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Mentor Fail: #MeToo No Excuse

Last Saturday, I was at the luggage return of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston after a long business trip to Rome. While standing there, I noticed three people, two older men and a younger woman, who obviously all worked for the same company. They too had been on a long business trip and it was evident from their conversation that it had been a very rewarding trip. In particular, the younger female co-worker expressed appreciation that she had been given the opportunity to come on the trip. It was encouraging.

In the last several months, multiple executives — both male and female — have asked me whether male executives should ever travel with women in their company out of fear that it could expose them and their company to #MeToo type claims. Although well-intentioned, this type of thinking is not only a poor business strategy, but also could be evidence of illegal discrimination. The #MeToo type claims that I have seen recently have been primarily accompanied by a history of improper behavior, not based on accidental contact or a stray inappropriate comment. To the contrary, I have seen many claims being brought by women based on their perception of having been denied workplace opportunities — including by being excluded from projects, meetings, or trips that were attended by only male co-workers. I have also seen that, even when the exclusion of female co-workers does not lead to legal claims being asserted, failing to give these opportunities to women can have deleterious effects on the company’s culture and how it is perceived by its customers.

Setting aside any legal liabilities, everyone in a management position, men and women alike, must also understand that mentoring subordinates is part of the job. To mentor properly, it sometimes means bringing those subordinates along on trips for important meetings or events. If a male manager fails to give the same opportunities to female subordinates that he gives to male subordinates — even when travel is involved — he is failing not only as a supervisor but as a mentor. The #MeToo movement should not be used as an excuse for treating male and female employees differently.

Obviously, when traveling on business, all employees — managers and subordinates alike — should use common sense. When socializing with fellow workers and clients, alcohol consumption should be limited. Similarly, meetings should take place in public areas or conference rooms. Managers should avoid meeting their subordinates in a hotel room. What this means is that when you travel for business, regardless of who is traveling with you, recognize it is for business and act accordingly. Offering male and female employees the same opportunities — including travel opportunities — will not only help avoid discrimination claims, but by doing so you may find yourself in an airport waiting for your luggage, being thanked sincerely by a subordinate for giving them the chance.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.