congresswhouseI confess that when I first heard the story last week that some Capitol Hill lawmakers were refusing to meet alone with female subordinates, I didn’t pay much attention to it.   Lawmakers just being lawmakers.

(I was also reminded of the old Billy Joel song, I Don’t Want to Be Alone Anymore, but I digress….)

Over the weekend, I was listening to Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast (which I highly recommend) which talked about the story more in detail.

And the more I heard, the more I wondered whether any private employers adopted this practice.

For companies, though, this type of practice is just trouble waiting to happen.

First the backstory. During a recent survey, female staffers reported on sexist behavior at Congress.  Some inadvertent.  But some of it was not.  According to the Washington Post story on it:

The worst transgression, which multiple women reported (and National Journal’s interviews with male colleagues confirmed), was a more deliberate inequity: In some offices, only male staffers can spend time one on one with their (male) bosses.

“There was an office rule that I couldn’t be alone with the congressman,” one anonymous staffer reported.

Another: “I was not allowed to staff my boss at certain events without another male staffer present — because I was a woman.”

And another: “My former boss never took a closed-door meeting with me in the span of working for him, off and on, over a 12-year stretch. Even when I was in a position of senior leadership.”

One woman said she was told she could no longer join her GOP congressman boss at events because the chief of staff decided her presence in so many photos was “not appropriate.” In another case, a similar call was made at the behest of the wife of an unnamed Southern Republican, because the Mrs. thought such interactions looked “unseemly.”

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of such an isolation rule. In schools, for example, teachers are often taught not to be alone with students.  And in sex harassment prevention training course, we sometimes talk about how it’s not a good idea for co-workers at a conference to meet up in one’s hotel room or to force employees to share a hotel room to “cut costs”.

But obviously, this Capitol Hill story goes much further.  And as the Slate Political Gabfest folks correctly note, it may very well be unlawful discrimination — at least as applied to the private workplace.

As one employment law attorney noted in a story for the National Journal:

[The attorney] worries that limitations on what female staffers could do in a congressional office compared to male staffers would hinder hiring decisions. And even for women who do get hired, the lack of one-on-one time could prevent them from moving up within their offices. “You’re not being perceived as a professional,” [she] said.

“So much happens in creating trustful relationships and if you can’t develop a trustful relationship where you’re having some one-on-one time, as the men apparently are getting—I can see many reasons why this is a terrible idea, terrible in the sense of discriminatory,” [the attorney] added, calling the practice “clearly unlawful.”

In short, such a practice is just a bad idea.  If a supervisor is worried about perceptions, he or she has a few choices.  Among them: 1) Refuse to meet with ANY subordinate alone, thereby treating everyone the same; or 2) Meet with subordinates of both genders alone and just avoid any appearance of impropriety.

And a supervisor can do common sense things too — like avoid meeting a subordinate in a hotel room during an off-site conference to avoid the appearance that anything other than work behavior is expected.

But let’s call treating employees differently because of their gender for what it is: Discrimination.