CNN situation a reminder that workplace relationships a slippery slope

Sunira Chaudhri

Sunira Chaudhri

Toronto Employment Lawyer

Jeff Zucker himself resigned abruptly last Wednesday, claiming that he was involved in a consensual relationship with a CNN employee. He failed to disclose the relationship to the organization.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire.


In December, I wrote about the downfall of Chris Cuomo, star anchor at CNN, following sexual harassment and conflict of interest allegations levied against him.


Cuomo was mired in a scandal involving his brother Andrew Cuomo, former Governor of New York. Like his brother, Andrew too was also the subject of sexual harassment allegations while in office.


CNN president Jeff Zucker took a hard line with his marquis employee; denying Chris a payout on his multi-million dollar contract on termination.


But, the pot can’t get away with calling the kettle black.


Jeff Zucker himself resigned abruptly last Wednesday, claiming that he was involved in a consensual relationship with a CNN employee. He failed to disclose the relationship to the organization.


In a memo to colleagues reported by POLITICO, Zucker expressed: “I was required to disclose it when it began, but I didn’t.”


Reportedly, Zucker was in a relationship with CNN’s Chief Marketing Officer, Allison Gollust, who, separately acknowledged the relationship and confirmed that it was consensual.


It appears that Zucker’s resignation comes on the heels of an intense legal dispute between Chris Cuomo and the organization regarding his termination.


Zucker’s heavy-handedness in the Cuomo investigation forced the lens on himself. Zucker’s own conflict of interest, that is, his engaging in a sexual relationship with a CNN employee, is an obvious conflict of interest and one that he now admits to engaging in without disclosing it to CNN.


Even though the relationship may well be consensual, the perks and benefits that might flow within such a romantic relationship are unlimited. Zucker was in a position to offer Gollust benefits which may not have been available to other employees. Whether or not she in fact received any such benefits from the relationship is irrelevant. The appearance of bias is enough to raise a red flag.


Of course, there is the underbelly to romantic relationships in the workplace as well. Often, one member of a workplace relationship may be in a position of power relative to the other. As president of CNN, Zucker wielded much power over the entire organization, including Gollust. If the relationship had turned sour, the power imbalance between the two could potentially have turned what was once a consensual relationship into one that was anything but.


In fact, I have worked with many clients over time that have found it extremely difficult to exit what were once “consensual” workplace relationships, fearing they would lose their positions, be subject to reprisal, or other forms of punishment.


These cases have never, in my experience, turned out well. A consensual relationship in the workplace can often devolve into a relationship fraught with unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment, and assault allegations. In such cases, not only are employees entitled to damages, they may also consider resorting to other legal forums and laying criminal charges. Even the most prominent public figures are not immune from the far-reaching powers of the legal system.


Jeff Zucker’s resignation is not merely about the failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest. It is really about the massive liability he may have created for a news organization seeking to clean house of sexual impropriety in the workplace. In the course of this noble pursuit, he forgot, I suppose, to look in the mirror.


Employees that have been subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace are not limited from bringing forward legal claims after having signed releases with respect to severance packages, even years beyond termination.


Employers, even those who wield great power, must always tread carefully. Your closets may yet be laid bare.


Q: I am pregnant and occasionally get morning sickness which is very hard for me to deal with, and when this happens I call in sick. My employer has suggested that I can’t fulfill the responsibilities of my role because I have occasionally called in sick due to morning sickness. Is this allowed?


A: Your employer has a responsibility to accommodate you during your pregnancy and with respect to any illness stemming from your pregnancy. Your employer is not permitted to punish you with respect to any accommodation it provides. If you require sick days, those sick days may be unpaid in some circumstances. Your employer is not permitted, however, to threaten your job if you are medically unable to attend work because of your pregnancy. I suggest you get a medical note from your doctor confirming that you may be away from work from time to time as a result of morning sickness. Your employer is required to accommodate you to the point of undue hardship. If you continue to have a difficult time at work, including threats to your employment, I suggest getting legal advice immediately.


Q: I was an account manager for ten years at an electronics company. I made about $55,000 a year. I was bullied in the workplace, complained about it, and was then terminated. My severance offer is about $20,000. Can I get more?


A: If you were bullied and reported it to HR prior to your termination, your employer was required to investigate your HR complaint. If it didn’t, and you were terminated, you may consider getting legal advice with respect to a bad faith claim regarding your termination. Whether or not you are entitled to more damages is partly dependent on if you signed an employment agreement, and any terms you may have agreed to with respect to the termination of your employment. I advise every employee to have their termination letter reviewed by a lawyer before signing anything.


Have a workplace issue? Maybe I can help! Email me at and your question may be featured in a future column.


The content of this article is general information only and is not legal advice.

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