One of the issues all managers struggle with is whether to close the door when meeting with an employee one-on-one. This is particularly true in the traditional power dynamic of a male manager and female subordinate. While privacy is an important consideration, some male managers are not comfortable meeting alone with women. This article will explore the issues that can arise when an employer decides how to handle meetings behind closed doors.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and with the spotlight on inappropriate behavior in the workplace, a renewed trend has begun to emerge – some males in positions of power are refusing to have closed-door meetings with women. The reasoning is clear; these men do not want to risk their reputations. These male bosses want to eliminate the potential for inappropriate conduct, the mere appearance of impropriety, and perhaps most critically to them, false allegations.
How realistic is this fear of false allegations of sexual misconduct? False accusations against an individual can cause deep reputational harm. Therefore, many men believe the best way to prevent this harm is to eliminate the potential for these accusations to arise. One method to accomplish this goal is to refuse to meet with women colleagues behind closed doors.
However, while there are examples of people fabricating claims of sexual harassment or misconduct in the workplace, research shows that false allegations are rare. Further, refusing to have closed-door meetings with women and not their male counterparts may open the door for trouble. What is the best way to manage the balance between protecting yourself and avoiding biased, or perhaps discriminatory, practices in the workplace?
In the mid-twentieth century, the “Billy Graham rule” was made famous by the influential evangelical preacher of the same name. Rev. Graham believed that it was improper for himself to meet, travel, or dine alone with women who were not his wife. He believed that it was important that men avoid situations that may lead to speculation about impropriety and to remain above reproach. Recently, the rule has been dubbed the “Mike Pence rule” due to Vice President Pence’s refusal to eat alone with a woman other than his wife.
Many evangelical leaders adopted the Billy Graham rule and enacted it in their congregations. The rule also garnered a following in the business world, with some managers refusing to interact with women in any way that could be considered inappropriate.
Beginning in the late twentieth century, the Billy Graham rule began to lose popularity. Women became ubiquitous in the workplace and the rule grew to be antiquated.
However, in response to the #MeToo movement, the substance of the Billy Graham rule has been revived in many workplaces. Male bosses throughout the country have begun to refuse to have one-on-one meetings with women behind closed doors. This renewed trend is not without its potential pitfalls. Employers and managers need to be mindful of how these rules are implemented.
Employers need to be extremely careful about only having closed-door meetings with one sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discrimination on the basis of sex. If an employer refuses closed-door meetings with females, while allowing those meetings with men, this could be disparate treatment discrimination in violation of Title VII and state and local laws.
Employers may try to defend themselves from a discrimination complaint by saying that they are protecting against false accusations, but this defense would not likely pass muster as a “bona fide occupational qualification.”
Further, it is archaic to believe that harassment or inappropriate behavior can only occur between members of the opposite sex. Same-sex harassment is also prohibited by Title VII and can lead to the same problems for employers.
Any open-door policy instituted because an individual feels uncomfortable meeting with the opposite sex behind closed doors needs to be enforced uniformly, not along the lines of sex. If a male wants to leave the door open when meeting with females, he needs to also leave the door open when he meets with other males.
Another issue that comes into play with open-door policies is misogyny. Many women are insulted by these rules. The rules subtly suggest that women are not to be trusted and that they can invent a sexual assault or harassment story at any time. Or even worse, that men cannot control themselves around women behind closed doors. Such misogyny can create a toxic culture and an unhealthy work environment.
Another important consideration with respect to closed-door meetings is the culture you wish to instill in the workplace. Most often, when an employee is called into a supervisor’s office and is asked to close the door behind them, there is a sense of fear. Obviously, there are confidential subjects which require the door to be closed. But the culture you create in the workplace can define how those inside, and outside, the room interpret the closed door.
In a positive and trusting work environment, a closed-door meeting might not raise any issues. In a negative environment, the rumors speculating about the topic of the meeting begin as soon as the door shuts. Think about how – and why – you use closed-door meetings, and the psychological impact it may have on your subordinates.
Many times, bosses close the door for meetings out of habit. However, the majority of these meetings do not require the door to be closed. In order to foster a healthy work environment where employees feel comfortable, employers may want to only use closed-door meetings when there is a business necessity.
The primary reason for having closed-door meetings is privacy. Managers and employees are both more likely to communicate openly when they believe their discussions are private. Further, some matters are confidential, such as discussions with about employee compensation, vendor agreements, and any other confidential business information. Meetings about these topics have to occur in a private environment, such as behind the closed door of an office.
Another workplace trend gaining popularity in Corporate America is the open office. These office spaces eliminate separate walled-off areas for employees, such as cubicles. The intent of the open office space is to increase communication, teamwork and approachability amongst workers.
However, the open office layout is not without its critiques. The lack of privacy increases distractions and decreases privacy – two issues that affect employee job satisfaction. One way to alleviate these distractions is to have “breakout rooms,” where employees can work without distraction or have confidential business discussions away from their colleagues.
Regardless of the office setting, privacy is essential for some communications. Whether an employer has an old-world office setting, or a more modern open office space, employers need to have areas where employees can have confidential discussions with supervisors or colleagues.
Open-door only meetings with students have long been an accepted practice in the education world. Some schools even have policies that require faculty and staff to leave the doors open when meeting with students.
As within the business setting, the purpose of the open-door policies is to protect against the appearance of impropriety and false accusations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. The power dynamic between teacher and student is similar to supervisor and subordinate, perhaps even greater. Therefore, many teachers decide to leave the door open when meeting with students. As in Corporate America, teachers who want to leave the door open with females need to apply the same rule with male students.
Employers need to decide how best to handle the “behind closed doors” issue. The easiest solution to the problem is to have windows that always allows a passerby to see into the office. Many modern office spaces are “fishbowls,” which include glass walls throughout. This allows for others to see the identity of the individuals in the room but permits colleagues to have confidential communications behind closed doors. Some fishbowl offices also feature smoked glass, which provides an opaque cover to some of the glass wall, obscuring the identity of the people inside the office.
While many old-world office spaces do not contain windows that allow people to see into offices, employers may install doors with windows. This allows individuals to see into the office while maintaining the confidentiality of meetings. If employers want to ensure the ability to maintain the privacy of individuals in the office, they can install shades on the window that can be drawn when necessary.
If a manager or teacher always leaves the door open and tells the employee that they many shut the door if they like, that may reduce any discomfort an employee might feel. Employers might also want to evaluate their use of closed-door meetings. Are they closing the door for every conversation with an employee? If so, the manager may want to close the door only when there is a business necessity.
The closed-door dynamic is a nuanced issue with many layers. There is no one-size fits all correct answer, but employers and educators need to do their due diligence in making the appropriate decision for their organization. Throughout that assessment, employers would be prudent to analyze the legal, cultural, and privacy issues before creating a policy.