New research into workplace behavior has identified men in lower, subordinate positions as those most likely to use flirting to try and get ahead in their job – and the most likely to be using sexual innuendo and harrassing female bosses too.

The root of what the researchers describe as unwanted social sexual behavior from these men seems to be a desire to look more masculine and powerful in front of colleagues – even when those initiating the behavior know it might be viewed as offensive.

This is based on a variety of tests and experiments involving a total of 2,598 adults and students living in the US, most self-identifying as heterosexual. The volunteers were asked to try and define their own social sexual identity (SSI) – a new term introduced in this study that indicates how someone thinks they might leverage sex appeal in the pursuit of personal gains.

"Most of the literature in this field focuses on men in power," says psychologist Laura Kray, from the University of California, Berkeley.

"But through a number of studies, we've debunked the myth that social sexual behavior is something that only high-power men do – that somehow power is this aphrodisiac that makes people take advantage of others sexually."

The tests took several forms, including asking participants to pick out questions that they would feel comfortable asking their colleagues, and to assess hypothetical interactions between people who were working together.

In one experiment, 203 volunteers were told they would be paired up with a partner, and could exchange personal information (like their gender, life goals, personality traits and attractiveness) beforehand in written form. They were then matched with an unknown individual of the opposite sex and given a role of either boss or subordinate.

The next step was getting the volunteers to choose from a list of questions they would like to pose to their new partner. These were divided into questions with and without sexual connotations (so "have you ever had a workplace relationship?" versus "have you ever had a workplace conflict?" for example).

Male students who were told they would be working for a female boss chose social sexual questions more often than female students in the same situation. They also chose more social sexual questions than male and female volunteers who were told they'd be boss to a male or female subordinate.

That counters the traditional stereotypes: that females being employed in lower-level jobs looking to advance their careers or powerful male bosses wanting to manipulate others are the ones who are most likely to engage in sexual social behavior while at work.

"In other words, it's a desire for more power – not holding power – that corrupts," says organizational psychologist Jessica Kennedy, from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

What's more, there's a link to social sexual identity as well: the men most likely to engage in sexual behavior were also most likely to describe themselves as "charming flirts" and as people with "sex appeal". A strong sexual identity acts as a predictor of how people are going to behave at work.

The researchers are keen to point out that their study doesn't go into the rightness or wrongness of flirting in this way, and that the conclusions they've drawn don't mean that sexual harrassment can't come from those in powerful positions – as it clearly can.

Future training on sexual harrassment in the workplace could cover some self-reflection on whether or not "teasing" or "joking" could be an early indicator of something more serious, the team behind the new study suggests.

"People generally have positive associations with being a flirt or being charming or having sex appeal," says Kray. "But when we take on that identity, it leads to certain behavioral patterns that reinforce the identity. And then, people use that identity as an excuse."

The research has been published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.