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Dangerous liaisons: how to prevent the office romance from ending in heartbreak

The recent ousting of CNN CEO Jeff Zucker highlights the risks an office relationship can cause if it goes undisclosed

If you’ve ever found yourself gazing longingly at a co-worker across a Zoom screen, you’re not alone. According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), half of workers in the US have admitted to having a crush on a colleague.

Although the same survey found that 75% of workers felt comfortable with people engaging in a workplace romance, employees should be aware that, in certain circumstances, an office fling could cost them their job. 

One recent, high-profile example of this came when CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker had to step down from his role at the top of the news broadcaster after failing to disclose his relationship with CMO Allison Gollust. Following his resignation, Zucker said: “I acknowledge the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

These types of surreptitious relationships between colleagues can cause problems for businesses – especially if, as in the case of Zucker and Gollust, it involves a senior member of the organisation. 

Emma Parry, who is professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, says: “Workplace romances are common but can also be seen as unethical in some circumstances. This can be particularly problematic at work when power dynamics are in play, for example if one partner is more senior than the other and the junior partner feels pressured into starting or sustaining a romance.”

Zucker is not the first CEO to fall foul of hiding a workplace romance. Former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired in 2019 after it was discovered that he had what the company described as a, “recent consensual relationship” with another member of staff.

The CEO needs to hold themselves to a higher level of account in these situations, according to the founder of Limelight HR Sally Bendtson. “The issues are different at a senior level. Because of the influence and power executives hold, there is a greater chance of any relationship being misconstrued.” 

She adds: “The business also has to protect itself against any potential cases of sexual discrimination or sexual harassment and be aware that the individual may be misusing their power or position within the business.”

The importance of relationship clauses

Slater and Gordon’s head of employment law Jo Mackie claims that events like these highlight the importance of including relationship clauses in any terms of employment. “Organisations need a relationship-at-work policy to give people the boundaries that will allow the business to control any potential fallout from the situation,” she says.

According to Mackie, these clauses often stipulate that employees should treat everybody equally with dignity and respect. They might also say that if you find yourself in a partnership or intimate relationship with someone where there might be a conflict of interest – for example between a trainee and trainer or the head of marketing and the CEO – this needs to be declared to HR. 

This is where Zucker and Gollust’s relationship created an issue. Mackie adds: “Workplace relationships can be absolutely fine, and businesses can’t prevent people from entering relationships with people at work, but it’s when there’s a conflict of interest that people need to be careful.”

Getting HR involved means they can work with the managers and people involved to help resolve any potential issues. Often a simple solution can be found, whether that is restructuring a team, rearranging someone’s training or ensuring neither of the two parties are involved in decisions regarding remuneration or career progression. 

This can be more challenging when a member of the executive team is involved, which is why some businesses opt to include contractual clauses that ban romantic relationships between managers and subordinates. However, Parry believes such clauses should be adopted with caution, as they are generally impossible to enforce.

“If these policies are very restrictive, these might also be seen as a breach of the trust-based relationship between employer and employee,” She says. “The more critical consideration is to develop a culture that is built on trust, support and psychological safety. This will help ensure that employees feel comfortable discussing issues and communicating any problems.”

Dealing with break-ups

This can be particularly important when any relationship between employees ends in a break-up. “How do you deal with that at work when two people now loathe each other?” Mackie asks. “HR can manage all those things, but only if they’re aware of it. That’s why disclosure is so important.”

Some people may consider this an unnecessary intrusion into people’s private lives, in fact 77% of US workers who have been involved in an office romance said they did not disclose it to HR at the time, according to the SHRM research. Unsurprisingly, people are especially reluctant to inform their employer about their relationship when they are involved in an affair. 

In 2020 Bill Gates stepped down from the board of Microsoft. It later emerged that the company co-founder was being investigated by the company in relation to an affair with a Microsoft employee. Gates denied that was the reason for transitioning off the company board. 

Mackie says: “If people are having covert relationships or affairs, it can be difficult to handle because it’s people’s private lives. But line managers may need to know about the situation because it can have all sorts of implications for the business and the individuals involved need to be made aware of their liabilities and risks that may arise if they’re caught out.”

While it’s hard to stand in the way of love, it’s important for businesses and their employees to be aware of the consequences a workplace relationship might have. Inserting a well-worded relationship clause into your company handbook reduces the chance of any issues occurring further down the line and could prevent a PR nightmare.