Avoiding Dinners With Female Colleagues May Not Be the Answer to Avoiding Lawsuits

By: Amy Epstein Gluck

Fear of potential sexual harassment lawsuits could lead to different problems. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“I don’t even know what I’m allowed to say to women anymore.”

“Don’t sit next to her on a plane during that work trip.”

“I’m afraid to invite a female colleague to an event without the invitation looking like an unwanted advance.”

Sound familiar? It should. We talked about this earlier this year (here) in the context of the unintended consequence of the #MeToo movement: the increasing marginalization of women in workplaces because of fear of unfounded accusations.

This fear has created serious issues.

I told you about one Fortune report that the #MeToo movement has led to the decline of male mentors according to a January 2018 survey of almost 3,000 employed adults by LeanIn.org and (a February 2018) survey of 5900 adults by SurveyMonkey. That survey found that almost half of male managers are uncomfortable mentoring, working alone, or socializing with a woman.

According to the LeanIn survey, “senior” men were 3.5 times more likely to reconsider having a work dinner with a junior female colleague than a male one. Further, five times more senior men reported being averse to going on a business trip with a junior woman.

Now, over coffee this morning (complete with Trader Joe’s new cocoa peppermint almond creamer—you have got to try it), I read that Bloomberg reported that this phenomenon of avoiding women has intensified on Wall Street.

According to this article, the #MeToo movement has struck so much fear in the hearts of men on Wall Street that they have decided to dodge women in their workplaces entirely.

No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings. For real.

In fact, as a wealth adviser put it, just hiring a woman these days is “an unknown risk.” What if she took something he said the wrong way?

Don’t Treat Women as Toxic

As we discussed here, in the workplace we do not want male supervisors, executives, and employees to treat women as if they were toxic—like live hand grenades. The workplace is neither a bar nor a potential dating pool.

But, that said, we don’t want to unintentionally create “bro clubs” or male-dominated cliques in the workplace either— especially where men are the arbiters of a woman’s promotion or partnership potential. This would impede the mentoring needed to promote women and could increase attrition of female employees. Moreover, studies show that when organizations employ more women, sexual harassment is less prevalent.

Now, Wall Street risks becoming more of a boy’s club, rather than less of one, the Bloomberg authors conclude. Some men said they won’t meet with female employees in rooms without windows anymore, and one dude, on the advice of his wife apparently, has a new rule: no business dinner with a woman 35 or younger.

For real, again. How are women expected to advance when excluded from such opportunities?

Comments like the ones I opened this post with and these statistics show that women are being frozen out of opportunities for advancement that their male counterparts receive because managers and other higher-ups fear sexual harassment allegations. How will we achieve gender parity in the workplace if these fears become the new normal?

This fear could breed completely different legal issues if allowed to flourish.

Steering clear of women in the workplace could very well lead to a sex discrimination lawsuit. Remember, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits treating an individual adversely in the terms and conditions of that person’s employment because of that person’s sex or on the basis of sex. Let’s look at the actual language:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer …(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s … sex….

Thus, conduct like that described above would back men out of the sexual harassment frying pan and into the fire. Men shouldn’t stop mentoring women or eschew them out of fear of a sexual harassment allegation. It harms women’s opportunities for advancement and has the potential of increasing risk for a sex discrimination claim.

The solution, as one CEO put it in the Bloomberg article is simple, “Try not to be an a[**]hole. It’s really not that hard.”

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.