With new high profile sexual harassment allegations coming out on a daily basis, a lot of companies are considering policy changes and putting new protocols into place. One new rule not to establish? The Pence Rule.
The Pence Rule is referring to a principle created by Baptist Minister Billy Graham — that a man should not eat, travel, or meet alone with any woman who is not his wife — and is now touted by Vice President Mike Pence. He revealed that he follows his own version of the rule, and does not dine or work late with women alone. He also will not attend events that serve alcohol without his wife.
This practice may seem like a quick fix to the pervasive issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. After all, harassment can’t occur if men and women are never alone together, right? But Tom Spiggle, a lawyer who specializes in pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment cases, breaks down why this rule could do more harm than good, and get you into some real legal trouble.
Discriminatory by definition
The rule, by definition, treats women and men differently in the workplace, Spiggle says. Male employees would be allowed to sit down in private with the male boss, but female employees could not. Important conversations can occur in these one-on-one meetings that women would never get to be a part of. Female employees are effectively shut out of any opportunities to really talk with the decision-makers.
The Pence Rule in court
Spiggle points out that separating men and women isn’t even guaranteed to stop harassment, since it can occur online and through phone calls. And while things such as sexual harassment training can protect your company in court, the Pence Rule would offer no such protection. In fact, Spiggle says it’s more likely to backfire and be used against you in court.
Following the Pence Rule can show the court a culture of discrimination. Spiggle gives the example of a woman suing her company because a less qualified male employee received a promotion over her, a more qualified female employee. Whatever the reasons for this were, when the court sees that the company also doesn’t allow a man and a woman to interact alone, a discriminatory pattern starts to emerge. Shutting women out of opportunities to build professional relationships with the boss suggests a workplace environment that gives male employees preference over females, Spiggle says.
Instead of something as drastic and legally dangerous as the Pence rule, Spiggle offers a few common sense guidelines all companies should put into place:
- Don’t harass colleagues
- Don’t comment on their appearance
- Don’t ask about their romantic lives
- Don’t tell crude jokes, and
- Do treat everyone with professional respect.