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3 workplace romance lessons companies can learn from Jeff Zucker

Posted by Grace Townsley

March 7, 2022    |     4-minute read (654 words)

The resignation of CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, over an undisclosed workplace relationship has HR teams nationwide considering their relationship policies. Or at least, that’s the impact this headline story should have. 

Zucker failed to report his (consensual) relationship with CNN’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust, which violated CNN’s standards of business conduct. The section titled “personal relationships at work” prohibits all employees from hiring or supervising anyone they’ve had a personal relationship with. If they do find themselves in a relationship with an employee they influence, can promote or oversee in any way, they’re required to immediately report that relationship to HR. Zucker did not follow CNN’s fraternization policy. The whole company paid the price. 

Had Zucker simply reported the relationship, there’s a chance CNN could have come to a peaceful arrangement that allowed both parties to stay on staff and in the relationship. Instead, Zucker’s actions sparked a media frenzy that rippled throughout the company. 

We can learn a lot from Zucker’s misstep, about ourselves and our employees. Here are the biggest takeaways:

Yes, workplace relationship policies still matter

The past two years of remote work may have shuffled your romance policy to the bottom of the priority stack, but work from home doesn’t mean your company is immune from the fallout caused by inappropriate relationships. 

Misconduct can happen anywhere — at an after-work happy hour or over Slack. These policies don’t expire just because the setting changes. If anything, anti-harassment and nonconsensual relationship protection is more important than ever, as online communication is more difficult to monitor than workplace interactions. 

Be clear and be consistent

There’s no set workplace relationship standard or enforcement policy. That means you have the freedom to set up your own best practices and standards, but it also means it’s easy to ignore these policies. In fact, 41% of employees aren’t even aware of their company’s romance policy. 

Generally, companies should prohibit relationships between supervisors and direct reports. Not only does this create an awkward and potentially favoritism-prone environment for the other employees, if the relationship goes south, the report’s job is in jeopardy. But beyond that basic guideline, your relationship policy can range from strict — prohibiting all relationships between any manager and any lower-level employee — to lenient, like allowing any relationship, as long as it’s reported. 

Whatever policy your company develops, it must be consistently and clearly enforced. A section in the new hire handbook isn’t enough. To protect both your company and your people, your fraternization rules should be annually reviewed with all employees, the consequences of an undisclosed relationship clearly defined and the policy evenly enforced. 

It’s not just business, it’s legal

While the point of relationship policies isn’t to squash fragile new love, poorly formed (and poorly enforced) workplace relationship policies open your business up to significant litigation risk. If your company is found to be aware of an inappropriate relationship, consensual or not, you could face costly lawsuits for not protecting the subordinate party. Expensive law proceedings, bad press and sour company culture will hurt your bottom line for years to come. 

A simple, nonpunitive, well-known relationship policy gives your employees the space to meet and engage with one another without putting the company, or their jobs, at risk. At the same time, a clear, punishable harassment policy for nonconsensual relationships is just as critical to the health of your organization.  

One last note on company relationship policies:They must apply to every employee at every level of the business. All too often, upper-level management and executives are allowed to skirt rules, simply because of their performance or value. But inconsistent application of any policies quickly creates a toxic culture. The long-term benefits of a healthy, clearly defined romance policy greatly outweigh the short-term loss of addressing a key employee’s misconduct. 

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