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CNN boss Jeff Zucker fired Chris Cuomo then went to his birthday party. The close relationship speaks to a characteristic that made him both an admired and flawed leader

February 16, 2022, 9:35 PM UTC

Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide and chairman of WarnerMedia’s news and sports division, resigned on Feb. 2 under a dark cloud. 

The reason: Some of the relationships and loyalty that had made him an admired leader had also led him astray.

In one case, Zucker had failed to disclose his relationship with CNN’s communications head, Allison Gollust, as was required under CNN’s code of conduct.

In another, Zucker merely suspended his friend, star CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, after it was revealed he had counseled his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, amid sexual misconduct allegations. Less than a week following that suspension, and after receiving a report of Chris Cuomo sexually harassing a younger employee during his time at ABC, Zucker fired his news anchor, saying his scandals had become “too much for us,” the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Both episodes have hurt CNN’s credibility and spotlight why close relationships between bosses and their subordinates can be a bad idea. 

Zucker has been among the biggest names in broadcasting for over 30 years. He is credited with the long-running success of NBC’s Today show, and he turned Joe Rogan and Donald Trump into TV stars by green-lighting Fear Factor and The Apprentice. Zucker left NBC to take over CNN in 2013.

CNN’s viewership “thrived during the Trump presidency,” the Times wrote, hitting a 40-year high in November 2020. But according to Nielsen, it experienced a substantial drop-off after President Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, losing 58% of viewers ages 25 to 54, its key demographic, and 36% of viewers overall, Insider reported

The perils of loyalty

Zucker had long given Cuomo leeway, despite Cuomo creating problems early during his tenure at CNN. While some CNN employees found Cuomo’s combative, hot-blooded conduct and approach to reporting and commentating “rude and even threatening,” his boss remained supportive.

Zucker gave Cuomo a coveted 9 p.m. show slot and allowed him to interview his brother on air, despite the conflict of interest. Zucker banned the family interviews only after the governor was accused of sexual harassment. In the summer of 2020, the Times reported, after a string of absences from companywide meetings, Zucker attended Cuomo’s 50th birthday party in the Hamptons.

In late November, the New York Times reports, Zucker told Cuomo he was suspending him because of the advice he had given his brother to fight the sexual harassment claims. Cuomo offered to resign, but Zucker assuaged him, saying he may be able to return eventually. 

“Mr. Cuomo felt reassured,” the Times wrote. “He and Mr. Zucker were confidants, their fortunes entwined. Mr. Cuomo didn’t bother to consult a lawyer.”

But after learning of Chris Cuomo’s own sexual harassment allegations, things turned bitter quickly. Feeling spurned by his firing, Cuomo is now “hoping to extract tens of millions of dollars” from CNN, the Times said. 

“Cuomo felt very close personally and professionally to Mr. Zucker, which is part of what makes this so difficult and hurtful,” a Cuomo spokesperson told the Times. 

The forced departures at CNN make a strong case for why close friendships between boss and employee are almost always ill-advised, Betsy Leatherman, president at the Leadership Circle, a professional training and coaching firm, tells Fortune.

“Bosses and top employees have to think together, strategize together, and be aligned around the business,” she says. “Oftentimes, that feels like friendship, but you can’t let loyalty lead to breaking integrity and boundaries.”

During the pandemic over the past two years, Leatherman points out, bosses and employees at many companies have had to work together in new and dynamic ways, like completing in-person tasks over Zoom and thinking through issues virtually instead of in a conference room. This extra collaboration can be valuable, she says, but they also require a rethinking of boundaries for the whole organization—especially at the highest level. 

“A friendship does help to create momentum, but you just don’t want to over-rotate on it such that you lose your way with it,” Leatherman adds. “That’s hard when you pour your heart and soul into it, especially at the C-level. Their entire life is poured into those roles, so switching back and forth between work and home things and relationships makes boundaries semipermeable and really hard to maintain.”

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