How the Mike Pence Rule is Hurting Corporate America

Several months ago, I published an article where I said I was totally against romantic relationships in the workplace. And after the #MeToo campaign has brought forth countless stories of sexual harassment, assault, and mistreatment of women to light, I was glad we had such a policy.

Not because I hate romance or think people shouldn’t be allowed to have a social life, but because workplace romances can open up the company to all kinds of legal and PR problems. We were fortunate enough to avoid them, and I hope that was because our staff knew better.

If I found that two co-workers were in a relationship, I would always require the more senior of the two leave the company or they had to end the relationship.

I had a number of reasons for this. For one thing, there could be a conflict of interests. Once, a woman in HR was dating someone in the shipping department who was also part of a company personnel bargaining unit. There were plenty of chances for private information to be exchanged, even inadvertently, and that created a conflict of interest and a violation of trust among other bargaining unit members. They couldn’t be sure their representative wasn’t sharing negotiation tactics or that he wasn’t getting private information from the HR rep.

Another problem is that it’s always hard to manage family members, so I made it a policy to never, ever hire family members. I recognize the irony of implementing that rule in a family-owned business, but when I was the president and COO, I could ignore the family-owned aspect and implement my own rules.

What I had found is that when family members of employees were hired (and often placed under those employees), we had lax management, and discipline and productivity dropped. I was worried we could have the same kind of problem between two romantic partners in the same department.

But what really worried me was the potential accusations of sexual harassment and impropriety by one employee against another in a relationship gone sour. So rather than deal with any accusations and potential lawsuits, I decided to never allow those kinds of relationships in the first place.

And now that #MeToo has shown all of us what happens to women in every workplace, I feel better about my decision regarding workplace romance.

Don’t Manage by the Mike Pence Rule

However, the #MeToo backlash is having a chilling effect on the professional advancement of women. (Please note, I’m saying the backlash to #MeToo is causing the problem, not #MeToo itself.)

The Mike Pence Rule says men shouldn't meet with women one-on-one for business, which hurts the woman's professional development.
Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt at the G8 Deauville Partnership: Women in Business reception in London
Some men have said they will no longer meet with women alone in the workplace, let alone have lunch meetings or travel with them on business.

It’s the Mike Pence Rule, so named after Vice President Mike Pence who has said he will never meet with a woman alone without his wife present, and will never attend an event where alcohol is served unless she’s with him.

While this seems wise on the surface, it’s more harmful than helpful. For one thing, it assumes Mike Pence can’t control himself or behave like an adult. For another, it prevents any women who want to have a political career that runs through the Vice President’s office will be shut out of meaningful advancement.

But rather than try to solve the problem, many companies have adopted variations of the Mike Pence Rule. According to a Washington Post article,

Companies have begun imposing rules that limit mixed-gender travel and male employees have canceled one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. A Washington Post story this week detailed how the Pence rule is taking hold across industries: A male lobbyist left behind a young, female co-worker on a working trip, even though she had done much of the preparation. A male surgeon no longer greets a longtime colleague with a friendly hug. — Feb. 1, 2018

Listen, treating men like idiots and predators is not going to solve this problem. Acting like they can’t help themselves around women is not going to solve this problem. It’s insulting to both men and women. It says men don’t know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and don’t have to learn it.

And shutting women out of important work opportunities is only going to hurt their own professional growth, not teach men how not to be predatory a-holes. So don’t be surprised when your top female associates leave en masse for companies that don’t treat everyone like children.

Bottom line: Hold sexual harassment training for your workers. Be very clear on what is acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior. Revisit the topic regularly and continue to train people on it. Encourage men and women to treat each other like professionals.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Wikimedia Commons, Open Government Licence 1.0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.