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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.

Update 8/4

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

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Jun 18 at 15:55

19 Answers 19

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I would reasonably accommodate her requests but also explain her some boundaries:

The first thing is that her concerns are important for her, so they can't be dismissed. At the same time she decided to join a team from a different culture, so it should be expected that she eventually adjusts to some of the local culture, and her team, rather than the opposite.

Then comes the real question and that's probably the one you're stuck with:

Do you want to make decisions based on what's right for the individuals, team and company, or should you factor in that religion is a complicated topic, for which there is not always a clear answer, and be willing to stretch what you would accept to avoid the issues that come with going against it?

As a manager, you know that all team members are a bit different from one another anyway: while Joe is always late in the morning and Susan never formats documents as expected, they all bring something valuable and everyone learns to accept each other's habits and quirks over time.

A team takes the shape of its members' personalities and your task is to make sure that the resulting amalgam is functional.

The best way is to enable her to become whole with the process by making her feel comfortable. That means accommodating her at first. Because she's new, she's probably trying to blend in knowing the challenge it is coming from a different culture and most likely things are not easy for her. As time goes and she gets more comfortable, get to know people, etc., things will probably relax significantly on her hand.

That being said, your efforts need to be reasonable and you need to explain that clearly to her: having an extra person with you two costs money, wastes that person's time and makes the one-on-one meeting much less useful, but tell her you want her to be comfortable, so you two will find a solution:

Others have proposed very good ideas, such as using a glass office, the kitchen, or even sit in the open, but in a corner where you can still have a private conversation while everyone sees you. Let her chose what she will be comfortable with.

I've managed large groups in some multi-billion dollar companies and dealt with some complex scenarios (having to bail people out of jail prior to important meetings, people on drugs, hardcore vegans doing illegal activism, etc. You probably guessed it was in the entertainment industry by now :)) And we also had some Muslim employees that had some requirements.

In practice that was never a difficulty: it's much harder for them when they start, because they don't know how well they'll be accepted, they know they have different expectations and requirements, and they have to live in a politically complex situation as well. My experience was in Southern California.

In that light, hopefully you'll find that she has a much bigger challenge than you and give time so things will fall in place.

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    "At the same time she decided to join a team from a different culture so it should be expected that she eventually adjusts to some of the local culture, and her team, rather than the opposite.". This is important statement that everybody is too scared to voice. People have to adapt to the culture they join. I once knew a guy who walked into a Japanese house wearing his shoes. He was kicked out and was never ever allowed to enter that house again.
    – wha7ever
    Jun 18 at 15:41
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    Accepting this as answer. It recognized how her comfort can be assured initially but also the not unreasonable ask to adapt to ths mainstream host culture, not other way around. Stressing the constraints on work relationships with others is good
    – Anthony
    Jun 18 at 22:53
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    "At the same time she decided to join a team from a different culture so it should be expected that she eventually adjusts to some of the local culture, and her team, rather than the opposite." You are in the USA. You just had a vice-president from 2016-2020 that wouldn't have 1-1 with someone of the opposite sex unless someone else was present or in a public setting. How exactly is this a cultural difference? Accept that some people are more conservative than you, and go have your 1-1 in a coffee shop or something. It's not that big a deal.
    – Neobyte
    Jun 19 at 8:57
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    @Daniel - well, Pence the Vice President did that.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 19 at 15:20
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    @Anthony Promoting equality within your team, which seems to be one of your justifications for resisting her modest request, does not mean treating all team members exactly the same; that is a naive interpretation. "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" I mean seriously... how do you get to that from "can I not have my 1-1 in private?". Others detriment? All she wants is to be visible (not audible) by other people. Glass office? Quiet corner of a communal area? Many options.
    – Neobyte
    Jun 20 at 16:49
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To what extent should I accomodate her requests?

To the extent that you accommodate any request that you could extend to all your other team members as well.

If it is no problem to offer a solution to all team members equally, just do so.

