Dating a Co-Worker: Mental Health and Media Perspectives

Joel Eisenberg

Jeff Zucker was one of the most powerful television executives in the industry until he resigned this past week. Was his relationship considered a crime?

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Jeff Zucker and Allison GollustGetty Images

Author’s Note

This article is free of bias, and is based on conclusions of relationship experts and mental health professionals. As a former mental health professional myself with training in Psychology, I will offer scant advice in this article though I will share a relevant personal story. Sources for this article include CNN. The Wrap, NPR, OrganizationalPsychologyDegrees.com, Harvard.edu, and Cosmopolitan.

Introduction

During an investigation of conduct into former CNN journalist Chris Cuomo’s actions as it regarded his brother, beleaguered former New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo, CNN President Jeff Zucker disclosed a previously secretive consensual relationship with an unnamed employee. “Jeff Zucker Resigns as CNN President After Admitting ‘Consensual Relationship’ With Colleague,” from The Wrap, stated the following: “As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years. I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong,” he wrote. “As a result, I am resigning today.” Zucker did not disclose the name of the colleague with whom he had the “consensual relationship,” but his resignation comes a few weeks after tabloids ran with reports that he has been dating Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, for years. Brian Stelter, CNN’s media correspondent, confirmed the Gollust speculation when he appeared on the network earlier on Wednesday and read Gollust’s statement on the air.

The Wrap story also featured Stelter’s embedded CNN video where he disclosed Gollust’s name and her statement. “Jeff and I have been close friends and professional partners for over 20 years," Gollust’s statement read. "Recently, our relationship changed during Covid. I regret that we didn't disclose it at the right time. I'm incredibly proud of my time at CNN and look forward to continuing the great work we do everyday."

The incident received national news, and returned to the fore a debate about dating co-workers.

I know the pitfalls of this common relationship issue all too well. When I was working as a special education instructor, I dated a fellow teacher. The other teachers knew, as did the administrators; we only kept our relationship a secret from the students. We continued to work at the same school when our relationship ended, but following some initial awkwardness we remained professional.

The issue came when I left the school for another job, then returned when that assignment concluded. In the interim, my ex became the school's new assistant principal... and my immediate boss. Though we mutually tried to maintain our professionalism, we agreed following a conversation that lingering feelings and resentments were causing difficulty for us both. I quit the school shortly thereafter and found a job elsewhere. If I had remained, the school year would have been personally untenable.

In the past 20 years, I’ve occasionally looked back at that scenario and realized the issue is indeed considerably more complex than may appear upon first consideration.

Matters of Consent

NPR.org published “Can I Date That Co-Worker? What to Consider Before an Office Romance,” which I consider to be one of the more balanced pieces I have read on the subject.

This excerpt from the article takes into consideration not only the issue itself but our current cultural reality: Love can be complicated. But mixing love and work is even more so, because it involves your co-workers, your boss and your career. Plus, the #MeToo movement exposed the prevalence of abuse of power and sexual misconduct in the workplace. This has made both workers and employers more cautious about romance on the job. In fact, when it comes to love at work, most dating experts are clear about what they recommend: Don't do it. But, of course, people ignore relationship advice all the time. Over half of American workers have had a crush on a co-worker, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. And the workplace is still among the top five places where heterosexual people meet their mates, although it has been overshadowed by online dating and meeting at bars and restaurants.

Indeed, the #MeToo movement has substantially impacted workplace dating. Cosmopolitan.com discussed the topic in a feature article, “Wait, Are Coworkers Still Hooking Up With Each Other, Post-#MeToo?” The article’s subtitle is particularly telling: Despite a corporate push to cancel office hookup culture, millennial women are actually feeling just as empowered as ever to date their colleagues.

The Cosmopolitan article shared results of a survey the company had taken for the purpose of their story: Cosmo asked more than 800 women between the ages of 18 and 35 how they view love on the job. Eighty-four percent were totally down to date someone at their company as long as they’re not on the same team. (We are-overambitious millennials who spend all our time at work—so yeah, this tracks.) “The #MeToo movement definitely hasn’t changed my thoughts on dating or hooking up in the workplace,” says Chantal, 33, who works in finance. “I don’t think it should be a free-for-all, but it’s only natural to feel attracted to your coworkers.” In fact, 40 percent of women have hooked up with a coworker post #MeToo, 62 percent are cool with cross-cubicle flirting, and 72 percent have a friend who’s dated someone they worked with.

Based on this survey, an increase in female empowerment, as discussed in the article, was apparent.

OrganizationalPsychologyDegrees.com published an article this year entitled “5 Things Industrial-Organizational Psychologists Would Advise About Workplace Romances.”

Those five things as noted in the article were the following:

  • Know the Policy
  • Understand Potential Ramifications
  • Consider Acceptable Behaviors
  • Be Aware of Legal Issues
  • Don’t Hide the Situation

Other psychology-oriented entities largely agree. As discussed on Harvard.edu, which had taken their own survey, the cultural climate caused by Covid-19 has also strongly impacted relationships in the workplace. Harvard’s article on the topic is called “Disruption of Work Relationships Adds to Mental-Health Concerns During Pandemic,” and explains: The survey, conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s SHINE program, examined workplace well-being among 1,271 participants in 17 industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, construction, finance, arts, and health care. It found that the physical impacts of COVID-19 have been widespread, with 35 percent saying they or someone in their immediate family or social network had the virus. In addition, 32 percent said job security decreased, 44 percent said household income decreased, 40 percent said workload increased, and 52 percent said time spent on a computer screen increased.

The article further states, which takes into consideration romantic issues as well as non-romantic social connectedness: The survey, conducted in May, shows that the pandemic has indeed reduced workers’ social connectedness, with 60 percent saying social relations were worse, 48 percent that time alone increased, and 56 percent that feelings of control had declined. Measures of mental health also worsened, with 56 percent reporting increased anxiety, 45 percent increased loneliness, and 35 percent increased depression.

The issue remains complex. With the additional factors of #MeToo and our current pandemic, experts seem to agree workplace relationships will not become any easier in the immediate future.

Conclusion

When one of television’s highest-level executives was forced to resign last week due to not disclosing a consensual relationship with a co-worker, per the rules of his company, new attention was placed on workplace relationships in general.

It is not considered a crime to date a co-worker, but workplaces have their own rules.

Relationship experts, such as those who have worked for Cosmopolitan, and mental health experts both speak of the complexity involved.

I will only add this: The risk is yours. Being attracted to a co-worker is natural; today’s climate adds to the difficulty. Be mindful.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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