/10.1177/0019793918814476.
Fagerlind Ståhl, A. C., Ståhl, C., & Smith, P. (2018). Longitudinal association between psychological demands and burnout for employees experiencing a high versus a low degree of job resources. BMC Public Health, 18, 915. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5778-x.
Farley, S. D. (2011). Is gossip power? The inverse relationships between gossip, power, and likability. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(5), 574–579. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.821.
Fernando, D., & Prasad, A. (2018). Sex-based harassment and organizational silencing: How women are led to reluctant acquiescence in academia. Human Relations., 0(00), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726718809164.
Gjerløv-Juel, P., & Guenther, C. (2019). Early employment expansion and long-run survival: examining employee turnover as a context factor. Journal of Business Venturing, 34(1), 80–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusvent.2018.05.005.
Glomb, T. M., Richman, W. L., Hulin, C. L., Drasgow, F., Schneider, K. T., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1997). Ambient sexual harassment: an integrated model of antecedents and consequences. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 71(3), 309–328. https://doi.org/10.1006/obhd.1997.2728.
Gutek, B. (2013). Sexuality in the workplace key issues in social research and organisational practice. U. Müller, B. Riegraf ans SM Wilz (eds) Geschlecht and organisation. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 321-337.
Gutek, B. A., Cohen, A. G., & Konrad, A. M. (1990). Predicting social-sexual behavior at work: a contact hypothesis. Academy of Management Journal, 33(3), 560–577. https://doi.org/10.5465/256581.
Hardies, K. (2019). Personality, social norms, and sexual harassment in the workplace. Personality and Individual Differences, 151, 109496. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2019.07.006.
Jehn, K. A., & Mannix, E. A. (2001). The dynamic nature of conflict: a longitudinal study of intragroup conflict and group performance. Academy of Management Journal, 44(2), 238–251. https://doi.org/10.2307/3069453.
Jewell, J., Spears Brown, C., & Perry, B. (2015). All my friends are doing it: potentially offensive sexual behavior perpetration within adolescent social networks. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 25(3), 592–604. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12150.
Johns, G. (2018). Advances in the treatment of context in organizational research. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 5, 21–46. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032117-104406.
Khan, M. S., Breitenecker, R. J., Gustafsson, V., & Schwarz, E. J. (2015). Innovative entrepreneurial teams: the give and take of trust and conflict. Creativity and Innovation Management, 24(4), 558–573. https://doi.org/10.1111/caim.12152.
Kulkarni, V., Vohra, N., Sharma, S., & Nair, N. (2018). Walking the tightrope: gender inclusion as organizational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 0953–4814. https://doi.org/10.1108/jocm-05-2017-0197.
Lechat, T. and Torrès, O. (2016). Exploring negative affect in entrepreneurial activity: effects on emotional stress and contribution to burnout. Emotions and Organizational Governance (Research on Emotion in Organizations, Vol. 12), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 69-99. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1746-979120160000012003.
Lee, J. (2008). Effects of leadership and leader-member exchange on innovativeness. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(6), 670–687. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683940810894747.
Lewicki, R. J., & Bunker, B. B. (1996). Developing and maintaining trust in work relationships. In R. M. Kramer & T. R. Tyler (Eds.), Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of theory and research (pp. 114–139). London: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781452243610.n7.
Lin, Y. W., & den Besten, M. (2018). Gendered work culture in free/libre open source software development. Gender, Work and Organization, 26, 1017–1031. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12255.
Madera, J. M., Podratz, K. E., King, E. B., & Hebl, M. R. (2007). Schematic responses to sexual harassment complainants: the influence of gender and physical attractiveness. Sex Roles, 56(3–4), 223. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9165-1.
Mainiero, L.A. (1989). Office romance: love, power, and sex in the workplace. Rawson Associates/Macmillan.
Markussen, S., & Røed, K. (2017). The gender gap in entrepreneurship–the role of peer effects. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 134, 356–373. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2016.12.013.
Martin, R. A., Kuiper, N. A., Olinger, L. J., & Dance, K. A. (1993). Humor, coping with stress, self-concept, and psychological well-being. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 6(1), 89–104. https://doi.org/10.1515/humr.1918.104.22.168.
Mayer, R. C., & Gavin, M. B. (2005). Trust in management and performance: who minds the shop while the employees watch the boss? Academy of Management Journal, 48(5), 874–888. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2005.18803928.
Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.1995.9508080335.
McAllister, D. J. (1995). Affect-and cognition-based trust as foundations for interpersonal cooperation in organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 38(1), 24–59. https://doi.org/10.2307/256727.
McDonald, P. (2012). Workplace sexual harassment 30 years on: a review of the literature. International Journal of Management Reviews, 14(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2370.2011.00300.x.
McKelvie, A., Brattström, A., & Wennberg, K. (2017). How young firms achieve growth: reconciling the roles of growth motivation and innovative activities. Small Business Economics, 49(2), 273–293. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-017-9847-9.
