No, You Cannot Refuse To Meet Alone With Female Employees

The outrage machine known as the Trump administration gave us some interesting information this week about Mike Pence and his treatment of female employees.

In a Washington Post profile of Mike Pence’s wife Karen one sentence stirred up a LOT of controversy:

“In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”

As expected, pundits on the right applauded Pence’s dedication to his marriage and those on the left described his behavior as illegal and sexist.

Over the weekend a former Pence aide wrote in the Washington Post that this rule never held her career back. She stated:

“He wasn’t having private dinners much at all. He had children at home, so as often as possible, after voting and his daily duties, he’d race home to share a meal with the people that mattered most to him: his family. Frankly, he modeled for male and female staffers alike that it was possible to serve in a public role with excellence while being wholly dedicated to his family.”

Based on the aide’s description, it doesn’t sound as if Pence’s rule had any negative effect on his female employees. So, is it okay for a manager to have this kind of rule?

Title VII and the Workplace

Disclaimer: Please understand that I am NOT an attorney. That means anything I say should not be considered legal advice, what follows are some thoughts I have on this issue based on my experience and limited knowledge of the situation.

As an HR pro, any time I hear that there are different rules for men and women my alarm bells go off.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act specifically outlaws gender based discrimination (and a host of other factors which you can read about here). That means you cannot make employment decisions based on gender and you cannot treat people differently based on gender. Examples of illegal activity would include:

  • Publishing a job post and asking that only men apply
  • Denying a qualified woman, a promotion because clients prefer to work with a man

The dinner rule could be discriminatory if the manager regularly conducted business with male employees but female employees were excluded from dinners because of their gender. If, as stated in the aide’s Washington Post article, Pence did not have dinner meetings on a regular basis, I don’t think that the “no dinner” rule is “illegal.” Of course, that doesn’t mean the rule is right.

Refusing to Spend Any Time Alone with Women

Of far greater concern in the workplace would be a male manager refusing to spend 1:1 time alone with a woman. It turns out that happens in congress as well, some male congressmen refuse to spend 1:1 time alone with women. Some follow the “Graham Rule” and others are concerned about appearances and the propriety of meeting behind closed doors with women. Regardless the reason, if based solely on gender, these rules are illegal and deny female employees the coaching and feedback that is critical to professional development.

Throughout my career some of the best coaching I received was from a male manager, he met weekly with all of his direct reports in 1:1 meetings where we discussed performance, challenges I was facing and how I could overcome them. He provided valuable feedback and coaching I would not have received if he had a rule about not meeting alone with women.

Justifying the “Rules”

The Pence story is a hot topic because it fits the opinions we hold (on both sides of the aisle) about the Trump/Pence administration and exemplifies the discomfort many still have about women in the workplace.

Instead of acting professionally and being accountable for our behavior some use the example of the office affair to justify rules about not meeting alone with women. These rules are insulting to men (men can’t control themselves) and women (women are “provocative”) because they propagate damaging gender stereotypes.

What HR Must Do

As HR professionals, we have to navigate this complex environment of gender, the office and the law. In some circumstances, it’s as easy of explaining where a rule violates the law. In murkier circumstances, it’s our duty to speak up and help our teams learn how to set proper boundaries and conduct themselves professionally so that everyone in the workplace has the opportunity to develop and progress.


You win with people.


Originally published at HR reMix.