United States: Men Refusing To Work Alone With Women: The HR And Legal Guide

Can a sincerely held religious belief – or a wife’s personal jealousy – justify a male employee refusing to work with women coworkers or other professional contacts? A federal district court in North Carolina is poised to answer this question.

The case pending there has drawn substantial national attention because it represents the first legal challenge to the so-called “Billy Graham Rule,” which requires married men and women to avoid one-on-one situations with members of the opposite sex. What do employers need to know about this case, and this rule in general, given the current state of employment law and today’s focus on diversity and inclusiveness? Would you know how to respond if your employees asked not to work with a member of the opposite sex?

North Carolina Case Could Lay Foundation For Future Rulings

Manuel Torres, a former law enforcement officer in Lee County, North Carolina, claims that his superiors ordered him to train a female deputy, which would have required him to spend extended periods of time alone with her. Torres says he requested a religious accommodation because of his “strong and sincere religious belief that the Holy Bible prohibits him, as a married man, from being alone for extended periods with a female who is not his wife.” Torres said that the county denied his request and ultimately terminated his employment because of his refusal to follow their request. He brought suit under Title VII alleging religious discrimination and retaliation.

Lee County’s Sheriff, Tracy Carter, contends that Torres was terminated for having a toxic attitude, displaying insubordination, and constantly complaining, not because he refused to work with a female deputy. Carter notes that Torres always knew that his job required him to work alone with women and that Torres had previously trained women without complaint. 

The county contends that Torres’s wife became jealous when he was assigned to train the female deputy, and demanded that he not allow her to ride with him in his patrol car. The county says that Torres told other officers that he and his wife had been arguing on a daily basis about him riding with Deputy Burton. The county claims that it did its best to accommodate Torres’s request to not train women alone but, due to its limited resources, was ultimately unable to do so.    

The Billy Graham Rule, Explained

As noted above, this case appears to be the first federal case related to the concept known as the “Billy Graham Rule.” This rule is firmly rooted in the Evangelical Christian movement. It requires married men and women to abstain from one-on-one situations with members of the opposite sex. Followed strictly, its application transcends the workplace, demanding separation in every aspect of life. 

The namesake of this rule exemplified its edict. He refused to dine alone with women and hired private security to scope out his hotel rooms ahead of time to ensure no woman was hiding and attempting to malign his reputation. The Billy Graham Rule gained further recognition when it became known that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to meet individually with women or to attend events with alcohol unless his wife is present with him. 

This is becoming a global issue for employers. A 2019 LeanIn study showed that approximately 60% of male managers feel uncomfortable engaging in everyday job-related activities with women, a 14% increase since 2018. Additionally, senior male executives are 12 times more likely to hesitate to meet with a woman than a man. This empirical evidence reinforces what many women sense in their everyday interactions with male colleagues.  

Similar Situations Have Reached National Attention

Getting back to the case described above, Torres argues that his employer did not protect his religious convictions. He notes that Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against or depriving an employee of opportunities because of religion and also requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs. While the county maintains that it terminated Torres because of his toxic work behavior, it also argues that it could not have accommodated his religious convictions without undue hardship, thus removing it from the ambit of Title VII protections.

Despite the county’s arguments, a broader question remains unanswered: what legal ramifications emerge when religious convictions collide with federal antidiscrimination laws? While the answer seems obvious—treat mean and women equally—not much case law exists on this point. 

In a landmark 2013 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court found no sex discrimination occurred after James Knight fired Melissa Nelson from his dental office. Knight’s wife was concerned about a perceived relationship between the two of them and demanded he fire Nelson. Knight admitted that Nelson was the best assistant that he ever had but feared he would have an affair with her if he did not terminate her. Legally, Knight grounded his decision on his religious conviction.

In a narrowly crafted opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court held that Knight’s decision was “driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person” and not gender or a proxy for gender. The concurrence further clarified that Nelson had failed to show that her status as a woman—as opposed to her personal relationship with Knight—was the motivating reason for her termination. In short, the Knight v. Nelson opinion justifies employers terminating at-will employees for mere personal jealousies if they can show that individualized feelings—as opposed to sex—drove the result.

In a situation that never reached the courts, the city of Austin, Texas formally reprimanded William Manno, the Austin Center for Events program manager, in 2017 because he “purposely avoided meetings and private interactions with female co-workers because of issues with his marriage.” He said he stopped having lunches with women because “it was not appropriate for a married man to have lunch with a single lady.” But an investigation also concluded that he also differentiated his mentoring of subordinate employees based upon gender and marital status, and likewise made decisions regarding which meetings he and a subordinate would attend based on marital status. Manno’s personal religious beliefs notwithstanding, investigators determined that he violated the city code of conduct because he treated employees differently based on gender.

The outcomes for Knight and Manno perhaps irreconcilably challenge employers confronting employees who wish to segregate from members of the opposite sex. But to reconcile the two outcomes, a nuanced (albeit messy) rule may emerge: decisions to accommodate based on personal relationships and emotions may not amount to a Title VII violation, even if the emotions or beliefs exist in part because of gender. However, decisions to accommodate requests based on bright-line categories (i.e., all women) likely violate Title VII. 

What Should Employers Do?

Returning to the original case involving Torres, we don’t yet know how the court may balance religious liberties and antidiscrimination laws. Torres says that he requested to not work with any woman, in any situation, ever, analogous to Manno’s request. And, unlike Knight, Torres did not appear to take issue with one individual woman based on personal feelings. Therefore, the county may argue that accommodating Torres’s request would have violated Title VII and exposed them to liability. Regardless, this case could have significant implications for workplace antidiscrimination policies.

So, what should employers do? It may be more effective to emphasize the positive rather than stressing the negative. Telling your employees what they should do, instead of what they shouldn’t do, generally results in more positive outcomes. Instead of merely training employees how to avoid sexual harassment—which is undoubtedly critical—perhaps you should work to praise the benefits of diversity and cross-gender collaboration.

 For those in Human Resources, consider the following:

  1. Does our organization have a policy governing employee interactions?
  2. Does it address individual accommodations for personal or religious beliefs?
  3. If so, is it written and enforced in a way that does not target gender or sex?

For General Counsel, consider the following:

  1. What does our company’s hierarchy look like (i.e., assess the breakdown of men and women in positions of leadership)?
  2. What events present opportunities for gender and/or sex segregation (i.e., one-on-one meetings, lunches, Happy Hours, etc.)?
  3. How do we foster cross-gender mentorships and relationships in such a way that women receive equal access?

Employers would do well to consistently and emphatically affirm the core notion that people of different genders and sexes must treat each other with professionalism and respect in all situations, not just the workplace. A recognition of the dignity and value that all employees bring to the workplace may bring freedom, creativity, and advancement to all.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions