Feb 16

Workplace romance, CNN and conflict of interest policy

Every year around Valentine’s Day, the topic of workplace romance, and how it should be managed, seems to feature in the news. This year, there was much discussion concerning the resignation of CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker after it was disclosed that he was in a relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s head of marketing and communication. The relationship appeared to have been an open secret at the company and in the US media world.  Both Zucker and Gollust were divorced and the relationship was consensual. However, Gollust reported to Zucker in her marketing role, and thus company policy required that the relationship be declared under conflict of interest rules.

This lead to much speculation about whether Zucker’s acknowledgement that the relationship breached workplace conflict of interest policies was merely a pretext for leaving.  Some commentary focussed on the unusual scenario of a senior male figure leaving his job rather than a female subordinate, as has more often been the case where such situations arise.  Many people questioned why the pair were not open about the relationship, or why the company did not address it earlier, since it seemed to have been widely known.

The relationship itself was not prohibited, but the failure to declare it was clearly a breach of company policy.  Most organisations now require employees to declare actual or perceived conflicts of interest; romantic relationships, particularly where one partner reports to the other, are a classic conflict.  We might expect that by now, we would know how to discuss romance in the workplace and the how it may affect workplace dynamics.

While employees may not want to disclose relationships, employers also do not want to be the relationship police.  People will continue to meet and fall in and out of love at the workplace – that’s why most codes of conduct address the issue.  Even if a workplace romance does not actually affect an employee’s ability to perform their role impartially, other employees need to know that a relationship is not affecting decisions or opportunities at work.

Organisations also need to promote a working environment free from sexual harassment, and ensure that the workplace atmosphere is not sexualised or hostile towards any employees. In most workplaces, it makes sense to state that consensual relationships may happen between co-workers and set expectations around professional behaviour between romantic partners. Outright banning of relationships between employees is almost never appropriate. Besides being difficult to enforce, it is unlawful in some states to discriminate against an employee because of “lawful sexual activity” which includes sexual relationships between employees.

Organisations can approach the disclosure of employee relationships by either requiring all employees to disclose sexual, romantic or other close relationships with other employees, or by asking employees to disclose sexual, romantic or other close relationships where they think there is a conflict of interest, or where there might be a perception of a conflict of interest.

As with CNN’s Jeff Zucker, the more senior an employee is, the greater the expectation that the person will report sexual, romantic or other close relationships with fellow employees. Regardless of why the relationship was not declared or speculation about why he actually resigned, Zucker acted better late than never in accepting responsibility for a clear breach of company policy, and setting a belated standard as a leader in acknowledging his failure to comply with policy.

In the case of Zucker and Gollust, the relationship seems to have been well-known, but it is important for organisationstobe sensitive to the highly confidential nature of relationship information.  One of the reasons often expressed for a failure to declare a romantic relationship is a lack of trust in HR to manage the information confidentially.  It makes sense for one or two senior people with HR responsibility to manage a highly confidential register of relationships and to implement mitigation strategies for managing real or perceived romantic conflicts of interest.

While banning workplace romance is unnecessarily harsh and ultimately unworkable, taking positive steps to ensure that workplace romances can be a part of a professional workplace is a smart and respectful way to address risks that arise from love that blooms at the workplace.

Principal Consultant, Tanya Hunter

Clear, up-to-date and robust employment policies inform employees what is and is not appropriate behaviour in your workplace, and help staff to comply with your expectations. To minimise risk and ensure your employment policies and procedures are current, reviews should be undertaken at least annually to reflect new legal standards, as well as after any workplace complaint investigation or policy challenge.

Worklogic consultants are happy to discuss your employment policies and workplace culture. Get in touch for an obligation-free chat with and experienced Worklogic team member.

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