Jane Genova
Jane Genova

On the surface, at least as the Wall Street Journal reports, there was no ambiguity about CNN president Jeff Zucker’s resignation. Warner Media, the parent company of CNN, has a clear policy: To prevent relationships between supervisors and employees, before a relationship becomes personal the parties involved have to provide information if it will impact the advancement of either party.

More questions than answers

However, the whole matter of romance in the workplace is filled with more questions than answers. That is why prominent organizations from SHRM to Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance are presenting the pros and cons of even having policies in place.

Meanwhile, because of the still-present stigma about office romances, Insider documents that 76 percent are conducted in secret. Therefore, organizations can struggle with this issue. But Cupid has the upper hand.

Justifications for formal policies

A survey found that more than half of organizations do have formal policies. They may or may not ban all romance. Some provide what is called the “love contract.” That specifies the terms and conditions for entering the relationship. Those range from reporting its existence to steps to take when things go south.

The rationales for creating formal policies include:

  • Sending a message of concern about sexual harassment.
  • Reducing risk of litigation, claims of sexual harassment, conflicts of interest, decreased productivity, and perception of favoritism.
  • Preventing personal decisions rooted in power imbalances. It had been statesman Henry Kissinger who had observed: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
  • Informing employees of the consequences of not following the “rules.”

Push-back against formal policies

There are also those who vilify the executive firings at corporations such as Black Rock, Intel, and Hewitt for undisclosed consensual relationships. Those pushing back indicate such job-enders would not have occurred if there had been no policies against romance at the office. The major arguments against any policies include:

  • Accusing the organization of being paternalistic. This is analogous to students’ objecting to colleges’ taking on the role of “loco parentis.” That policy ended in the 1970s.
  • Pointing to realities. A survey found that 35 to 40 percent had engaged in romantic relationships and 72 percent indicated they would do it again. That is, no regrets. And 22 percent confided that they had dated their supervisors.
  • Invading privacy. Policies generate asking sticky questions. For example, suppose the lovebirds are both married to other parties. Is that the organization’s right to probe into private lives.
  • Policing conduct of the lovers can be downright impossible.

Office as relationship central

There are myriad reasons why working together is a breeding ground for romance. The dynamics are all too human.

As Insider documents, on the average, employees spend 1,680 hours annually together. That usually means they will be sharing a lot of the highs and lows of a career. There are plenty of common interests. And in careerist America, work is the primary interest.

Bonding can kick off with developing a platonic “office spouse” relationship. Then there can be the magic of the kiss.

Given the long hours which have become the new norm, there is little time available to find love outside the office. About 22 percent indicate they had met their romantic partner at work.

#MeToo makes organizations unforgiving

The ethos of the #MeToo movement has intensified the controversy over office romances of all kinds. The fear is palpable about any perception of sexual harassment. That can generate litigation, negative media coverage, and a decline in internal morale.

Currently, organizations will tend to err on the side of being too rigid. That is especially expected in the media industry which has been the hotspot for high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct. The leaders involved range from Roger Ailes to Les Moonves.

In the CNN case, Warner Media likely determined it had to observe the letter of its own “law.” The Wall Street Journal story noted that Warner Media chief executive Jason Kilar was the one who had decided that action must be taken in the Zucker situation. Then came Zucker’s resignation.


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