One employee wrote into the advice column, Ask a Manager, to inquire about a policy some of her coworkers and managers adhere to: they do not spend time alone with any coworkers of the opposite sex. The writer details that this self-imposed–but company-supported–policy impacts "performance reviews, work trips, and work-related outings," not to mention employee morale. She continues:
...I feel like it leads to inequitable treatment when managers can have off-site 1:1 performance reviews (per the typical practice of the company) with their male employees and not with female employees, or could potentially be career-limiting if, say, they needed to choose someone to travel with them for a project and choose a male employee due to their beliefs.
Male managers who follow this policy–the "Pence rule," for lack of a better term–might offer offsite one-on-one sessions with women as long as another witness present, such as another coworker or fellow manager. But for these managers, the practice of meeting alone with a woman is strictly forbidden.
Ask a Manager's Alison Green writes back to this reader, saying:
This is disgusting and sexist, and it hurts women. Despite some high-profile instances of employers apparently tolerating this (Mike Pence), you cannot allow employees, and especially managers, to treat men and woman differently in substantive ways that have real impact on them. It’s illegal.
According to Green, if these managers prefer not to meet alone with women, then they must apply this same practice with their male colleagues. The policy uses the guise of protection for both women and men, yet it results in the same workplace discrimination the business world has been harboring for years; men are able to advance through camaraderie while women are left looking for a way in.
According to some conservatives, the Pence rule is the best way to avoid even the appearance of anything compromising. It's there to help both parties: Women never have to feel uncomfortable when alone with their male managers, and men never have to worry about what it might look like to have a late-night meeting with a female colleague.
For some, this is more than enough reason to keep to the rule. According to The Federalist's Collin Garbarino, the Pence rule is the only way to protect one's self from allegations. If you are loyal and honorable in all your actions, the Pence rule remains perfectly innocent.
The New York Times' Katelyn Beaty explains the Pence rule's Christian roots, as it originated as the "Billy Graham rule" and still has a large following among Christian men. According to this camp, interacting with women alone can "open the door to temptation." Beaty, a Christian herself, writes:
It’s time for men in power to believe their female peers when they say that the rule hurts more than helps.
The Pence rule arises from a broken view of the sexes: Men are lustful beasts that must be contained, while women are objects of desire that must be hidden away. Offering the Pence rule as a solution to male predation is like saying, “I can’t meet with you one on one, otherwise I might eventually assault you.” If that’s the case, we have far deeper problems around men and power than any personal conduct rule can solve.
Furthermore, in taking on this practice, men imply that avoiding solo meetings with women is the only way to "protect" themselves from misconstrued signals or from the act of harassment itself. Not only is this patronizing to women, but it fails to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace whatsoever.
Make no mistake, someone bent on harassment or assault is not going to be stopped by a silly rule. The Pence rule only addresses optics, rather than action, failing to protect employees from harassment as a result. If a company actually wants to curb workplace harassment, they’d be much better off defining harassment, bolstering their HR systems, and elevating women in the workplace. Instead, these managers and companies are demanding witnesses at meetings and crying “impropriety!” as soon as a door closes.
For some, the Pence rule is not hard and fast. Instead, it acts as a guideline for common sense. If there's no need for a man to be alone in his office with a woman after hours, why would he put yourself in that situation? Whether it's to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the possibility of harassment, or simply making one party uncomfortable unintentionally, the Pence rule can help employees maintain professionalism.
Some followers of the rule understand that it isn't perfect and can't pertain to every single work situation. This camp is able to leverage common sense to ensure that opportunities are still being offered equally among employees.
Alternatively, lurking behind the Pence-rule-veil is male protection from what could only be many manipulative, vindictive, lying women who only wish to be alone in a room with a man so they can entrap them, accuse them, and ruin their lives. Don’t kid yourself, these men are protecting themselves from what they see as a new world of allegations, not from preventing possible harassment.
In a business setting, the Pence rule could also violate Title XII, rendering it illegal in the workplace. Law professor Joanna Grossman explains on Vox:
Title VII, which governs workplace discrimination, does not allow employers to treat people differently on the basis of certain protected characteristics, one of which is sex. This means that an employer cannot set the terms and conditions of employment differently for one gender than for the other. This includes any aspect of the relationship between employer and employees — extending to benefits like equal access to the employer.
Employment lawyer Donna Ballman adds her own insight on Ask a Manager:
If only one gender is singled out in a way that affects their ability to do their job, their promotion prospects, or other terms and conditions of employment, it’s sex discrimination, pure and simple.
That means anyone who decides, for whatever reason, not to be alone with a certain gender of employee must refuse to be alone with all. I’m guessing that will make working almost impossible in many jobs.
Despite the newfound attention over the Pence rule, the rule itself is not new in business. If men or women feel they can use a guideline like this to help maintain professionalism and respect in the workplace, they should continue adhering to it.