City of Austin’s SXSW coordinator in trouble for refusing to meet with female coworkers alone

It’s much harder to work together with your colleagues if they don’t let you meet in the same room. But even if it would help get the job done, some employees avoid one-and-one interactions with employees of the opposite sex because they believe that proximity leads to unwanted sexual attention. Case in point, the City of Austin, Texas has issued a formal reprimand to the city official in charge of overseeing the annual South by Southwest festival — saying he violated city code of conduct rules by refusing to meet with female city employees he thought were attracted to him, according to The Austin American-Statesman.

Austin official William Manno allegedly skipped work meetings because a communications consultant he thought had romantic feelings for him was going to be in attendance, refused to eat lunch with female coworkers and threatened to reassign some of his female coworkers to different departments because of problems in his marriage, according to emails, memos and statements collected as part of the city’s internal investigation that were obtained by the Statesman.

City employee: Having lunch with female co-worker alone is “not appropriate”

According to a July 10 memo, Manno told a female communications consultant that he could not eat lunch with her because “I’ve been told it is not appropriate for a married man to have lunch with a single lady.” The consultant found Manno’s statement “odd” because she thought they were getting lunch for mentoring purposes, not for dating purposes, and told him so, according to the investigative report obtained by the Statesman.

A business specialist tipped off the city’s human resources department, who found after an investigation that “Manno differentiated in his mentoring of subordinate employees based upon gender and marital status, and he likewise made decisions regarding which meetings he and a subordinate would attend based on marital status and factors unrelated to his role as a manager for the city of Austin.”

In other words, the city found that making decisions on who gets face time with the boss based on subjective judgments about their attraction to you is discriminatory.

While Manno was reprimanded in August, he was allowed to keep his job on the condition that he does not engage in misconduct again, according to reports.

Manno is fighting the decision, and filed a grievance that acknowledged that while he agrees that bringing personal issues with his marriage into the workplace is “unprofessional and inappropriate conduct,” the city’s memo included “misleading and incorrect information.”

One-on-one time between men and women makes employees anxious

Manno is not the only employee who is anxious about how men and women should behave when they are alone together. A 2017 Morning Consult/New York Times poll found that men and women avoided one-on-one time with each other because they worried about the situation turning sexual, flirtatious, or into a case of sexual harassment. The poll found that the majority of men and women are okay with meeting alone with co-workers of the opposite sex at work. But outside of work, 60% of women and 48% of men surveyed believed it was inappropriate to have drinks with a person who is not your partner.

That’s a finding U.S. Vice President Mike Pence would agree with. In an interview that went viral and sparked outcry, Pence told reporters that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.

And a 2010 Harvard Business Review report found that men avoid being women’s sponsors in the workplace “because sponsorship can be misconstrued as sexual interest.”

What that means for women

Studies show the division of the sexes can disproportionately hurt women’s career chances.

Between the scarcity of women in the C-suite, and the quiet advantage of the “old boys club” through male-centric golf games, sports games and other clubs, if you’re a boss who doesn’t let employees have equal face time, you’re effectively shutting down a path to long-term career success for the women in your office, experts say.

In one extreme case, a boss’ attraction to his employee cost the employee her job. In a 2012 case, an Iowa dentist fired his assistant because she was too attractive to work with and a threat to his marriage. The Iowa Supreme Court bought the dentist’s irresistible attraction argument and upheld the firing, saying that it was motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender.

The fired assistant’s lawyer argued that this case unfairly set a precedent that “Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires.”