Alternatives have already been named:

  • Bring someone from HR (sounds very formal though)
  • Have the meeting in a space where people can see you, although they cannot hear you. For example an office with glass walls, a spot in the back of a bigger room etc.
  • Have a remote meeting, via software or phone

My personal favorite though, and I'm not saying this works in every team because it depends heavily on location: Take a walk. Get out of your office chairs, grab your jackets and take a walk. Around the building, maybe once, maybe five times if it's a long talk. It gives you something to do, it gives you fresh air, it gets you going, nobody will overhear you like with an open door or open space in the office but everybody who wants to can see you in plain view. The whole company even depending on building or office and even "the public". It's healthy, too.

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    I agree with most of the suggestions here, but I just want to add some little details regarding the "take a walk" part. In this particular case, I would first make sure that person would be okay with that. Asking them is absolutely fine, but definitely don't force it. Usually, if someone is not comfortable with being alone with the opposite sex in a closed setting, would also not be comfortable being alone with that person in a public and open setting (as opposed to a professional and open setting such as the workplace).
    – Dan
    Jun 18 at 11:43
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    I would definetely see any of these as options where you take the one both can agree on. Taking a walk can be uncomfortable for many, many reasons. For example, me and some team mates have very different levels of tolerance for strong winds or heat. So... yes, it's one option of many and none of them should be forced on anybody.
    – nvoigt
    Jun 18 at 11:58
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    Excellent answer - "take a walk" to the nearest local coffee shop and have the meeting there. If you plan it in the 9-10 or 14-closing time windows when the shop is quieter, then there will be fewer people to overhear any work thing discussed frankly. And extending the same to all the team members in turn keeps it fair.
    – Criggie
    Jun 19 at 23:17
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It's strange that nobody seems to have explicitly said this, but

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.

If allowing open conversation from employee side is the main and real objective of your meeting, then I believe that you should accommodate her request to a reasonable extent, including possibly talking right near her table, etc., or cancel the meeting if no other options are available.

You want an open conversation. This is your main and the only reason to hold a 1-on-1 meeting in a separate conference room. But you see that you will not get an open conversation with that employee inside a closed room. You initial statement, "private environment such as a conference room promotes that objective", fails for that employee. So obviously you should not force her to accept such a meeting; such forcing will cancel the main objective of the meeting. Find a different place, invite someone else to the meeting, or even allow to cancel the meeting at all — all this options are no worse than forcing the meeting in a closed room.

Of course, if there are other reasons for the meeting, e.g. some disciplinary talk, or e.g. this is a business meeting with a client (and there are some reasons for her to go there alone), that would be a different question. Similarly, if you feel yourself uncomfortable discussing in the open what you wanted to discuss with employee, then you need to find some way to accommodate both of you.

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    For me this addresses the key issue : the OP is confusing "openness" and "frankness" with "privacy". You can have an open and frank discussion about many things without being invisible from other people. Normal discussions will not require extreme privacy.
    – StephenG
    Jun 18 at 18:11
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    @eps It should be seen as an opportunity for the company to change it's 1:1 meeting format to be more generally open without the air of mystery that is attached to such things when they are made so extremely private in format. Seeing someone having a conversation with a manager should not be made so formal that it actually makes a big deal out of something that should be a natural part of everyday communications.
    – StephenG
    Jun 18 at 22:46
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    @StephenG Informal communication with the manager out in the open should of course be invited during normal work hours, but there are many reasons you might want to have a private conversation with the manager. Scheduling a 1:1 and making it private is especially helpful for more introverted employees who might not be comfortable initializing conversations with the manager, either alone or in front of others.
    – Alex Jones
    Jun 19 at 3:30
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    @AlexJones Again you are missing the point : "private" does not equate to "hidden away" and the OP could perfectly easily have a private conversation without having to be alone with the employee in the sense of isolated from other people. You're talking about "helping" employees when the issue is that the OP is not helping the employee at all by insisting on this "traditional" view of "private". Time for the OP (and the world in general) to move on from rigid procedure for the sake of rigid procedure.
    – StephenG
    Jun 19 at 8:13
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    @eps — "Should the OP also make sure the person never has to work with a male coworker on a project?" — that's a different question. OP explicitly asks about 1:1 meetings.
    – Petr
    Jun 19 at 19:15
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If the concern is about a muslim woman being alone with a man in a room, it seems like a solution might be to have a video 1:1 from different rooms.

