Privacy | CNN exec's secret office romance puts workplace relationships under the spotlight

CNN exec's secret office romance puts workplace relationships under the spotlight

The president of CNN has resigned after it emerged he failed to disclose a relationship with another top executive, the New York Times has reported.

Jeff Zucker ended his nine-year-long tenure at the helm of one of America’s biggest media companies after his secret was discovered during a separate investigation into the conduct of Chris Cuomo, the ex-CNN anchor who was sacked in December over his involvement in the political affairs of his brother, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the NYT said.

In an internal memo, seen by the NYT, Zucker explained to employees: “I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years.

“I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

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According to the publication, Zucker’s workplace relationship was with Allison Gollust, CNN’s Executive Vice President, and one of the network’s highest-ranking leaders, who is reportedly keeping her position at the firm.

She wrote: “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years.

“Recently, our relationship changed during Covid. I regret that we didn’t disclose it at the right time.”

Prevalence of workplace relationships

The news of this shines a light on the general prevalence of relationships in the workplace. In fact, one in four people have admitted to having a romantic encounter at work, a recent survey from Wright Hassall uncovered.

The legal services firm polled 2,000 Brits to find out how many have had a tryst at work, with 27.6% of the total figure being male and 21.5% being female.

Moreover, 29.1% of those admitting to having an encounter at work were between the ages of 45 and 54-years-old, which was reportedly more than any other age group.

Additionally, 2019 Adzuna research revealed that 75% were open to the possibility of a work-fuelled relationship, with 41% fantasising about doing so.

Big bosses lose jobs over office romances

CNN’s Zucker is not the first, and likely will not be the last, top executive to face repercussions from having a relationship with a colleague.

In 2019, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was sacked after having a consensual relationship with one of his employees, as reported by the Mirror at the time,

A statement from the fast-food giant at the time stated that Easterbrook had “demonstrated poor judgement”. Subsequently, the McDonald’s Board claimed that he violated company policy by engaging in a relationship with a colleague, and he was let go.

In an email to employees, Easterbrook admitted that “this was a mistake”. He added: “Given the values of the company, I agree with the Board that it is time for me to move on.”

Workplace policies & contracts

David Bradley, Chairman and Head of Employment Law from Ramsdens Solicitors, previously told HR Grapevine that, particularly among US employers, it isn’t unusual to find workplace contracts and policies that dissuade relationships between co-workers.

He explained: “This seems odd when so many people meet at work. It is justified but can lead to practical difficulties. Usually, one or both individuals are asked to move roles. This can be contentious and raises issues of potential sex discrimination, where for example it is the junior person who is forced to move. Some policies go as far as to dictate who will move and on the face of it that takes out the issue.”

Karen Holden, Founder of A City Law Firm, previously explained that if an employer has a specific policy against internal colleague relationships then staff can face disciplinary or even dismissal. On the contrary, she said that “if the employer has no such policy it would need to look at how the staff have acted as well as their positions to evidence unfair prejudice, misconduct, breach of fiduciary duties, inappropriate behaviour, for example, so it is more subjective and evidence-based than contractual”.

Holden added: “A relationship, even consensual with no allegation of harassment, can still be considered inappropriate and pose a real risk for any employer. For example, with McDonald's Steve Easterbrook, one had seniority and thus perceived power over the other, be it aware, unaware, perceived or just the potential to discriminate.”

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