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Opinion ABC offers a masterclass in how not to handle workplace romance

Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes arrive at the Disney Upfront 2022 event in New York City on May 17. (David Dee Delgado/Reuters)

All rom-com protagonists need an obstacle to overcome. This week, newly revealed lovebirds T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach, co-anchors of ABC’s “Good Morning America” spinoff show “GMA3,” got a doozy of one, when the corporate suite announced they were taking the couple off the air.

But while network suits might have upped the dramatic tension, they also inadvertently offered up a master class in the wrong way to go about managing a workplace romance. No one needs the c-suite to weigh in on consensual behavior between equals that takes place outside the workplace — no matter how attention-getting it is.

The “GMA3” contretemps began last week, when the Daily Mail got a hold of the exclusive — make that “EXCLUSIVE” — news that the two anchors were an item, despite being married to other people, in a piece studded with private-investigator-style tabloid photos. The New York Post jumped in to confirm they were spotted “canoodling” in a local bar. (Word subsequently went out the couple both separated from their spouses this summer.) TikTok and Twitter went wild. After a few days, ABC decided this midlife romance was an “internal and external distraction,” as the ABC president, Kim Godwin, apparently said during an editorial call, and pulled the twosome from air.

Given the natural human inclination to gossip about celebrities and co-workers, that distraction may be real — and yet it’s unclear precisely how the romantic upgrade in Holmes and Robach’s relationship is otherwise a problem. The couple is not triggering any of the traditional red flags when it comes to workplace romances. They are co-anchors, so there is no issue of hierarchy, unlike when CNN’s head Jeff Zucker lost his position following an investigation into an ongoing relationship with network chief marketing executive Allison Gollust. No one has alleged favoritism or harassment as a result of the affair. In fact, it’s been reported that Godwin told staffers that the relationship is “not a violation of company policy.”

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The fact is, workplace romances are incredibly common. People who work together often share mutual interests and spend a lot of time together, with predictable results. Surveys conducted find anywhere from one-third to half of us have dated a co-worker at least once. Somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of us will find ourselves in a long-term relationship with or married to that person. (In the interests of full disclosure, I need to say I am one of them.) A survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found 75 percent of respondents said they were comfortable if their co-workers became more than professional colleagues. And, yes, while we are on the subject, a 2017 Harris Poll found almost one-quarter of workplace relationships involved adultery.

Some social critics have even worried that remote work during the pandemic would compromise this key source of romantic connections for young people. But perhaps surprisingly, the SHRM survey found that remote work did nothing to slow the phenomenon: The incidence of office romance went up. When opportunities to meet new people were limited, Slack might have acted as an ad hoc dating app.

So why not tell co-workers to MYOB and let everyone get back to work? It’s not like there aren’t examples of a functional workplace romance between co-anchors. When Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski began co-hosting Morning Joe, they were married to other people. After they survived tabloid scandal about their affair and four years after they got married, the show goes on.

Some of the corporate overreaction may be due in part to #MeToo’s impact on television newsrooms. From Matt Lauer to the late Roger Ailes, there are examples aplenty of news anchors and executives using their position to sexually harass and manipulate women. But that’s not what’s going on here. As for the fact the two are married to others, their behavior might not be ethical, but it’s hardly a crime or grounds for firing.

Besides, it’s not like audiences objected to flirtatious banter and what was clearly a close friendship — the two even trained for a marathon together — before the news broke. If anything, the romance is a literalization of the fake-romantic dynamic on which shows such as GMA3 all too often depend, with a male and female host playing the part of a platonic couple sharing inside jokes and knowing looks. No doubt many would be cheering the couple on if they were both single and we could view them as a fairy tale rather than a soap opera.

But even under present circumstances, no one should encourage ABC to take two anchors off the air for falling in love and lust. The relationship between Holmes and Robach might have caused their spouses great pain, but that’s not, as awful as it is, a workplace issue. In an age when social media increasingly merges our public and personal lives, corporate HQ needs to resist this sort of busybody meddling. We all deserve a zone of privacy — even canoodling co-anchors.

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