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    +1 Wow. A trivial modern solution to what seemed to be a difficult problem. And all of that in a single sentence.
    – TooTea
    Jun 19 at 20:08
  • Or behind a perspex window. Jun 20 at 18:22
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I'm a Muslim man and I faced couple of situations where each time I have to meet with a women colleague in my office or in a meeting room. In many cases the colleague was not a Muslim (that is to say; the issue like the one you exposed is not a thing for them).

As a Muslim I can't allow myself to be with a woman in a space which is closed or is out of sight, what I do is asking nicely the coming in women to keep the office door open, so people in the corridor or in the next open-space have sight on who is in my office.
As far as I remember I had one case where I had to explain to my colleague why I can't meet with her if the door is not open.

So to answer you question, your colleague who is a Muslim woman 'is allowed' to be present in in 1:1 meeting as long as the place conditions are met, you have already many suggestions, however the reason she asks to have someone else in the meeting is to make sure she is not going to have irrelevant chat or small-talks with a you as a man.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Jun 21 at 10:04
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It has nothing to do with you personally.

Just have someone from HR attend the meeting.

Or someone she is ok with (eg. Coworker) on the condition the meeting is still a 1:1 and discussions are only between you two.

Put in the open might not be a good if people are nearby, but something like a canteen with a quiet spot might be suitable.

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    Is an HR person supposed to attend every one on one she has? What happens when she needs to work with other colleagues and no one is around to accompany her?
    – Jack
    Jun 18 at 11:28
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    Involving HR every time you need to talk privately with a person on your team is not a sustainable solution.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 18 at 11:59
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    @jakebeal It sounds as if she's new to the US and is adjusting. A temporary solution might be exactly what's wanted. Jun 18 at 13:19
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    Better than HR would be a (female) mentor, if there's a mentoring scheme in the company. Involvement in such a scheme would be beneficial for her in other ways, someone (other than management) to get advice from about corporate culture, for example
    – Chris H
    Jun 18 at 14:08
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    @gnasher729 Absolutely not. HR can support a team leader with information about solutions and constraints, but effective communication within a team is ultimately the responsibility of the team leader.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 18 at 15:26
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tl,dr: Whatever you do can you get you into serious trouble. Let HR handle it.

I'm happy to accommodate whatever makes someone else happy UNLESS it requires discrimination against other people and this one seems to cross a line.

So Alice can't have a 1:1 with Bob but she can have one with Beatrice ? What happens if Billy or Billie poke a meeting in her calendar? Is Alice reply going to be "I can only reply to your meeting if you disclose you gender first" . What about gay man or lesbian women. Are these ok or not ? What about transgender: is meeting acceptance based on gender at birth or current gender ? How about if a vendor representative or support person shows up for a meeting: will you require the vendor to pre-disclose the representative's gender or require specific gender (which may actually be illegal).

Like it or not, in most company cultures 1:1 are a daily fact of life. Accommodating this request would requires a fairly complicated set of company wide rules and policies that can easily be interpreted as being blatantly discriminatory and in may in some legislatures be outright illegal.

To what extent should I accommodate her requests?

This is not your decision. The only way this can me made to work is for HR to create a consistent set of policies or rules that explicitly accommodates this need for all parties involved. Depending on context and environment they may choose to do so or not. Whatever they do, follow their policy.

How can I minimize taking sides and seek the right balance if I decide to accommodate?

Ask HR what to do, document what they tell you, then do exactly this and stay out of the discussion otherwise. Do NOT let HR weasel out of this one and push the decision back to you. IF HR doesn't want to deal with it push them (hard) and/or elevate through your food chain.