Mesmer-Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 27(2), 155–190. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683941211199554.
Mo, S., & Shi, J. (2017). Linking ethical leadership to employee burnout, workplace deviance and performance: testing the mediating roles of trust in leader and surface acting. Journal of Business Ethics, 144(2), 293–303. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2821-z.
Ouimet, P., & Zarutskie, R. (2014). Who works for startups? The relation between firm age, employee age, and growth. Journal of Financial Economics, 112(3), 386–407. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfineco.2014.03.003.
Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393–404. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.1998.926617.
Salvaggio, A. N., Hopper, J., & Packell, K. M. (2011). Coworker reactions to observing sexual behavior at work. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 26(7), 604–622. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683941111164508.
Sauermann, H. (2018). Fire in the belly? Employee motives and innovative performance in start‐ups versus established firms. Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 12(4), 423–454. https://doi.org/10.1002/sej.1267.
Searle, R.H., Rice, C., McConnell, A.A., & Dawson, J.F. (2017) Bad apples? Bad barrels? Or bad cellars? Antecedents and processes of professional misconduct in UK Health and Social Care: insights into sexual misconduct and dishonesty. Project Report. Professional Standards Authority. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781316338827.007.
Serva, M. A., Fuller, M. A., & Mayer, R. C. (2005). The reciprocal nature of trust: A longitudinal study of interacting teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 26(6), 625–648. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.331.
Shepherd, C., Marchisio, G., Morrish, S., Deacon, J., & Miles, M. (2010). Entrepreneurial burnout: Exploring antecedents, dimensions and outcomes. Journal of Research in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, 12(1), 71–79. https://doi.org/10.1108/14715201011060894.
Sheppard, L. D., & Johnson, S. K. (2019). The femme fatale effect: attractiveness is a liability for businesswomen’s perceived truthfulness, trust, and deservingness of termination. Sex Roles, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01031-1.
Sheppard, L. D., O'Reilly, J., van Dijke, M., Restubog, S. L. D., & Aquino, K. (2020). The stress-relieving benefits of positively experienced social sexual behavior in the workplace. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 156, 38–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2019.09.002.
Sieger, P., Fueglistaller, U., & Zellweger, T. (2016). Student entrepreneurship 2016: insights from 50 countries. KMU-HSG/IMU, St. Gallen/Bern. Available from: http://www.guesssurvey.org/resources/PDF_InterReports/GUESSS_2016_INT_Report_final5.pdf. Accessed 06 Nov 2020.
Spector, M. D., & Jones, G. E. (2004). Trust in the workplace: factors affecting trust formation between team members. The Journal of Social Psychology, 144(3), 311–321. https://doi.org/10.3200/socp.144.3.311-321.
Taylor, S. E. (1991). Asymmetrical effects of positive and negative events: the mobilization-minimization hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 67–85. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.67.
Turner, M. M., Mazur, M. A., Wendel, N., & Winslow, R. (2003). Relational ruin or social glue? The joint effect of relationship type and gossip valence on liking, trust, and expertise. Communication Monographs, 70(2), 129–141. https://doi.org/10.1080/0363775032000133782.
Van Fleet, D. (2018). Human capital and inappropriate behavior: review and recommendations. Journal of Human Resource and Sustainability Studies (2018), 06(04), 275–293. https://doi.org/10.4236/jhrss.2018.64042.
Watkins, M. B., Smith, A. N., & Aquino, K. (2013). The use and consequences of strategic sexual performances. Academy of Management Perspectives, 27(3), 173–186. https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2010.0109.
Weick, K., & Westley, F. (1996). Organizational learning: Affirming an oxymoron. In S. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organizational studies (pp. 440–458). Thousand Oaks: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446218563.n10.
Welter, F. (2012). All you need is trust? A critical review of the trust and entrepreneurship literature. International Small Business Journal, 30(3), 193–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266242612439588.
Wiklund, J., Baker, T., & Shepherd, D. (2010). The age-effect of financial indicators as buffers against the liability of newness. Journal of Business Venturing, 25(4), 423–437. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusvent.2008.10.011.
Willness, C. R., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007). A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology, 60(1), 127–162. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00067.x.
We wish to thank the National Centre for Family Business at Dublin City University for providing access to the GUESSS dataset. We also thank our two anonymous referees and the editors of this special issue of SBE for their guidance and feedback.
The National Centre for Family Business at DCU provided access to the GUESSS data.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
The Stata code used to generate the results in this paper is available on request.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Gillanders, R., Lyons, R. & van der Werff, L. Social sexual behaviour and co-worker trust in start-up enterprises. Small Bus Econ 57, 765–780 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-020-00381-5
- Social sexual behaviour
- Start-up employee
- Co-worker trust
- Harassing behaviours
- Start-up workplace