CNN President Abruptly Resigns, Citing Relationship with Colleague

February 4, 2022 Employment Law Insights for the Executive Suite

CNN recently reported that its President, Jeff Zucker, has resigned, citing his failure to disclose a consensual relationship with a close colleague. “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,” Zucker wrote in an email he sent to staff on February 22. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.”

The woman involved in the relationship with Zucker is Allison Gollust, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for CNN. She will stay on with the network. Rumors that their close working relationship had morphed into a romantic one have long been the subject of speculation and have occasionally surfaced in gossip columns.

Zucker’s announcement came less than two months after he fired prime time anchor Chris Cuomo for improperly advising his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about how to address sexual misconduct allegations. Zucker defended Chris Cuomo for the better part of a year while critics said the anchorman should have been benched or worse for what was then publicly known about how he’d advised his brother. Zucker eventually fired Cuomo in early December, after further revelations about how the brothers worked together to combat the allegations against Andrew.

Before taking action, CNN retained Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, a large, white-shoe law firm, to review the Cuomo matter. When Cuomo was fired, CNN said that Cravath’s findings alone were “cause to terminate.” But the network also said it also had received an allegation of sexual misconduct from a “former junior colleague” against Chris Cuomo. Though Cuomo denied the allegation, a CNN spokesperson said at the time, “[w]hen new allegations came to us this week, we took them seriously, and saw no reason to delay taking immediate action.”

Zucker said a year ago that he planned to step down when his contract expired at the end of 2021. But he later recanted, saying he would stay at least until Discovery Inc. closed its merger with CNN’s owner, AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia, which is expected in the second quarter of this year.

WarnerMedia, which is a unit of AT&T Inc., says it has a policy that prevents employees from supervising co-workers with whom they have a personal relationship. The policy states that employees must inform the company if they are in a position to influence the advancement of an employee they have a relationship with before taking any action.

Jason Kilar, Chief Executive Officer of CNN parent WarnerMedia, traveled to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to address CNN staff. He faced many questions from employees who felt Zucker didn’t get a second chance after disclosing his relationship with Gollust. Kilar declined to answer questions about the timeline of Zucker’s departure, though he said that he followed a process “with an appropriate sense of urgency.”

“I wasn’t focused on the business of it all,” Kilar said. “My focus, first and foremost, are [sic] on the values that we stand for as a company.”

Zucker spoke with some of CNN’s top executives in the morning, shortly before he announced his departure. He indicated that he would have liked to stay on for a short period, to help with a smooth transition, but WarnerMedia wanted otherwise. According to two people involved in the matter, Zucker was facing termination if he did not resign.

The Zucker resignation vividly demonstrates the level of sensitivity towards #MeToo allegations by the public. Here, there is no allegation that the decades-long relationship was non-consensual. Neither Zucker nor Gollust are married. However, companies adopt non-fraternization policies both to avoid sexual harassment claims if a consensual relationship goes south and to avoid the perception or reality of favoritism.

[The content of this blog post is based in part on press accounts from CNN, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal.]

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