Aisle Of Wit

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If You’re Going To Reopen The Office, You Also Need To Open Your Mind

Bob Iger’s honeymoon return to the CEO helm at Disney became a nightmare for many of its previously overjoyed employees earlier this week when this little missive wound up in inboxes (as reported by Alex Sherman and Sarah Whitten of CNBC.com):

Bob Iger told hybrid employees on Monday they must return to corporate offices four days a week starting March 1, according to an email obtained by CNBC.

In the email, Iger stressed the importance of in-person collaboration.

“As I’ve been meeting with teams throughout the company over the past few months, I’ve been reminded of the tremendous value in being together with the people you work with,” Iger wrote. “As you’ve heard me say many times, creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney. And in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.
And just like that, my Linked In feed and the comments sections of the various online media outlets that picked up this story were lit up with panic, consternation and frustration.  Dozens of employees and those sympathetic to the still-COVID philosophies and work/life balance evangelists were up in arms, believing Iger had all but violated their constitutional rights in making this decision.  Other theories were that Iger, looking to keep middle management friends and supporters happy by securing their positions in otherwise tumultuous times, not to mention justify recent real estate investments still seeking justification, is simply looking to maintain the spectre of a harmonious corporate environment to board members who championed his return who, generationally, simply don’t buy what they perceive as entitlement.
I must confess that for as progressive and as understanding as I try to be regarding WFH policy, and for as respectful as I believe I should be regarding people’s personal comfort choices amidst what they continue to see as an endless pandemic where new variants are regularly identified and news outlets continue to devote hours upon hours from panic-stricken medical professionals pleading for safety, Iger’s policy is pretty much where I fall on the spectrum.  To be fair, my last corporate job ended exactly a week before the world shut down, and I’ve had little actual business since.  So I honestly have little experience with the endless sea of zoom calls and Slack messaging that has essentially allowed businesses to run as best as possible for the last three years.  But as someone who benefitted tremendously both personally and professionally from the kind of support and interaction that Iger references over many years, and as someone who saw in many of his most recent companies the decency of leaders who were fully supportive of parents who needed to come in late to take their kids to doctors’ appointments or school events, people dealing with health issues of loved ones, court cases, or even waiting around for plumbers, the concept of working your personal life around your business world has rarely been an issue in my experience.  I concur I’m probably luckier than many, and freely admit at many times my home life was so awful that I sought work as a refuge for sanity and, indeed, family.
So I allowed myself to get dragged into the online debate, with some people vehemently defending how “I need to be respectful of introverts!” and vehemently defending QOL and, yes, the economic and time benefits of not having to commute to an office.   And, mind you, my bottom-line words are HYBRID and FLEXIBILITY.  If you’re employed, you can afford to spend a little time and money at least for portions of a week to connect in person for meetings and simply to put a face with a name.  I’ve allowed that if you are in a soulless, cubicle-centric environment in IT or customer service, where all you do is scan your card, eat lunch alone at your desk and get frustrated over the websites your company IT has blocked, yes, you are probably a candidate for remote work.  But, really, the Walt Disney Company?!?!  A company founded on creativity and teamwork?  Even Walt had collaborators when he dreamed up Steamboat Willie.
So yes, I’m on Bob Iger’s side.  But a couple of other items this week have given me pause that amidst all of this perhaps something else has gotten lost in translation that comes along with the territory of personal office connections.
The firing of GMA3 anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach yesterday, a few weeks after the public reveal of their in-office romance, which followed a lengthy internal investigation, was unfortunately expected by many.  Disney has strict policies regarding colleagues having personal relationships, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement support for these types of mandates has accelerated.  Allegations that Holmes had had past relationships with other work colleagues have surfaced, and whether or not they were consensual remains in the realm of debate and rumor.  I’m not about to intelligently discuss, and certainly won’t defend, any incident of harassment that he may have inflicted.  This is strictly about two people, both clearly in relationships they were less than satisfied with, who worked together, were part of a program designed to instill and convey chemistry to attract a daytime audiene and, yes, they fell in love.

I’ve personally seen it happen time and time again.  I recently worked at a company where at least five marriages resulted from co-workers, sometimes even in the same exact department, falling in love.  Two recently gave birth to absolutely gorgeous children, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier smiles on any of the parents in all the time I knew them.  Indeed, Iger met his current wife Willow while she was working for Good Morning, America.  I personally know several other ABC employees of his era who were going through divorces and married women who worked at the company.  I wasn’t blessed with such permanent happiness but, yes, I did date colleagues, sometimes even with the added benefit of my executive status being a carrot to at least allow the opportunity to occur.  I can categorically assure you there was no harassment of any kind involved, and I was never investigated.
These things happen.  We’re human beings, for G-d’s sake.  You’re in an environment where you already spend many hours a day with something in common.  How dare anyone pass judgment that something natural like this should be considered the creation of a toxic work environment?  And shame on a company that supports such a viewpoint–particularly one run by Iger.  And, believe me, he’s not the first CEO who got struck by Cupid, nor will he be the last.  And plenty of women executives have, too.
At the same time, more controversial news broke where former ESPN reporter Alison Williams, along with a veteran producer at the network named Beth Faber, filed a lawsuit against the Disney-owned entity claiming they were fired because of their failure to comply with the company’s COVID-19 vaccine policy.  As reported by USA Today’s Cyndey Henderson:
According to the lawsuit, Williams said she applied in August 2021 for a disability exemption from the network’s vaccine mandate because she was undergoing in vitro fertilization. (The CDC has stated “there is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men.”)

