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McDonald’s decision to fire CEO Steve Easterbrook after learning he engaged in what the fast food giant calls a consensual relationship with an employee highlights how more corporations are embracing a zero-tolerance stance in such situations.

The fast-food giant noted that Easterbrook had “violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment” for his involvement in the relationship with the unidentified female employee, USA Today reports.

McDonald’s acted quickly in canning Easterbrook on November 1 after it learned of the relationship about three weeks earlier, sources told The Wall Street Journal. While the board determined the relationship to be short-term and consensual, it violated McDonald’s long-time policy prohibiting workers from having relationships with direct or indirect superiors.

In an email to his staff, Easterbrook confirmed the relationship and said it was wrong, BBC News reports. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on,” Easterbrook said.

It is common now for companies to have policies that completely ban relationships or to require disclosure of relationships, says Ruby Dinsmore, an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon. While some may see the increased scrutiny of workplace relationships as too intrusive, “businesses have their own interests to protect as well,” she said. With #MeToo, “companies are very keen to be seen not only to have a policy for this type of situation, but also to be seen to be enforcing it at all levels," she added.

After Easterbrook’s firing, McDonald’s confirmed on November 4 that Chief People Officer David Fairhurst had resigned, The Chicago Tribune reports. The company said Fairhurst’s departure was not related to Easterbrook’s firing. Fairhurst started working at McDonald’s in 2005 and took over as HR head in 2015 after Easterbrook promoted him.

“Things people denied or swept under the carpet before, they no longer do,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean of leadership programs at the Yale School of Management, told Reuters. “It’s being reported more, and boards of directors are acting on the reports.”

Intel’s chief executive Brian Krzanich resigned in 2018 when an investigation found that he violated the technology company’s rules by engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee. And 39% of the CEOs who were forced out of their job in 2018, were let go for violating ethics rules. That's up from 26% in 2017 and just 8% a decade earlier, a study from PricewaterhouseCoopers found. The 39% dismissed for ethical reasons in 2018 was higher than the percentage who were let go for financial performance or for conflicts with their boards.

“It’s an imbalance in the power situation,” says Mark Spund, head of the employment law practice at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron. “For most companies, it’s a violation of their regulations, and most of the time it will lead to a termination of an executive.”

McDonald’s has also come under fire for numerous sexual harassment allegations made by female employees against male co-workers and managers, HRM Asia reports. There have been at least 20 complaints filed against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this year alone. Those complaints range from women being inappropriately touched, indecent exposure, lewd comments and soliciting sex at the chain's restaurants in 20 cities.

“Whether it’s stronger training programmes or more support for franchisees to investigate such matters, a powerful company response to such matters can lead to a positive cultural shift in the organisation,” says Debra Johnson, assistant general counsel and HR consultant for EngagePEO.

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