Sunday, July 5, 2009

REALLY Casual Fridays - Naked Office

A British design and marketing company called in business psychologist David Taylor to help boost office morale. His recommendation was a little unconventional: naked office (as in nobody wears clothes at work).

This sounds like a script for an episode of The Office. You can just picture Michael Scott explaining to Toby, the HR rep, that he has instructed Pam to come in naked tomorrow... "but don't worry, I told her I'd be naked too!" Soft spoken Toby sits there with a look on his face like his head's gonna explode.

My first reaction to this story was that this is a sexual harassment suit in the making. Under U.S. law, Title VII prohibits quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment harassment.

Quid pro quo, literally translated, means "something for something," and is often interpreted as "this for that." Generally speaking, employers cannot condition job benefits or job detriments upon an employee's response to unwelcome sexual advances. A naked office employee assures us, however, that:
"We weren't put under pressure. If we wanted to come in clothed or in our underwear, we could."
Hmmm, maybe the naked office would be safe from a Title VII quid pro quo claim in America.

What about a hostile work environment harassment claim? There are several considerations for such a claim, including: harassment was pervasive and regular, detrimental impact to plaintiff, would have a detrimental impact on a reasonable person, frequency of harassment, severity of harassment, whether harassment was physically threatening or humiliating, and interference with plaintiff's work performance.

Well, I would certainly knock off a number of the items on that checklist. Ultimately, I would need more facts for a full analysis and even then it may be a judgment call. One thing's for certain, even if the nudity is not itself harassment it's pretty easy to see how it could lead to hostile work environment harassment.

Whether you're an attorney analyzing Title VII claims, an HR manager analyzing employee satisfaction, or a business manager analyzing operations, one of your primary goals should be ensuring the employees are comfortable in their work environment. Employees who feel humiliated, discriminated against, or just awkward will under perform, become dissatisfied, and ultimately may file a lawsuit.

I would question how comfortable employees at any business would be with a naked office. The staff in the article linked above seem to have embraced the idea. Of course, maybe it's just a marketing gimmick to get bloggers to write about them... and oh yeah, the TV show airs this week in the UK.


  1. Maybe the reason this has not been tried in the US is that companies here would be too afraid of the potential liability under theories such as those you mention. However, I don't see any basis whatsoever for a claim of sexual harrassment or hostile work environment merely based on encouraging, but not requiring, employees to come to work naked for one day. And I'd be disappointed in Americans if it turned out that we are even more prudish than the Brits, and thus not at all open to this idea.

    On a related note, I have heard of a number of coffee shops in the US that, because of a decline in business, have resorted to having the servers wear bikinis, or even work topless. I actually wouldn't be as surprised to see claims arising from that situation, where a mandatory bikini or topless uniform was imposed, as opposed to the situation described in the article, where a counselor suggested nudity to a group of employees as a team-building exercise.

    Finally, you really ought to consider posting illustrations in articles such as this one, as a way of building up web site traffic.

  2. Thanks Joe! I remember seeing something about those coffee shops on the news but I don't think I have any nearby.

    The two main problems I see with a naked office (from a legal standpoint) are that 1. It sounds crazy... which may make some juries/judges start their analysis with a presumption of "well this has just gotta be wrong somehow"; and 2. Even if the naked office itself is OK, I would be afraid that it would invite inappropriate conduct from co-workers/supervisors/customers.

    I do need to get some pictures on this blog. This would have been the perfect time to start, huh?

  3. eeew, ick. Is all I have to say. Ok, I have more. 1) this would NEVER work in the US because at heart we are a very prudish nation. 2) I see a great deal of potential for hostile work place suits -- I personally would not want to go to work and see my fat ugly boss naked, or for that matter my extremely handsome or beautiful boss. Plus there is the whole problem of co-ed offices and involuntary reactions -- what if one female employee got more of such reactions than another -- it just sets up too many bad feelings.

    But it's an interesting/thought provoking idea -- in the abstract. And yes, it would be a great episode of the office.