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    "this one seems to cross a line". Does it? I've only had two bosses who were insistent on private 1:1 meetings in the past, and it turned out they both had malevolent reasons. If I ever find myself with a boss who insists on this kind of "privacy" again, I would immediately be on the defensive and never again have a meeting with them without a witness. I don't see what line that would cross. There are enough horror stories out there, and refusing to have a witness is incredibly suspicious.
    – Stef
    Jun 18 at 15:00
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    Harvey Weinstein had a lot of 1:1 meetings.
    – DxTx
    Jun 18 at 19:35
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    @Stef: I'm truly sorry for your experience, but that feels odd to me. 1:1 meetings are an extremely effective management tool if done right. Check in on project progress, goals, career development, issues and problems etc. Half of my days are meetings and many of them are with just one other person. I talk to my recruiter about open reqs, I talk to one of my peers about resourcing bottle necks, I talk to marketing about up coming press demos. Meetings are a part of daily corporate life.
    – Hilmar
    Jun 18 at 23:16
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    Another reason to speak with HR is to make them aware of this problem so that in the future HR can communicate to prospective employees the finer details of the day-to-day expectations in their work environment. Jun 19 at 5:55
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    There is no problem here, so -1 for involving HR. One-to-one meeting can be perfectly reasonably achieved (as many many have suggested) by holding it in open sight but out of the hearing of others, or by adding a chaperone; and by stating expectations that this will be accommodated initially, with over time expectation that team member will be able to reasonably adapt to function in company's culture. Given acceptance on both sides this isn't & shouldn't be a problem, so let's not make it a problem.
    – Thomas W
    Jun 20 at 23:33
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Try to find a middle ground:

  • A conference room with a glass front, leaving the door open. That way, people on the hallway could overhear, but mostly don't.
  • The quiet spot in the canteen mentioned is good.
  • If you both smoke you could stand in the smoker area, a few meters separate from all other smokers.

Generally, somewhere where you can have some amount of privacy, but where it is still open enough that anything out of the ordinary regarding man and woman would be easily spotted.

She comes from a different culture and getting used to yours will take a while. So for a while, both of your cultures will be at odds. Talk to her and explain your goals to her:

  • Open conversation, so you as a manager know what's up and can do something about it. Secret enough, so she needs not fear others acting on it.
  • Good 1:1 meetings ultimately serve the subordinates, which isn't obvious if never had that.
  • Then ask which middle grounds she can think of and would accept.
  • Make it clear that you are willing to accommodate her, but you also expect her to adapt to the company culture.
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    I would change that to "if both of you smoke" - as a non-smoker I would not want to be in the smoke room at all because I'm avoiding that stuff for a reason.
    – Erik
    Jun 18 at 6:53
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    Also, might be a bit of a bad assumption to assume that the worker intends to get used to a particular culture. Jun 18 at 7:07
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    @GregoryCurrie Why? I think that is always a base assumption: You search for a company with a culture you can adapt too to a certain degree. If the difference is too big, you switch company. But as a manager, you should always presume people are trying to fit in, unless proven otherwise repeatedly.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 18 at 7:10
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    Islam (or at least some interpretations of it), ban a man and a woman from being alone together unless they are related. For some people, faith is quite steadfast. It's not a matter of comfort, it's of unwavering conviction. No matter how comfortable the woman feels, she may never wish to be alone with the man. I'm not saying that's the case here, but that's a possibility. Jun 18 at 7:17
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    she works in cybersecurity in the USA: I am pretty sure there are other companies around who would take her. In jobmarkets where it's thougher for the employee to pick jobs, you are right.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 18 at 7:25
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My suggestion would be to not try to solve this on your own, and instead, seek guidance from HR. This is the kind of situation which, if poorly handled, even if you act in good faith, may become a lot of trouble. I am talking lawsuit-level of trouble. For that reason, I would also recommend to start looking for yourself, and be very cautious on your interactions - have a proper trail, etc.

As for the situation itself, if she is refusing to have meetings alone with you, it stands to reason that she will do the same with other team members. Depending on your specific work circumstances, this can be very disruptive, and become a source of uneasiness in the rest of the team. Consider that perhaps you will have to let her go, and plan accordingly.

