CNN executive Zucker’s ousting shows the danger of hiding a workplace romance

NEW YORK (AP) — For all the potential dangers of a workplace romance, the most common source of trouble, experts say, is allowing it to remain secret.

One example is the abrupt ousting this week of longtime CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker, who said he was ‘wrong’ for not being candid with the network about a consensual relationship he was talking to another leader.

Zucker only admitted his relationship with CNN chief marketing officer Allison Gollus after being asked about it during an investigation into now-fired anchor Chris Cuomo. The management shakeup comes at a pivotal time for CNN, and prominent employees have expressed dismay that things haven’t been handled differently.

“He should have known better,” said David Lewis, CEO of Operations Inc., an HR consultancy. “He decided to avoid what was a clearly stated policy by his employer. The problem with that is that there was no good outcome once he decided not to say it.

Zucker isn’t the only one finding love in the office. About a third of American workers say they have or have had a workplace relationship — and the trend has been rising since the start of the pandemic, according to the trade association Society for Human Resource Management.

Most big companies have a policy on workplace romance, but the majority of American companies don’t, according to SHRM. Company policies can range from prohibiting all relationships to those that only exist between managers and subordinates. Some simply require disclosure.

Among small businesses, there are rarely any rules. Nearly 80% of American workers say their employer does not require them to disclose a work romance, according to the most recent data from SHRM.

And that can cause just as much trouble as employees who keep their relationships secret from a company that actually has a policy.

A policy protects workers from “quid pro quo” relationships, protects company morale, and ideally protects against lawsuits and scandals.

“The companies that choose to look away are the ones that allow a smoldering fire to turn into hell,” said David Lewis, CEO of Operations Inc., a human resources consulting firm. “Countless organizations have chosen not to tackle it head-on and have paid dearly for it.”

The #MeToo movement has brought to light the toxic — and sometimes criminal — sexual misconduct in the workplace that even the best office romance policies are unlikely to prevent. That includes film studio Miramax failing to respond to longstanding accusations against Harvey Weinstein, who was eventually convicted of rape and assault, and NBC’s brand tarnished after sexual misconduct allegations against the presenter Matt Lauer.

Hidden consensual romances present their own problems for companies, especially when senior executives are involved. Because of the potential for power dynamics to come into play, a relationship with a lower-level employee is generally against the policy, even if consensual.

When such a relationship comes to light, it often causes a public relations nightmare. In 2019, McDonald’s fired CEO Steve Easterbrook after he admitted exchanging videos and text messages in a non-physical, consensual relationship with an employee. McDonald’s prohibits managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect reports. Then the company sued him in 2020 when other relationships came to light that he lied about. Easterbrook ended up returning $105 million to settle the lawsuit.

Having a policy in place is only the first step. Employees may not be aware of it, said Jeff Hyman, CEO of Recruit Rockstars, an online recruitment company.

“A big problem is that most employees have no idea what their company’s policy is,” he said. “It’s not usually included in an offer letter.”

Another common problem is that employees fear being punished if they disclose a relationship, or they don’t want HR involved in a budding romance. Companies must therefore make it clear that disclosing a relationship helps protect both the employee and the company, and will not be used against them, said Johnny Taylor, CEO of SHRM.

“The challenge is to communicate to employees that ‘we need you to do this, and nothing bad will happen if you follow this. “”

It’s possible that if Zucker or Gollust had disclosed the relationship at the right time, CNN could have found alternatives to his resignation, Taylor said.

“While I don’t know the specifics of CNN’s policy, my instinct is that if Zucker had informed his board of directors of the developing relationship instead of learning about it through investigation, there has a very good chance the board would have come up with a better solution — one that didn’t involve them losing a star talent,” Taylor said.

CNN declined to comment for this article.

Comments are closed.