Although a source told PEOPLE that Matt Lauer believed that his affair with the Today show colleague who reported him to NBC was “consensual,” he “should absolutely have refrained” from engaging in an intimate relationship with a co-worker, according to a human resources expert.
“The power differential between him and literally every other Today show employee is huge. Any relationship he has with an NBC employee will be heavily influenced — a better term might be ‘tainted’ — by that differential,” The Purposeful Culture Group’s Chris Edmonds exclusively tells PEOPLE. “The only person who benefits from a workplace affair like this is the person in power.”
And on Thursday, another woman went public about her alleged affair with Lauer in the office: Former Today show staff member Addie Zinone (née Collins) wrote a piece for Variety detailing an alleged month-long affair with Lauer in 2000, when she was a 24-year-old production assistant about to leave NBC News and he was newly married.
Lauer’s representatives did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
“Even though my situation with Matt was consensual, I ultimately felt like a victim because of the power dynamic. He knew that I was leaving, and that there was no better prey than somebody who is going to be gone. He went after the most vulnerable and the least powerful — and those were the production assistants and the interns,” said Zinone, who added that Lauer “felt like he was untouchable.”
NBC announced last month that 59-year-old Lauer — co-anchor of the morning show since January 1997 — had been fired after the network received a “detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior” on Monday, with reason to believe “this may not have been an isolated incident.”
According to a source with knowledge of the former anchor’s firing, “in [Lauer’s] mind, this had been a consensual affair. And a long-term one at that.”
Although the source said Lauer, who has been married to Annette Roque for 19 years, was “shocked and dumbfounded” that the woman who came forward on Monday alleged that their relationship was non-consensual, Edmonds tells PEOPLE that “workplace affairs are always a liability, especially so when they occur between a person of power and a subordinate.”
“It creates secrecy and insider/outsider dynamics. If two people fall in love, great — one of them needs to work somewhere else. If it’s lust, it’s short-lived, anyway (by definition) — and the affair will erode trust, respect, and dignity between the parties ‘in the know,’ ” Edmonds explains.
Though the NBC employee chose to come forward with her allegations, Edmonds says “fear of job loss, career impact, and more” can prevent victims from reporting sexual misconduct by a superior in the workplace — and “the victim — the woman in nearly all cases — suffers 99 percent of the consequences.”
“Power and control by the higher ranking male — or the threat of that power being wielded against the woman — leaves the victim feeling alone, shamed, and without any avenue for her experience to be heard by a kind authority,” says Edmonds, author of the Amazon bestseller The Culture Engine. “That power enables predators to act on their selfish desires with little concern for retribution.”
Adds Edmonds, “Sexual gratification has no place in any work environment. No one at any level has the right to demand it, take it, or even tease about it, at any time.”
“An organization’s culture drives everything that happens in that organization, for better or worse. If you want a purposeful, positive, productive work culture — where everyone is treated with trust, respect, and dignity in every interaction — senior leaders must define that desired culture then align all plans, decisions, and actions to that desired culture — every day,” he says.
Last month, NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack issued a memo to NBC staff members, in which he said that the network “has been spending time listening to your concerns, your feedback, your ideas on how we move forward as an organization” in the wake of “Matt Lauer’s appalling behavior,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Lack said that “a team of the most experienced NBCUniversal Legal and Human Resources leaders have begun a thorough and timely review of what happened” and will “share what we’ve learned, no matter how painful, and act on it.”
Additionally, Lack said the “the News Division is launching an immediate effort to implement in-person training on sexual harassment awareness and appropriate behavior in the workplace” and encouraged employees to “speak up and raise any concerns” they might have.
In a report published last month by Variety, three anonymous women accused the former newsman of sexual harassment, claiming Lauer had once brought a female employee into this office “and then dropped his pants, showing her his penis.” Lauer then allegedly “reprimanded her for not engaging in a sexual act.”
A former NBC employee – who spoke to the The New York Times on condition of anonymity – also came forward, saying that Lauer sexually assaulted her in 2001. According to the publication, Lauer had been making “inappropriate comments” to her after she started working at the media company in the late 1990s.
Lauer, who is focusing on his family since he parted ways with the network, spoke out in a statement read by Today anchor Savannah Guthrie.
“There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions,” Lauer said. “To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry. As I am writing this, I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC.”
“Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly,” he added. “Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching, and I’m committed to beginning that effort. It is now my full time job. The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It’s been humbling. I am blessed to be surrounded by people I love. I thank them for their patience and grace.”