Is This Smart Risk Management, Discriminatory, Or Both?

Some executives, politicians, and other high-profile figures are vulnerable to accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or consensual but inappropriate sexual relations. A single accusation can be all it takes to destroy a career or irreparably harm a reputation.

Many of those charges are true, of course, but at least some are not. As a result, some bosses—mostly men—have implemented policies that forbid female staffers from being alone with them.

Some Christian conservatives, for example—including Billy Graham, Kirk Cameron, and Rick Warren—try to avoid ever being seen alone with another woman. Warren once said that he has to “set up the parameters that keep you from even being tempted in those areas, which means for instance, I’m never alone, ever, ever, alone with a woman, or even by myself when I’m traveling.”

As a media trainer who helps clients manage risk, I understand their sentiment and why they’d want to take measures to avoid even a whiff of impropriety. But in practice, those sentiments come at a cost—mostly to women—who suffer from a lack of one-on-one access with their bosses.

Pastor Rick Warren

Pastor Rick Warren

According to The National Journal, several male members of Congress have implemented similar rules:

“It’s no secret that Congress is dominated by men, but as women work to make inroads in the congressional boys club, some female staffers face a huge impediment to moving up: They’re not allowed to spend one-on-one time with their male bosses.

In an anonymous survey of female staffers conducted by National Journal in order to gather information on the difficulties they face in a male-dominated industry, several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.”

Such practices may not only be hurting women’s careers, but may also be illegal:

“Debra S. Katz, an employment discrimination attorney in Washington for thirty years, said she’d never heard of a such a policy being employed in the private sector, but added that ‘the practices are clearly discriminatory in my view.’”

From a risk management perspective, it makes sense to minimize potential risks. But having separate policies that hurt women in the workplace is clearly wrong.

Such policies are also insufficient as inoculators. As the high-profile Mark Foley scandal showed, harassment can also be directed toward same-sex colleagues. Therefore, it seems that in order to be a truly effective risk management strategy, these politicians should never be alone with any one person, regardless of gender, and should only meet with employees or travel in groups.

And that, of course, is almost certainly impractical.

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Photo via Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons