Intel announced Thursday that its CEO was stepping down after confirming he violated a "non-fraternization" policy that had been in place since 2011, revealing that its chief executive and a champion of its corporate diversity initiatives had a "past consensual relationship with an Intel employee."
Yet in the #MeToo era, more companies are adding similar policies or asking their attorneys to vet them, employment lawyers say, as they grow nervous about the increased scrutiny and mounting risks they face amid a deluge of sexual harassment cases being reported.
"We are seeing substantially more interest in this area," said Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia-based employment lawyer. "I’m seeing more companies ask about them. I’m seeing more companies add them to their anti-harassment policies. I've seen more companies look at them in their codes of conduct."
Employment lawyers described a non-fraternization policy like Intel's, which limits sexual or romantic relationships between managers and employees they manage directly or indirectly, as relatively common.
Yet many other companies haven't added them, or have avoided blanket policies that ban workplace romance more generally, because they can be difficult to enforce, bump up against today's more casual, round-the-clock workplace and may risk the employer seeming like "big brother" that doesn't trust its workers.
The higher interest in adding "intimate relationship" or "workplace romance" policies follows a period when companies have encouraged more informal workplaces, adding beer fridges in the office, planning social outings and fostering cultures that promote a 24/7 work hour mentality.
"I think the pendulum has swung to where now, in the last five to ten years, cool tech startups have to be places where everybody comes to have a darn good time," said Patty McCord, a consultant and the former head of human resources at Netflix. "You're now confusing things you do at bars with things you do at work."
As that informal and always-on work culture has grown, lawyers and human resources experts say, some companies have added stipulations where employees can report or disclose intimate relationships between peers.
But those policies -- or on the flipside, blanket prohibitions of all relationships -- can be "fraught with all kinds of peril," said Amy Bess, an employment lawyer who said when she recently asked conference attendees whether they were considering adding such a policy, people across the room raised their hands. Not only can employers "come across as being heavy handed and intrusive in [employees'] private lives," she said, but "if you try to enforce it with one couple you know about, you'll hear 'so and so' is doing this too and you didn't counsel them. It's very hard to carry out in a consistent manner."
When it comes to relationships between managers and subordinates, it's more critical for companies to have a clear policy, she and other lawyers said. For one, relationships may start out consensual, but they don't always end that way.
"I have been involved in dozens and dozens of cases of sexual harassment that start out as consensual," said Debra Katz, a Washington-based lawyer who represents employees in many workplace harassment and discrimination cases.
And even if a relationship seems on equal footing, it rarely remains that way in a workplace where two people have different levels of power, influence or status.
"Power is always relevant," Segal said. "The person who has it discounts it, and the person who doesn’t have it is always aware of it."
When it comes to CEOs, the differing power levels are even more pronounced, since every employee ultimately reports to the CEO. Not only do CEO-employee relationships raise questions about favoritism among employees, but broader leadership questions about arrogance, abuse of trust or the credibility of a company's code of conduct.
"It goes without saying that for a CEO, who is the absolute head of an organization, that would be rule number one," Bess said.
Charles Elson, the director of a corporate governance center at the University of Delaware, said Krzanich's departure is appropriate, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. For CEOs, "you can't say the rules apply to everyone else but you," he said. "Fraternization is a petri dish which potentially leads to other problems -- including harassment."