For decades, LDS Church authorities cautioned every Mormon man not to be alone with a woman who wasn’t his spouse. Don’t drive with her. Don’t dine with her. Don’t stay at the same hotel when traveling for work.
The same counsel went to LDS women in regards to one-on-one encounters with men.
These days, Mormon career women — and men — are getting different advice, says Jeff Thompson, director of public management for the Marriott School at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.
Thompson routinely poses this question in his ethics class: A group of co-workers regularly lunches together. One day everyone cancels but a member of the opposite sex. Do you still go?
Most of the women have no problem with going out for business lunches with a male colleague. A lot of the male students, though, “struggle with the question,” he notes, some even suggest lying to get out of going, “saying that something came up.”
It’s a residual feeling — more pronounced among practicing Mormons — from past LDS leaders that “you are putting yourself in moral danger when going to lunch with women,” explains Thompson. After all, former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson did warn married Mormons about such seemingly innocent interactions.
“Many of the tragedies of immorality begin,” Benson said in a 1987 BYU Devotional speech, “when a man and woman are alone in the office or at church or driving in a car.”
Benson’s quote is still included in the current LDS marriage manual for students — as is one from a subsequent president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“You women who are single, and some of you who are married, who are out in the workplace, may I give you a word of caution,” the late Gordon B. Hinckley said in the October 1998 General Conference. “You work alongside men. More and more, there are invitations to go to lunch, ostensibly to talk about business. You travel together. You stay in the same hotel. You work together. Perhaps you cannot avoid some of this, but you can avoid getting into compromising situations. Do your job, but keep your distance.”
Such counsel apparently still resonates, to some degree. A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows that 70 percent of “very active” Utah Mormons say it is inappropriate for a man and woman who are not married to have dinner together, while nearly half (47 percent) feel the same way about lunch.
Thompson tells his male LDS students that “choosing to go to lunch with men but not women is discrimination. You are limiting the opportunities for female colleagues to have mentorship.”
In general, women understand the need to network over noodles or nouvelle cuisine, he says. They see men going off for dealmaking or social climbing during the noon hour and feel excluded.
“What do you [men] think I want from lunch?” women ask Thompson, scoffing at the idea of a meal as subterfuge for sex. “You may be giving yourselves a little too much credit.”
Even the LDS Church now acknowledges the importance of working, dining or traveling with all kinds of business colleagues — including male/female pairings.
“While separate transportation may be requested by employees in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, individual church departments and employees should not develop travel policies or practices that discriminate against employees based on gender,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement. “This includes practices that … would limit the ability of employees to accomplish their job responsibilities, to attend business meetings or conferences, or to pursue development opportunities.”
Employees should “use wisdom and prudence while traveling,” Hawkins said, “to avoid inappropriate conduct and the appearance of impropriety.”
Thompson has some tips he uses himself — pick a public place for such meetings, keep the conversation focused on business, and always tell your spouse.
He urges his female students to pursue every opportunity to network, but “watch out for predators.”
As for religious assignments within the LDS Church, the previous guidelines still apply.
“A man and a woman should not travel alone together for church activities, meetings or assignments,” says the church’s Handbook, which steers LDS procedures, “unless they are married to each other or are both single.”