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  • Involving HR is a good idea, but it should be done in the context of "Here's a situation, has it happened before? Can you give me advice?" Not "Can you come along and sort out the employee/sit in the room with us/give her an ultimatum or sack her." In the modern workplace, there should be someone able to advise on diversity issues and even if they're formally separate from HR (some businesses may have a separate diversity officer or team), the HR department should be able to give advice and help accommodate people's specific needs.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 26 at 14:20
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Unsure why there is any debate on this at all.

If a lady does not want 1 on 1 private meetings with a man, that's totally up to her. It makes zero difference if she's Muslim or has had a bad experience or has just decided that's what she wants.

You accommodate her.

It's common enough for Christians as well in my experience and even for men not to want to have a private meeting with a lady.

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The objective of a 1:1 is to allow an open conversation between manager and the team member

Yes, but that doesn't extend to being able to allow a (mutually agreed upon) third party to attend these meetings. For example, it is perfectly fine to want to invite a third party to an HR meeting when you e.g. feel under the gun.

However, context applies. If this is about a yearly performance review, I wouldn't particularly raise any issues if she invites a third party. As long as it's her free choice, it shouldn't be a problem, unless you suspect this person may have forced her to invite her.

Then again, if this is about a daily working schedule and her refusal to work 1-1 with any male in the workplace, this can become an obstacle to her performing her actual work duties; at which point it's no longer a request that is easily accommodated.

to me, a private environment such as a conference room promotes that objective, as well as allowing for employee privacy.

By inviting the third party, she gives up her right to privacy regarding the topic of the meeting, at least in regards to the third party she invited.

Having 1:1 in such an environment unhindered from public distraction is a benefit and something to be cherished.

Public distraction can be a valid argument, in the right context. Not wanting to do the meeting in a loud restaurant, for example, is perfectly reasonable.

"something to be cherished" is your opinion, and clearly not hers since she actively suggests meeting in a public place. Don't force your opinion on others, and don't build your argument in a way that implies that your personal opinion is universally and objectively correct.

Because if you allow your opinion to be stated as the way things will be done, then what is stopping her from not budging on her personal opinion on no private male-female one-to-one contact?
The only way you can win that argument is by pulling rank, which negates your entire "belief in collegiality in the workplace and minimization of hierarchy between team members" position.

It's reasonable to ask her to reasonably compromise from her stance, but it's only fair for you to do the same then as well. Barring any obstacles to the actual work needing to be performed, there is no reason that the two of you cannot work out something that works for both parties.

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.

The corollary here is that you shouldn't then enforce the 1-1 without question. If you were to force the issue of it being only you and the team member, then you are in fact dictating how the meeting should proceed.

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.

You're overstepping your boundary here. This should be treated no different from a male team member asking for a support person to attend this meeting, for whatever reason (as long as it is of the team member's own volition).

It's perfectly okay to raise this question in regards to any work-related obstacles this third-party-requirement would pose. It is not okay to raise the issue based solely on the specific context of why this person is making that request.

Treat the request as objectively as you can, and therefore don't build your argument based on her specific reason for asking something which is completely reasonable (in the right context).

To put it shortly, you're really close to enforcing your personal ideology on your team.
Regardless of what your ideology is, this is not okay. You have some freedom as to how you choose to manage your team, but promoting inclusivity also means respecting reasonable boundaries of your team members.

If anything, she didn't even need to justify her request for a third party to be present. Having explained her reasoning is a form of open communication. If you value open communication, you just received it and are now trying to use that against her request, which is exactly how you get your team members to no longer engage in open communication with you.

She also mentioned that hierarchy is more valued in the work culture of her country.

This is a flaw in her argument, in my opinion.

As much as everyone should always respect other people's cultures and customs, she's not working in her country or their work culture. It's perfectly understandable to show some acknowledgement that she's used to a different work culture and to account for that when judging her actions, but that is not the same as you now being forced to follow another culture's work standards because she would prefer it.

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.

There's a reasonable line to be found here. Accommodate what she feels comfortable with in so far as it doesn't obstruct the work activities, but don't let the work activities be unreasonably obstructed by it. I say unreasonably obstructed, because it's very easy to (intentionally or not) misconstrue the smallest of accommodations as an obstruction.

As she is a Muslim, let's take the example of daily prayer. When scheduling a long meeting, it's perfectly reasonable for her to ask you to account for her being able to take a break for prayer. It would not be reasonable to outright refuse any long meeting even when breaks are accommodated.

The context of the question here has actually muddied the water in terms of the workplace interaction that is taking place. When it comes down to it, this is no more than an employee asking for a third party to be present during a meeting.

If you cannot express why this is a bad idea based solely on workplace considerations, and without basing yourself on (a) disagreeing with her personal opinion or (b) refusing to adapt your management style to your team member, then you don't really have a valid reason to refuse this.

You could force (b) by pulling rank on her, but then you're no longer managing your team in the way you just presented yourself. This is your decision to make.

To summarize

  • Your opinion on whether men and women can engage in a private 1-1 is of little to no importance here.
  • At face value, her request for a third party is not unheard of, regardless of her reasoning. She shouldn't even be required to elaborate her reasoning here, but she chose to openly communicate this with you.
  • Assuming the request does not reasonably hinder the expected work activities, there is no issue with trying to find a workable compromise for the both of you. This entails both parties giving in to some degree.
  • Assuming the request does reasonably hinder the expected work activities, this is a point that should be raised, purely from a work perspective. Don't build your argument based on your disagreement with her personal opinions and feelings.
  • Collegial behavior includes mutual respect for each other's opinions and what the other person feels comfortable with. If you pride yourself on being a collegial manager and not one who pulls rank, then manage your team accordingly.
  • Pulling rank on her is possible, but orthogonally aligns against the kind of manager you've presented yourself to be.
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    ... when the summary of your answer is still over a page long, I think you might have written a bit too much.
    – Kevin
    Jun 18 at 14:55
  • Good points on compromise as in the answer I accepted. I am just wary of not being perceived as giving her special treatment not due others. I also do not want to feel they must walk on eggshells when interacting with her. I.e: for others to feel uncomfortable so to negatively the work culture to detriment of other employees and team members. Please see edit to question.
    – Anthony
    Jun 18 at 23:04
  • @Kevin, What we need is a summary of the summary.
    – Daniel
    Jun 19 at 14:10
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The only option, assuming you want to continue working with her in the same team, is to accommodate her request and hold the meeting in a more open location.

Explain to her why the 1:1 meeting is important and ask her where she would be comfortable doing it. As long as she offers a reasonable location, accept and “casually” offer the same option to the other team members.

NB: By “casually”, I mean in a way that would not draw attention to her. E.g., “We can have the 1:1 in the meeting room, or in the lunch area. Any preference? Okay, let’s have it in the meeting room then.” This will not draw attention to her, and other team members will assume that she simply prefers the option of having it in the lunch area, or wherever.

Why?

She is probably not going to make any concessions. According to many interpretations of Islam, being alone with a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative is strictly forbidden, even for the purpose of studying the Quran (Muslim counterpart of the Bible). Diligent observers, like she appears to be, could go to great lengths to avoid such situations, including with members of the opposite sex who they know very well or grew up with, if they are not immediate relatives.

I understand that this focus on gender roles can be unpleasant, or feel unfair since she is making a request solely based on your gender. However, as I explained, it has nothing to do with her impression of you or how much she trusts you or anything regarding you personally. So, I suggest you hold the 1:1 meetings with her in a more open setting and leave it at that.