Williams said she was unable to obtain a doctor’s letter to support her concerns because medical providers were being “threatened” for doing so in California, leading her to apply for a religious exemption weeks later. 

“(Williams) informed Defendants in writing that she was a Christian and that her sincerely held and heartfelt religious beliefs prohibited her from being vaccinated,” the suit reads. 

When asked by management for additional information, Williams said she hadn’t received any vaccinations since she had “a bad reaction to one” at age 12 and that her daughter, who was 2 at the time, hadn’t received any vaccinations either.

The lawsuit claims that ESPN and Disney made no efforts to accommodate Williams, who offered to work remote, test regularly and wear a mask, although NFL teams,  college football teams and certain venues didn’t exclude the unvaccinated. 

In Faber’s case, her allegations cut deeper into some uncomfortable truths that, based upon my experience, I don’t summarily dismiss as quickly as some of the Disney lawyers are attempting to:

In the lawsuit, Faber said an ESPN HR representative told her “maybe God has led you to a new career, when God closes a door, he opens another.”

The 83-page complaint alleges that Disney’s vaccine mandate was not the company’s own doing, but a “state action” influenced by its “symbiotic relationship with the Defense Department.”

“It is well-known that the Defense Department has exercised direct editorial control over Disney’s content,” the suit reads. “That control does not stop at content but extends to direct, indirect and covert encouragement as it pertains to policies and practices, such as vaccination requirements.”

Now, yet again, for the benefit of anyone reading this who wants to pass judgment on me, I’ll reiterate I have five vaccines and, thankfully, I’ve yet to have COVID.  My best friend and her best friend choose to be unvaccinated for many reasons similar to those expressed by Williams.  And we’re all fine, thank you very much.  And I’ve yet to see a credible, clean study from any viable authority that has produced a statistically significant result that clearly draws a distinction between infection rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated.  Yes, people without vaccines do get sicker, and that’s a risk that they choose to take.  But in practically every recorded case, there were other mitigating factors of pre-existing conditions that were noted.  It is NOT just about the vaccine, and certainly not just about the mask.   Once again, note that Williams was more than willing to accommodate her co-workers and consent to masking and testing.  Disney’s POLICY was what resulted in her dismissal.  You can snark all you want that she’s now an employee for FOX Sports.  But I know plenty of people who work there, and have worked with her, and no one’s gotten sick yet on her watch.  And yes, she’s earning a living to support her newborn.  As she has a right, and the talent to do.

I also know people who worked with Faber over the years.  She’s an excellent producer and someone who knows how to research a story.  So if she’s making allegations and willing to go on record with them, this is not merely the ramblings of someone who believes in Jewish space lasers.

So if Iger feels so strongly about putting people back together in an office environment, he and his HR people ultimately have to confront the reality that convictions like those so deeply felt by the likes of Williams and Faber are part of the reality of how families, work or otherwise, have to compromise in order to co-exist.  And relationships like those that developed between Holmes and Robach are as well.

Incidentally, in case you think my view on consensual relationships is an outlier,  take a look at this ratings nugget that dropped soon after the couple’s romance was announced, per Dan Clarendon of TVInsider:

On Thursday, December 1 — one day after the Daily Mail reported that Holmes and Robach “have been locked in a passionate romance” — 1.81 million viewers watched GMA3: What You Need to Know, according to Nielsen data cited by Variety on Friday, December 9. That’s an 11 percent increase from the average of 1.63 million viewers who tuned into GMA3’s prior three broadcasts.

So if their own viewers–the ultimate source of revenue for the Disney organization–don’t seem to mind, why in G-d’s name should a policy exist that punishes it?

Especially if you’re gonna mandate that people like that indeed have to work together in the same space?

I don’t know, Bob.  You tell me.  Better yet, tell their lawyers.

And I’ll say this much.  I will gladly work anywhere in the world for you, I’ve fully vaxxed, and I promise if I indeed fall for a co-worker, I’ll let the appropriate parties know about it as soon as I’m aware of it.

I’m on your side, sir.  Shouldn’t you be instructing your minions to be understanding of the trade-offs for that policy?

Until next time…