What Michael Cohen’s betrayal reveals about our messed-up workplace loyalties

During Michael Cohen’s Feb. 27 testimony, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar asked the former Trump lawyer and fixer about his legal duties to the president.

“I’m sure you remember, maybe you don’t remember, duty of loyalty, duty of confidentiality, attorney-client privilege,” he said, implying that Cohen’s testimony was a betrayal of his former employer.

It was the ultimate betrayal.

Besides detailing allegations of wrongdoing, Cohen went out of his way to repudiate Trump, calling him a “racist,” “con man” and “cheat.” Like a rueful divorcee, Cohen recounted one Trump-related misdeed after another, repeating “and yet, I continued to work for him.”

I have spent the last nine months working on a book about the duties we owe to our employers and how they’ve changed over time. For me, there was something familiar – albeit extreme and repugnant – about Cohen’s initial loyalty and eventual public rebuke of the most famous boss in the country.

[embedded content] Gosar brings up Cohen’s ‘duty of loyalty.’

Loyalty first

The duty of loyalty is the idea that you should not cheat, rob, undermine or disclose the secrets of the person or entity you represent. This duty is especially strong for lawyers, because the acts they undertake on behalf of their clients are binding upon their clients, sometimes in life-altering ways.

But the duty of loyalty also applies to most employees as part of their employment relationship. And the duty of loyalty is deeply embedded in both our legal and social fabric. In fact, New York still follows a legal concept known as the “faithless servant” doctrine, which allows companies to recover wages paid to an employee proven to have been disloyal.

Cohen’s testimony was a stunning reversal from his past professions of devotion. In 2017, Cohen told Vanity Fair that he turned down a US$10 million book offer, insisting “There’s no money in the world that could get me to disclose anything about them.” In that same interview, Cohen said, “I’m the guy who stops the leaks. I’m the guy who protects the president and the family. I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”

He didn’t end up taking a bullet. But he did incur a prison sentence for criminal conduct, some of which was done on the president’s behalf and, according to Cohen, behest.

Faithful servants

We’re in a weird time when it comes to our relationships with our employers, which, like Cohen, reflect strong attachment and loyalty.

At a time when trust in many institutions – like the federal government, the church, the medical system and the media – is quite low, Americans trust their employer above all.

A survey by the Edelman group found that 80 percent of the Americans they surveyed trust their employer, and at higher rates than many countries in Europe. Americans have also been staying with their employer longer, rising from a median of 3.5 years in 1983 to 4.6 years today.