Combating Sexual Harassment In An Open Office Environment

By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr, Managing Member, Seltzer, Chadwick, Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

For the past several years, studies have debated the benefits and detriments of open offices as viable working spaces. One of the benefits touted by open plan proponents is the deterrence of employee misconduct, such as sexual harassment, that privacy often enables.

Even in an open office, however, the risk of sexual harassment persists, albeit in forms unique to the work environment. The absence of walls and barriers may even provide more, not less opportunities for subtle forms of harassment. After all, open floor plans are specifically designed to facilitate close interaction among employees.  

A new study entitled “Doing gender in the ‘new office’” published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization, for instance, shows that open areas may subject female employees to increased leering or staring by male employees, and more comments regarding their personal appearance.

Other risks of an open layout include looming, crowding, brushing and stalking. Seemingly innocuous gestures, words and phrases by employees may actually have sexual connotations.

The formation of employee cliques is also a danger of an open office. Employees huddled together and whispering and giggling may seem innocent to some, but may actually be perceived by others as a form of harassment.

The more open an office environment, moreover, the greater the threat of ostracization of an employee or group of employees. Ostracization can be a powerful form of harassment or retaliation for a complaint of harassment. Fear of ostracization can also deter complaints of harassment.

In some respects, an open office environment may even be more hostile to an employee than a traditional office environment. Without walls or barriers, the employee is constantly sensitive to the surroundings. With no office or cubicle to which the employee can retreat, the affect of harassment can be constant throughout the work day.      

In implementing strategies for combating sexual harassment, employers must thus be mindful of the unique risks presented by an open office. Harassment and retaliation policies and training should address not only overt forms of harassment, but also subtle forms of harassment. Supervisors should be trained to detect and redress subtle forms of harassment. Employees should have private avenues for reporting harassment without fear of retaliation. Without a strategy tailored to an open office environment, the employer risks poor work performance, attrition and legal liability.

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