A female Muslim employee recently joined my team. I work in IT — cybersecurity as a the technical lead / team lead. She is considered to directly report to me. I am in the USA.
As a manager, I believe in collegiality in the workplace, minimization of hierarchy between team members, and open communication. I value growth in my team members and see myself as a guide / mentor, not someone who commands and dictates from above as a boss to be obeyed without question.
When I was scheduling the first 1:1 with this new team member, she asked whether she can have someone else accompany her when meeting with me or for our meeting to occur in the open rather than inside a conference room. I talked to her to find out why and she responded that interactions between men and women are not usually as open as the United States, and are somewhat viewed with caution. She also mentioned that hierarchy is more valued in the work culture of her country.
I am not sure how much to accommodate her request. The objective of a 1:1 is to allow an open conversation between manager and the team member and, to me, a private environment such as a conference room promotes that objective, as well as allowing for employee privacy. Having 1:1 in such an environment unhindered from public distraction is a benefit and something to be cherished.
Promoting equality amongst team members by minimizing hierarchy and ensuring individuals are free to express themselves are ideals that I try to promote in my team. Excessive focus on gender roles and altering behavior solely because a colleague is a woman goes against such ideals and company culture at my employer. I would be embarrassed if a female colleague felt uncomfortable solely because I am a male team member. I am not deliberately trying to be insensitive about her culture, but to promote equality amongst team, which I view as being the norm and respectful.
To what extent should I accommodate her requests?
How can I minimize taking sides and seek the right balance if I decide to accommodate?
I want to minimize disturbing the current open and great culture of our team.
Edit: Thanks for all the feedback. I thought Thomas had the best answer as it recognizes she is a minority in a majority culture and gradual adoption of the host culture is not an unreasonable ask. I will try to set some boundaries with her regarding expectations when working with other team members, colleagues outside the team etc. and see how she reacts. If she is not willing to compromise I will escalate to HR for advice as I will not allow one member to disrupt culture or cooperation to others’ detriment. If others team members start to feel they must walk on eggshells when interacting with her, this will be threshold.
Edit: I deliberately avoided religion at interview, as first, its a sensitive topic, and second, is not a job requirement. I did not want to single out her at interview as being any more special because of her faith. Questions I asked of teamwork did not raise any red flags. I never considered this to be an issue until she objected after I set up 1:1.
A compromise agreement has been reached. 1:1 meeting will still be me and her but now in a open environment that is still semi private. I held firm on my desire to only have her and me as having chaperone wastes others time, can make them uncomfortable, and be perceived as special treatment, exact opposite of my goal here.
As for the excess deferential behavior shown due to gender / authority, I continue to stress the cultural norm of equality / informality and how it's not expected in the USA that one alters conduct simply to accommodate that one is interacting with a male. Respect is earned based on what one does, not inborn, unrelated and personal characteristics outside of a person's control.
So far, both she and I are happy. Knock on wood