If you're a male university professor, would you have a closed-door meeting with a female student

What if you're a female university professor, would you have a closed-door meeting with a male student?

What about a closed-door meeting with a student of the same gender, regardless of your sexual orientation?

And what if you're a manager in the corporate world? Are the days of one on one meetings over, for fear of accusations or attacks?

I've personally had countless closed-door meetings with men--and women--and never had a single situation where I felt threatened or someone (to the best of my knowledge) felt threatened by me.

The Wall Street Journal reported on how accusations in the #MeToo era and tenure play against each other. It's difficult to fire professor with tenure--accusations and even investigations that determine fault may result in rule changes but a professor keeping his job. Universities changed their rules:

Schools often choose to resolve complaints outside the court system but within the constraints of the tenure system, coming up with workarounds for accused faculty members: Keep your office door open. Don't mentor any women. No coffees or dinners with students.

The University of Wisconsin specifically told a professor not to meet with women after he was accused of staring at a woman's breasts and making her feel uncomfortable. The university later changed the restriction so that he wasn't allowed to meet with any students, so as to not disadvantage women.

Instead, everyone is disadvantaged.

The problem with complaints such as these is they are impossible to prove or disprove. If the standard for punishment is "made someone feel uncomfortable" then we've got a big problem. 

And who gets that problem? Well, a lot of time women do. 

NBC asked people how their lives changed in the era of #MeToo. Some of the answers are fascinating and depressing. Here's a sampling: 

I minimize my interactions with women now and under no circumstances will I be in a room alone with a woman again. ... We have all been told by our corporate office to not have a man and a woman alone in any room, whether it is an office or a conference room. If a man and a woman have to have a conversation behind closed doors, we are now required to have a third person present, with a fourth being preferred. (Male/Manufacturing/Kene, N.H./Age 43)

I have always been respectful of all co-workers, but after #MeToo, I find myself avoiding social interactions entirely. I've become more disconnected than ever. (Male/High Tech-Software/Raleigh, N.C./Age 40)

I am a woman and #MeToo has screwed me. In Silicon Valley it is really hard to get time with VCs [venture capitalists], so you do whatever it takes. A lot of time that would be meeting them at a bar in the evening. ... It is good networking and that is how I got my initial seed funding. But now no one wants to meet with a woman under 40. Even in the office they won't be alone with you. I'm a big girl and don't need this patriarchal assumption that anything might upset me and make me bring a lawsuit. (Female/Tech startup/San Francisco Bay Area/Age 32).

There were positive stories as well, of course. A woman who pushed for a promotion that she deserved when she wouldn't have before, people being more alert to how others might feel, and a woman finally feeling empowered enough to speak her mind.

But, we cannot deny the downsides. In the first person's company, a male boss can no longer talk quickly with a female subordinate to offer feedback--positive or negative, unless he wants to do it in a group. While that's fine for positive feedback, it can mean that negative feedback isn't happening.

The thing is, we don't generally improve if we don't know where we need to improve. If I had had to gather a group of 4 together every time I wanted to correct an error for one of my employees, most likely I would have just ignored as many errors as possible. Or waited until one was serious enough to call a formal meeting.

Of course, this third and fourth person may well be the HR person, which is great for HR. 

Open doors don't solve all problems either. In fact, they can create additional problems. One of the problems NBC had with people reporting sexual harassment was that HR had glass walls. It's hard to go talk to someone about a serious situation of a personal nature, and now you have to do with everyone seeing and hearing, or with an entire panel in the room.

Are we better off or worse off after #MeToo? Well, it's ousted some very high-level people who, as far we know, really were horrible. Harvey Weinstein was even indicted for rape. But, we absolutely cannot continue with the idea of believing whoever complains.

We're seeing the results of this also playing out on college campuses--where we have the weird situation where, according to Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic, we can have mutually non-consensual sex. The balance is tipped only by the person who first complains. 

Tim Sackett, an HR expert, and influencer just argued that HR shouldn't wait for "proof" before acting. He writes:

I'm willing to be fired for trying to do the right thing. I'm not willing to work in a career that allows people to suffer because I can't 'prove' something. Hundreds of athletes get molested by a doctor because we don't have proof. A hiring manager is racist but we don't have proof. A co-worker is harassing another employee but we don't have proof. Your CEO is a misogynist but you don't have proof.

Sackett would be right to suspend someone--with pay--based on a credible accusation, but not to take final action without proof. He should realize that someone could easily flip this on him. "Sackett is a misogynist," I say, so don't read him. Under his argument, that's enough to ruin his career.

It shouldn't be. I have zero proof that Sackett is a misogynist. As such, my accusation should be ignored. He seems like a fine fellow and he shouldn't suffer from one person's accusation. We should definitely have proof before ruining someone's career. All his examples have proof available--you just have to conduct an investigation.

That's what I want people to remember: an accusation shouldn't be enough to damage anyone. There needs to be proof and an investigation. Otherwise, we all have too much power to destroy each other, and that's not a society we want to live in. 

Published on: Jun 7, 2018