Experts say that despite the dangers of workplace romances, the biggest source of trouble is when it’s kept secret.
This week’s sudden ouster of Jeff Zucker, long-serving chief executive at CNN, was an example. He claimed he had done ”wrong” in not telling the network about a consensual relationship that he was having.
After being quizzed about his relationship with CNN’s chief marketing officer Allison Gollust, Zucker only admitted to it. This executive shakeup is a crucial moment for CNN. Many prominent employees expressed disappointment at the way things were handled.
David Lewis, the CEO of Operations Inc., a HR consulting firm, said that “he should have known better.” He chose to ignore the clearly defined policy of his employer. There was no way to be happy once he chose not to tell.
Zucker is not the only one who finds love at work. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, about a third of U.S. workers are currently in a relationship at work. This trend has been increasing since the outbreak of the pandemic.
According to SHRM, most large corporations have a policy regarding workplace romance. However, the majority of U.S. companies do not. Corporate policies can be restrictive or permissive. Some simply require disclosure.
Smaller businesses have few rules. According to SHRM’s most recent data, nearly 80% of U.S. workers claim that their employer doesn’t require them to disclose a work-related romance.
This can lead to just as many problems as employees keeping their relationships secretive from companies that have a policy.
A policy protects employees from “quid proquo” relationships. It also protects the company’s morale and, ideally, protects against lawsuits or scandals.
David Lewis, CEO, Operations Inc., a human resource consulting firm, stated that companies that look the other way allow a smoldering flame to become an inferno. “Countless companies have ignored these issues and paid dearly for it.”
The #MeToo movement exposed toxic workplace sexual misconduct that even the most stringent office-romance policies can’t prevent. This includes Miramax’s failure to address the long-standing allegations against Harvey Weinstein. He was ultimately convicted of rape, assault and battery. NBC’s reputation has been damaged by sexual misconduct allegations against anchor Matt Lauer.
Companies can be troubled by hidden consensual relationships, particularly when they involve top executives. A relationship with a lower-ranking employee can lead to power dynamics. This is why it is often against company policy, even if the relationship is consensual.
This type of relationship can often lead to public relations disasters. After he admitted to exchanging text messages and videos in a non-physical consensual relationship, McDonald’s fired Steve Easterbrook. McDonald’s prohibits managers from having romantic relationships directly or indirectly with subordinates. sued him in 2020 after he was exposed to have had other relationships. Easterbrook eventually paid $105 million in settlement.
It is only the first step to have a policy in place. Jeff Hyman, CEO at Recruit Rockstars, an internet recruiting company, stated that employees may not know about it.
He said, “The problem is that most employees don’t know what their company policy is.” It’s not usually included in offer letters.
Employees fear that they will be punished if they reveal a relationship or don’t want human resource involved in a budding love story. SHRM CEO Johnny Taylor said that disclosure of a relationship protects both the employee as well as the company and will not be used against them.
“The challenge is communicating to employees that we need you to do these things, and that nothing negative will occur if you do so.”
Taylor stated that it is possible that CNN could have offered alternatives to Gollust or Zucker if they had disclosed their relationship at the right time.
Taylor stated that while I don’t know all the details of CNNs policy, I feel that if Zucker had notified his board about the relationship and they hadn’t learned of it through an investigation, there was a good chance that the board would have found a better solution that didn’t involve losing a star talent.