David Donovan of South Carolina Lawyers Weekly posted an article, “The Pence Policy: Male-Female Interaction Rule May Have Pitfalls for Employers”, which addresses how Vice President Pence’s policy to never eat alone with a woman other than his wife might disadvantage women if the policy was employed in the workplace because of lost mentoring or career-advancement opportunities. While the reader may well think the association of Vice President Pence’s policy to gender discrimination is far-fetched, the possible consequence of unintentional discrimination is not so tenuous.
If a workplace is predominately staffed with male supervisors and those supervisors are discouraged from fraternizing with members of the opposite gender, then female employees will be excluded from informal mentoring opportunities, ideas shared over lunch or other social events. This dichotomy not only applies to the male-female demographic, but any demographic where the majority is a certain race, national origin, or religion, and the minority is not.
A take-away from the best diversity training I’ve ever heard was that we all tend to associate with those who are like us. We choose to go to lunch or to have social interaction with those folks we most identify with and, as a result, those who are not like us aren’t included. I do not discredit Vice President Pence’s policy and can understand his reasons for following it. When a manager, supervisor or executive adopts a policy like the one espoused by Pence, how can employers insure against unintentional employment discrimination?
Mr. Donovan consulted me in the context of lost training opportunities when researching his article. If an employer streamlines or standardizes its training process and implements it during work hours as part of a formal program, the employer is avoiding the effects of unintentional discrimination as well as creating a defense to any such claims. Putting processes in place for training is wise for other reasons as well, including a consistent outcome or quality of the service or product offered by the company. Employers’ lawyers (including me) often advise against one-on-one meetings between supervisors and subordinates when the purpose of the meeting is for counseling or discipline. However, supervisors should be encouraged to train subordinates consistently and equally. While formal training can be standardized, day-to-day observations as to how a specific employee might improve are, by necessity, individualized.
Supervisors should strive to engage in efforts to improve subordinates equally and can do so without compromising principles similar to those expressed by Vice President Pence. Communicate discreetly but in the open with a subordinate. Include comments about how subordinates might improve on their annual or other periodic reviews. Include areas for improvement under discussions at department meetings without identifying those employees who provided the examples for improvement. There are surely many more opportunities for a supervisor to ensure that all of the subordinates in the supervisors’ department are receiving the same or similar advantages.