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The lessons learned (or missed) in CNN’s office romance scandal

Romantic relationships that form and sometimes end at work is something that has been going on for decades and will continue for decades more, in places ranging from corner diners to multi-national conglomerates.

Jeff Zucker shown in a photo from 2017.
Jeff Zucker shown in a photo from 2017.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The relationship between Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust that got Zucker fired/forced to resign as CNN’s president made me think, for several reasons, about the late Cosmopolitan editor, Helen Gurley Brown.

Brown, of course, was renowned for talking about freely enjoying sex with a great many men before she married. Still, the author of 1962’s “Sex and the Single Girl” was opposed to women having sexual relationships with male bosses (with no mention in those “Mad Men” days of female bosses). In her 1965 sequel “Sex and the Office,” Brown wrote, “I think it’s better to keep this darling as a friend, someone who may from time to time advise you about other men.”

Brown’s philosophies may cause 21st century inhabitants to think her far, far ahead of early 1960s society or a disturbing relic promoting romance counseling between bosses and employees. But her advice for women to avoid sexual relationships with male superiors was almost certainly correct at a time when consensual or (sometimes) forced relationships between women and their male bosses almost always resulted in the woman being sacked once the boss’ interest dulled or his wife threatened divorce. One wonders what Brown might think about Zucker (whose nine years at CNN were mostly quite successful) losing his job while Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer, gets to stay.

While Gollust’s current job retention might represent a sort of progress to some, others might think she also should leave CNN since she apparently willingly participated in a relationship that was supposed to be forbidden for Zucker, someone for whom she might hold a good measure of care as well as respect as her supervisor. If Gollust had been Zucker’s supervisor, might they both have been required to leave? I don’t think so. But I strongly suspect Gollust might have been tossed out much earlier than Zucker.

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What I do know is that romantic relationships that form and sometimes end at work is something that has been going on for decades and will continue for decades more, in places ranging from corner diners to multi-national conglomerates. It’s probably fair to say that many of these relationships don’t violate any workplace prohibitions or marital vows.

Still, one big factor not getting enough attention in the Zucker/Gollust debriefing is the fact that these two apparently had some sort of seriously platonic, possibly romantic relationship going on for many years before they admitted to any romance. Some (including former NBC “Today” anchor Katie Couric) suggest Gollust’s rapid rise through the ranks at NBC and then CNN may have occurred because of her relationship with Zucker. Subtract sexual frisson and one can easily see how closely beneficial platonic friendships between more everyday supervisors and subordinates also can be matters of significant workplace difficulty. Such cronyism has been cited by more than one expert as a top reason managers lose productive employees.

photo of article author
Photo by Aaron Fahrmann
Mary Stanik
It’s a very good bet most of us have worked in at least one place where bosses hire pals who may not be qualified or effective, favor friend employees with light workloads and easy schedules or promote or inordinately protect their good friends. I have worked in at least three situations (including one in Minnesota) where platonic friends of the boss(es) presented problems for others. One of those friend situations that occurred more than a decade ago still makes me angry. I was new at the job and was forced to hire someone who worked for the organization’s president. The individual, a close friend of the president, wanted more money than the presidential position could pay on its own. After a few weeks of this person’s desultory attitude and unsatisfactory work, some of my staff emphatically said this was not what they or our department needed. Fortunately, I was able to convince another top executive that this person really didn’t want to have to do any other work to receive additional pay.

If anything is learned from the Zucker and Gollust situation, it is that romances between supervisors and subordinates are still not advisable, whether the players are paid many millions or just a few thousand per year. And if we can start examining the problems that can ensue when employers are unduly influenced by their great friend employees (and vice versa), that might be a good thing.

In the end, the old saying (sanitized for a family readership), “don’t soil where you romantically or platonically eat” might be the best lesson gained from this case.

A lesson even Helen Gurley Brown almost certainly could have endorsed with ease.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”