Brenda Feis quoted in Bloomberg News About a Consensual Relationship at Work

By Vivia Chen

Feb. 11 —

As you probably know, Jeff Zucker recently resigned from his post at CNN after admitting to having an affair with Allison Gollust, the company’s marketing chief. “As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague,” he wrote in his resignation announcement. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today.”

Some might see that as comeuppance for a brash leader who flouted corporate rules. But my reaction was a big yawn.

I can’t get indignant about l’affaire Zucker for several reasons. First, this is not a Roger Ailes or Harvey Weinstein situation in which a powerful ogre preyed on some dewy innocent. Zucker’s romantic partner is herself a top CNN executive who worked with him for 20 years. Plus, they’re both divorced and the relationship appears totally consensual. As sizzling hot office romances go, this one is a bore.

I’m also baffled by that disclosure requirement. I get that companies want to know about messy entanglements that could morph into a harassment suit but are these requirements realistic? And when does the duty to disclose kick in—when one is embroiled in a sexual relationship? Or when one is simply lusting in one’s heart?

Perhaps I’m being flippant but you have to question whether it’s possible to regulate matters of the heart.

The reality is that the workplace is an incubator for lovebirds. About 34% of employed Americans report “they are currently involved or had previously been involved in a workplace romance,” according to a 2021 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Of those involved in office relationships, 69% dated peers, while 21% dated subordinates and 18% dated those in superior positions. COVID isn’t stopping the action: there was an increase of 7% in workplace romance from the previous year.

And who’s running to confess to HR? Only the hopelessly earnest, it seems. In organizations that have anti-fraternization policies, 75% of employees aren’t telling HR or other officials, according to SHRM.

In the law firm world, where relationships between partners and associates are now frowned on, I bet you know plenty of marriages that started with such unholy alliances. Indeed, in a profession as demanding as law, it seems almost cruel to forbid relationships between lawyers.

And the burning question: What are the chances that someone deemed indispensable to the enterprise will get axed for not disclosing a consensual relationship with an underling? Let me make it personal: Would your firm boot a prolific rainmaker for having an affair with the marketing chief, CFO, or another lawyer?

I think we know the answer. So what’s the point of disclosure requirements? Aren’t anti-fraternization policies generally pointless?

Absolutely not, says Samuel Estreicher, a professor at NYU School of Law. “From a best practice standpoint, there has to be a policy that people list their romantic relationships [at work],” says Estreicher. “Otherwise, it’s hard to prove if a relationship is coerced.” He adds, “I don’t know if companies are enforcing the requirement but it should be done.”

The sticky point is not only enforcement but what happens once the relationship is revealed, voluntarily or not. For instance, WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN, states in its standards of conduct handbook that “employees must not hire or supervise (directly or indirectly) someone with whom they have a personal relationship.” However, “if you are in a position to influence the employment, advancement or hiring of someone with whom you have a personal relationship . . . you must inform the HR department in advance of taking any action.”

That policy is “contradictory,” says Brenda Feis, a former employment partner at Seyfath Shaw who moved over to the plaintiff side. “It’s saying that you shouldn’t supervise someone you’re involved with. But if you are, tell us!” She adds, “these policies are well-intentioned. They protect employers when the relationship goes sour. Disclosure is important because there’s a record that the relationship was consensual.”

Taking a more jaundiced view of disclosure requirements is solo employment lawyer Kate Bischoff. “Love contracts or disclosure requirements for relationships are not practical or realistic,” she says. “What makes much more sense is prohibiting relationships between managers and their direct reports.” Those relationships, she says, “are fraught with potential liability and employee relations issues like favoritism. Favoritism is not unlawful but can create issues on a team.” In light of Zucker’s powerful position, she says his exodus was the right outcome.

I can understand the potent symbolism of ousting someone as mighty as Zucker to show that no one is above the rules. But are we buying that message?

I won’t get into the weeds but rumors are rampant, as The New York Times reports, that his relationship with Gollust was an open secret that the company tolerated. So it’s curious why Zucker abruptly left his lofty perch at this juncture.

My guess? There’s probably more to the story than a corporation suddenly embracing the Me Too movement and wanting to create a safer, more equitable workplace. You have to wonder if CNN, like most organizations, would be taking action but for the spotlight on the situation.

“It always comes down to companies covering their own ass,” says Joanna Grossman, a professor at SMU’s Dedman School of Law. Her take on the whole escapade: “There’s something else going on. It seems like Al Capone’s way of making him accountable.”

Grossman indicates that she thinks CNN’s policy misses the target. “Unless one of the harms that a policy is designed to protect actually happens, it shouldn’t trigger termination or resignation,” she says. “If the relationship is truly consensual, and the only issue is lack of disclosure, it’s shocking that someone would lose their job over it.”

More shocking, perhaps, than a top executive losing his job in these situations would be a top law firm partner.

“There’s certainly more cultural pressure now than ever before for lawyers, whose whole job is to uphold the law, to be perceived as accountable,” says Feis. “But law firms, even those with name recognition, generally don’t have the same brand sensitivity as large public companies.” The upshot: “firms are more likely to resolve those kinds of issues more quietly and probably with less dire consequences.”

But is there a tipping point when firms will fire a top producer? “I don’t think a harasser would be tolerated, but I doubt a top partner would be fired for the lesser offense of failing to disclose a consensual relationship,” says Feis.

My hunch is that a firm will bend over backwards to retain a big rainmaker—perhaps send the offender to a therapist, coach or spiritual advisor. Are anti-fraternization policies just corporate virtue signaling?

But Feis believes the modern workplace needs guidance: “People spend so much time at work so it’s not uncommon that they will fall in love. We can’t stop people from being human. But this is a way to have a healthier work environment.”

I can’t argue with the intention. But I still tend to think that desire and amore will circumvent the obstacles. And maybe that’s not entirely bad.