When forward-biased, zener diodes behave much the same as standard rectifying diodes: they have a forward voltage drop which follows the "diode equation" and is about 0.7 volts. In reverse-bias mode, they do not conduct until the applied voltage reaches or exceeds the so-called zener voltage, at which point the diode is able to conduct substantial current, and in doing so will try to limit the voltage dropped across it to that zener voltage point. So long as the power dissipated by this reverse current does not exceed the diode's thermal limits, the diode will not be harmed.
Sounds forward-bias mode to me. Might be there for reverse current protection ? (That explains why the controller works without the zener)
Which one is it?