Even so, it’s hard to deny that what Mr. Zucker did was an offense punishable by fire: he waited years to disclose his relationship with Allison Gollus, during which time the two worked closely together.
There are good reasons that formal and informal boundaries are a necessity in the workplace and in academia – as the latest allegations of sexual harassment of graduate students at Harvard show. The actions of leaders and authority figures have set precedent, and while Mr. Zucker (or me) hasn’t harassed or abused anyone, the way a boss behaves can have lasting and damaging effects on others. in the business. It seems that Mr. Zucker, unlike me, did not report his relationship immediately, but the open secret of his disregard for the rules was tolerated. By showing that the rules do not apply to those in power, it sent the message that lines could be crossed, to the detriment of the most vulnerable people in the business, with no repercussions.
Nevertheless, it should be recognized that the observance of these necessary rules runs counter to certain fundamental aspects of human nature. I believe that people shouldn’t bring their “whole” to work — no one owes that to an employer — but it’s also impossible to bring nothing of your personal self at work. Sex and power are often linked. If you are the boss, the adoration of a subordinate can be very seductive, and if you are subordinate, the validation of an authority figure can be arousing. Strong feelings can develop even within strong boundaries.
Working life, especially in a culture as work-obsessed as America’s, forces us into many unnatural postures. As animals, we are not physically well designed to sit at a desk for at least 40 hours a week staring at screens. That so many of our waking hours are spent working in the first place is a very modern development that can easily erode our sanity and self-esteem. We are a superior species capable of observing restraint, but we are also walking groups of needs and desires, with which evolution has both protected and sabotaged us. And it’s no wonder, when work occupies so much of our attention, that people sometimes find deep human connections in it, even when they don’t mean to, and even when it’s inappropriate.
“Where are you supposed to meet people?” a friend of mine reassured me, half-jokingly, when I sheepishly told her that Jotham had worked for me at the start of our relationship. And indeed, the reaction I get to this information tends to be mostly positive, or at least sympathetic. This may be because the traditional boss-subordinate gender dynamic has been reversed. Or maybe I don’t strike anyone as a flirt: my idea of flirting is recommending a book.
Jotham and I have a 6 year old son now, and I still don’t know how to talk about how our relationship started. I guess I would say I did something horribly unprofessional, it was definitely a fireable offence. And that it was a brilliant mistake, a mistake that I will always be grateful and relieved to have made.