CNN has an HR mess on its hands.
Jeff Zucker, who is credited with reshaping the network during his nine-year tenure as president, is stepping down after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a top executive at the news network.
The way the company has handled the situation is reportedly creating unrest among employees, with some of them questioning the company’s abrupt decision to let Zucker go. Management’s response could be further complicated by the fact that the employee dating Zucker is staying in her position for now.
Why Zucker is stepping down
Zucker announced his departure in a message to employees yesterday (Feb. 2).
The CNN executive reportedly failed to disclose a consensual romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, currently the network’s chief marketing officer. The relationship came to light when Zucker was questioned about Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN. Cuomo was fired in December after a state investigation revealed Cuomo advised his brother, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, on responding to sexual harassment allegations.
WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, requires employees to inform Human Resources in advance if they are in a position “to influence the employment, advancement or hiring of someone” with whom they have a personal relationship.
A test for management
Zucker is said to have earned the loyalty of a number of top CNN staff members during his time at the network, and some have already spoken out about his firing. “It is so regrettable how it happened,” anchor Alisyn Camerota said on air of his firing yesterday. “These are two consenting adults who are both executives, that they can’t have a private relationship? It feels wrong.”
On the other hand, CNN management could also face questions about Gollust’s tenure. Workplace romances are far from unusual—one third of US employees are currently in one or have been in one previously, according to a January survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)—but this one stands out in that both employees are making decisions at the highest echelons of the organization.
Gollust was one of the first employees hired by CNN when Zucker joined in 2013 and often worked side-by-side with him. A senior executive at the network, Gollust is the chief spokesperson for CNN and oversees all communications and marketing strategy.
When a relationship of this nature comes out, it can create negative perceptions among other employees, according to Lisa Mainiero, a professor of management and leadership at Fairfield University who studies workplace romances. “If the romance is between a superior and a direct report, confidential information may be shared as ‘pillow talk’ that can compromise both individuals,” she says. Trust and morale take a nosedive, and it’s not unusual to see some employees transfer out of departments.
In keeping Gollust on, “the network created the impression that they play favorites and are not even-handed in enforcing corporate policies,” says Edward Segal, a crisis management expert. “That is never a good look for a company or organization, and can damage their credibility, image and reputation.”
The situation also invites scrutiny as to whether weak enforcement of reporting policies for workplace relationships at CNN is threatening broader staff safety. Zucker only disclosed his relationship with Gollust last week, but former CNN staff anchor Soledad O’Brien said it had been an “open secret” at the network well before then. Zucker’s spokesperson has denied this.
“Some people will brush this off as a consensual relationship and nothing wrong happened here,” says Bryan Harris, who leads issues and crisis management at the communications agency Jackson Spalding. “The core issue is that a leader in the organization did not follow the policies they were entrusted to enforce.”
Zucker’s exit comes at a challenging moment for network
CNN is now dealing with a power shakeup at a critical time for the network. AT&T announced earlier this week it’s spinning off WarnerMedia, in turn merging CNN with other major networks including HBO and Discovery+. CNN has struggled to maintain ratings following President Donald Trump’s departure from office, and lost 40% of its primetime viewership last year. The network is counting on gaining back some of those viewers when it launches the streaming network CNN+ next month.
One of the key factors crisis communications experts consider when responding to a matter like this is whether it constitutes a “loss of moral authority” in the C-suite, says Harris. “Obviously, that is the case here.” The test for management is “how they usher the brand through it while providing the least disruption for their viewers and employees.”