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  • 12
    "She is not going to make any concessions" is well beyond any reasonable interpretation here. You do not know how orthodox this person is, nor to which degree they adhere to those scriptures. Furthermore, her argument is of a cultural nature, which can be influenced by local religion in that culture, but is not inherently equivalent. I'm not saying the conclusion here is specifically wrong, but the reasoning used to get there is not structurally sound.
    – Flater
    Jun 18 at 13:22
  • 5
    @Flater Thanks, I updated my wording to "she is probably not going to make any concessions". I believe that there is reason to believe that she is quite orthodox. If you want, I can elaborate further on that.
    – hb20007
    Jun 18 at 13:34
  • 2
    I disagree that manager should offer the same option to other team members. Manager should say yes if any team members request this option, but there is no need to make the offer proactively. Offering accommodations proactively may draw attention to the employee and also may cause employees to request accomodation who don't need it.
    – Brian
    Jun 18 at 14:44
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    @Brian You are right, it can lead to that. It depends on the way the offer is made. I have updated my answer to include this information.
    – hb20007
    Jun 18 at 15:23
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    Be aware, OP, that if you don't/won't/can't accommodate her then she will almost assuredly quit. You will then lose her contributions. This isn't a negotiable situation for many.
    – Buffy
    Jun 19 at 13:18
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Take the matter to your HR department and let them formulate a solution to it. It may well be that they send someone from HR to attend any of these one-to-one meetings where the other party feels it desirable, religion being but one reason for such arrangements.

I think it is no longer (if it ever really was) good enough for division directors to take the lead on what essentially are personnel relations issues. That's the role of HR. Sure, we all know that quite often HR managers like to dodge difficult questions such as this and delay and drag their heels in the hope that one of the parties will lose their cool and precipitate a resolution that they then simply administer. But this is not what HR managers should be doing - they should jealously guard their prerogatives here and give a strong lead. This is because if any litigation and/or bad publicity to the organization results from this - despite the organization's directors bearing public responsibility - the HR manager alone has primary internal responsibility.

4

Look for the shared goals. You write

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.

She has indicated that if she is alone and in a closed room with you she will not feel comfortable having an open conversation. So your goal will not be met. Or hers probably.

Whereas with a companion and/or more open environment she will feel at ease with you.

Feeling at ease with you and comfortable to talk is the shared goal

It's hard because in the two cultures the same activity means different things. At the end of the day respect for her is key as it is for all employees. they might not have the same wishes or needs to be accommodated but they all have the same need for respect. Listen to her needs and to your less. Make it so that you are the uncomfortable one, not her, is one idea.

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Re: "At the same time she decided to join a team from a different culture so it should be expected that she eventually adjusts to some of the local culture, and her team, rather than the opposite."

This may not be supported by legislation in your jurisdiction, which is likely to refer to the common test of "bona fide job requirements". If her job is to write code, or weld steel beams, or balance financial statements, it's unlikely that being in a room alone with you would count as a "bona fide job requirement". Having these meetings in an unsecluded location (as she has already suggested) is a perfectly reasonable accommodation which you should immediately accept. If for some reason you still feel like pushing back, you need to immediately confer with your company's HR department (their Diversity Office if they have one) and take their advice.

1
  • Next week , I am going to try to clearly set up some boundaries around interactions with others employees and depending on how willing she is to a compromise solution, I may escalate to HR. As I said in edit, when other team members become uncomfortable or feel they must walk on eggshells, that's my threshold
    – Anthony
    Jun 19 at 21:51
2

Don't take your side.

As you noted, you like to avoid hierarchy and ensure individuals are free to express themselves. She has expressed herself, and noted a personal like, one that may well be legally protected on religious grounds. You could take your side and order her to do what you want because you're the boss and you can fire her, but that would go against your principles, and expose you to legal issues.

Having a coffee with a colleague or having a meeting in a place with glass windows and other people visible is reasonable. Part of not having a hierarchy is not ordering people around to accommodate your every want.

Also, be aware of the common issues of a lack of hierarchy. People like structure because that helps them have stable relationships with colleagues. You want to use your position as your superior to impose your will on her in the name of lack of hierarchy. Often, when a company says "We aren't into hierarchy" that means superiors badgering you into unfair working conditions with charisma, and pushing personal boundaries for their personal pleasure.

You should ask her why she values hierarchy, and should work out clear ways to accommodate that, while pushing the benefits of your own open culture.

