“We found that they avoided one-on-one contact because they were fearful of gossip, or the suspicion that a standout female on a team is sleeping with the team leader,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and chief executive of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research firm that has studied sponsorship.
She noted that sponsors “have to spend some capital and take a risk on the up-and-coming person, and you simply don’t do that unless you know them and trust them.” But these relationships are crucial, she said, for “getting from the middle to the top.”
Certain workplaces have become more tense in recent months, after high-profile sexual harassment cases at Fox News, in venture capital and elsewhere, and after the vulgar comments about women by Donald J. Trump that emerged during the presidential campaign. Most recently, accusations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein caused him to be fired.
The Society for Human Resource Management, an industry group, said it saw a spike in questions from members about sexual harassment in March — when cases at Uber, Fox News and military academies were in the news — and in August, when harassment surfaced again at Fox, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
In some cases, the heightened awareness has improved people’s behavior. “People are more sensitive to how they conduct themselves, because they’ve seen what can happen,” said a male executive in the news and entertainment industry, who spoke anonymously because of the same heightened caution over the topic that is in the air in some workplaces. “That’s presented a better working environment.”
But elsewhere, men have begun avoiding solo interactions with women altogether. In Austin, Tex., a city official was formally reprimanded last month for refusing to meet with female employees, after he ended regular mentoring lunches with one.
Some tech investors have taken similar steps. “A big chill came across Silicon Valley in the wake of all these stories, and people are hyperaware and scared of behaving wrongly, so I think they’re drawing all kinds of parameters,” said a venture capitalist who spoke anonymously for the same reason.
Some are avoiding solo meetings with female entrepreneurs, potential recruits and those who ask for an informational or networking meeting.
“Before, you might have said, ‘Of course I would do that, and I will especially do it for minorities, including women in Silicon Valley,’ ” the investor said. “Now you cancel it because you have huge reputational risk all of a sudden.”
Sometimes women avoid solo meetings with men who have made them uncomfortable or have bad reputations, as when female executives brought colleagues to meetings with Mr. Weinstein.
It has not happened in every workplace, of course, and depends in part on company culture and employees’ trust in human resources to appropriately deal with harassment. In interviews with people across industries, many said interacting with members of the opposite sex was a nonissue. People were warier in jobs that emphasized appearance, as with certain restaurants or TV networks; in male-dominated industries like finance; and in jobs that involve stark power imbalances, like doctors or investors.
Dr. Mukund Komanduri, 50, an orthopedic surgeon with a practice outside Chicago, said he avoids being alone with female colleagues, particularly those he does not know well or who are subordinates.
“I’m very cautious about it because my livelihood is on the line,” he said. “If someone in your hospital says you had inappropriate contact with this woman, you get suspended for an investigation, and your life is over. Does that ever leave you?”
He mentioned a hospital colleague who lost his job because of harassment allegations. “That individual has created a hypersensitive atmosphere for every other physician,” he said. “We basically stand 10 feet away from everyone we know.”
Even before the recent attention on harassment, the practice of avoiding solo meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex was not uncommon. It could mean not sharing in cabs, travel, lunches, projects or get-togethers over coffee, and not meeting behind closed doors.
Nearly two-thirds of men and women say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work, and about a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate, according to a poll conducted in May by Morning Consult for The New York Times.
The effect on women’s careers is quantifiable, research has found.
Women with sponsors are more likely to get challenging assignments and raises and to say they are satisfied with their career progress, according to data from the Center for Talent Innovation. Yet 64 percent of senior men and 50 percent of junior women avoid solo interactions because of the risk of rumors about their motives, according to a survey by the center.
Good sponsors also give candid, difficult feedback, and women are less likely than men to receive it, McKinsey and Lean In found.
Megan Ketchum, 37, recently got a promotion to sales leader at LinkedIn. It’s a job that required new skills, and she said she got it largely based on the trust and friendship she’d built with leaders on her team, who were all men.
One of them regularly invited her to go for walks and grab coffee. “Trust does get built through intimacy and understanding others and sharing values,” she said. “That comes from interactions that are one-on-one, and not super formal in a conference room with an agenda.”
The dynamic affects racial and other minorities in the workplace, too. “Sponsorship is so often a mini-me — straight white guys sponsoring younger straight white guys,” Ms. Hewlett said. By getting to know people who are different from them, leaders can avoid playing favorites — which can happen if sponsorship isn’t done well and which can hurt office morale.
One way to encourage these relationships is to have more people at the top of companies who are not straight white men. In interviews, women in companies with many female or gay executives were more likely to say one-on-one relationships had never been an issue for them.
Another way is for companies to explicitly support relationship-building meetings. Some companies, for instance, have designated a certain restaurant where senior leaders take protégées for breakfast or lunch. “Once you see it happening out in public, then it becomes the norm,” said Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation.
She added, “If you don’t want people to judge you when you go out with a senior leader, don’t be someone who judges another person.”
It helps when leaders talk about their families, introduce junior employees to their spouses or invite them to their homes, researchers said.
And would-be sponsors and would-be sponsorees can build relationships in daily moments in the office, said Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey who studied the issue with Lean In.
“It’s walking down the hallway, it’s seeking the opinion of others, it’s catching someone after a meeting,” she said. “It may be an unintentional blind spot, but it’s something you could start changing on a Monday morning.”