Are ‘office hours’ the solution to workplace sexual harassment?

There are commonalities between large universities and the modern workplace. Much like administrators or professors, executives are often over-scheduled with sparse one-on-one time for their employees. And meanwhile, companies — like college campuses — are adapting to major cultural shifts in the country.

So it may not come as a huge surprise that some chief executives have adopted a college practice that has been effective over the years: Office hours. The scheduled slots have become integral to academic life, when students get face time with their otherwise occupied professors. Now, corporate leaders are holding their very own office hours to make time for the voices that often go unheard in their workplaces.

“It’s a trend that’s definitely going upward where employers are saying, ‘I’ve lost touch with my employees, with my culture. How do I get that touch back?’” said Jared Pope,  HR law specialist and founder of Work Shield.

Access to leaders

Office hours in the corporate world have been in fashion for some years now. Back in 2009, Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor wrote about the phenomenon in Harvard Business Review after hearing about its adoption by others.

But the practice is now part of a wider solution at some workplaces looking to prevent bad actors from engaging in sexual misconduct on the job. And indeed, Pope said creating a culture of openness through office hours can be a way to thwart a would-be harasser.

“Having that office hour, or that ability to talk with executive leadership, it’s a step in the right direction to offer this workplace free of harassment, free of discrimination,” Pope said.

Though “office hours” may be a catch-all phrase, not all of these employer-employee interfaces have to be in an office with a closed door. The allotted time could be over breakfast or lunch, Pope said, or take the form of a coffee with the CEO or a round table. The trend just means getting the leadership to different populations within a company so that the people in charge are accessible and ready to listen.

Culture of openness

But, Pope cautioned, a culture of openness is only one component of a larger fix. As long as the employer is involved in handling reports of sexual misconduct, an employee who has been the victim of harassment may fear retaliation or termination, or might just be afraid of going unheard. And even if an executive is willing to listen, a survivor might not practically be willing to speak up in such a visible environment.

“If I’m fearful to go to my boss or to HR, am I going to go tell the CEO?” Pope asked.

In addition to a culture of openness, Pope recommends companies partner with services such as Work Shield that independently handle workplace harassment claims so that employees don’t have to be afraid to report inappropriate behaviors. That way, businesses are working to prevent sexual misconduct and other forms of harassment by letting their workers know their door is open. And when something bad does happen, employees can feel empowered to come forward.