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    If she likes hierarchy, what is wrong with him imposing his authority? He is accomodating her now.
    – Jack
    Jun 18 at 11:31
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    Calling this a "personal like" is disingenuous. Forcing a unmarried devout Muslim woman to have 1-on-1 meetings with a man who is not a family member (or a religious leader etc) is as much blatant religious discrimination as forcing an orthodox Jew to work on Saturdays.
    – alephzero
    Jun 18 at 12:59
  • 2
    She wants to not be alone in a room with him. Imposing his authority to get her alone in a room with him where no one can see them is not a good way to build trust in a hierarchy.
    – Nepene Nep
    Jun 18 at 15:09
  • 1
    @alephzero: That's true, but the answer should (in this case) be the same even if it wasn't. There can, arguably, be circumstances where mere personal preference should not be accommodated but deeply held religious convictions should be. This, however, is not one of those situations — even just a personal preference should be more than enough here. Jun 18 at 15:15
  • Often, when a company says "We aren't into hierarchy" that means superiors badgering you into unfair working conditions with charisma, and pushing personal boundaries for their personal pleasure. Bullseye.
    – Trunk
    Jun 24 at 10:12
1

I assume her problem is that for religious or whatever reasons, she doesn't want to or cannot be alone in a room with a man who isn't a close relative or her husband. Your problem is that you want to have an open conversation that cannot be overheard, so you can both say whatever needs to be said.

In that situation, I think inviting any woman to sit in your meeting, to watch that neither of you does anything inappropriate for a man and a muslim woman, but otherwise not involved professionally with your colleague should be fine. Like invite some software developer to join if your colleague works in accounting or vice versa. So any job related discussions mean nothing to that person who is observing. Obviously ask her what kind of person would be the most appropriate one, because she knows better than you or I.

And that person would be present solely to protect her virtue and reputation. They have nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with the discussion that takes place. It's a 1 to 1 with a chaperone present. That's why I'd say someone from some other department, and also not someone from HR.

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    I think if the accommodation is going to be to have someone else present, the employee should indicate who they would prefer, and the manager could agree or ask for another option.
    – ColleenV
    Jun 18 at 15:31
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    In this case, I would ask her to honor her religion, and to have her husband present in the next 1 on 1.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jun 18 at 17:09
  • 3
    @Edwin, that would be uncalled for and not reasonable IMO. I can compromise to a certain extent, but having a husband accompany his wife is just not done where I work. She is not that fragile...
    – Anthony
    Jun 18 at 17:21
  • 1
    @Anthony I fully agree it would be unreasonable. It is however the direct solution to her needs. The problem is that her request assumes that you are not a trustworthy enough person to be alone with another woman, or that she's not a trustworthy enough person to resist your manly ways. So basically, to address her religious needs you need to adopt their sexist premise, which partially led me to the ridiculous solution. Really, involve HR at this point, you have very few options that don't compromise some part of what your culture is.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jun 18 at 17:30
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    @EdwinBuck, it has nothing to do with being trustworthy. It's the same as if I invited your wife to stay in my bedroom for an hour with nobody watching. I know enough about life to know that some wives wouldn't appreciate that at all, even if they trust me 100%, because you don't know if you can trust me, and there are lots of tongues that would start wagging. And I know enough about life to know that some women have the same problem being alone with me in an office, even if they trust me 100%. Because her husband, father, family, neighbours don't trust me.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 19 at 11:31
1

A long-term (possible) mitigation:

I used to work with both male and female muslim coworkers that had the same issue (at first).

After a while (1-3 months) they all (~10 people of different age and background) developed an absolute tolerance for 1:1 meetings with a coworker of the opposite gender.

They still tried their best to avoid such meetings with people they don't see every day.

I never asked why coworkers become "safer" after a while.

Note: it was more than 20 years ago and not in the US. I cannot be sure if it works everywhere.

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I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this yet, but why not have the meeting in a public space outside of the office? Many times (for various reasons) my coworkers will do their 1:1s while on a walk at a nearby park or simply go downstairs to the lobby.

The benefit is that no one who might overhear would have any context as to who you are or why you're having a conversation, and it's likely that they won't care. Moreover, if you're mobile (as on a walk), passers-by would only hear snippets.

It employs the notion of "hiding in plain sight."

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