Poster child for why office romances are a bad idea

Posted 11/6/19

It is all important for top corporate executives to model behavior, and when they don’t the personal and institutional risk is enormous. It is from that backdrop that McDonald’s board of …

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Poster child for why office romances are a bad idea

Posted

It is all important for top corporate executives to model behavior, and when they don’t the personal and institutional risk is enormous. It is from that backdrop that McDonald’s board of directors rightly ousted Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook for a consensual relationship with an employee.

Easterbrook concedes the relationship demonstrated poor judgment and violated company policy against manager relationships with employees. “This was a mistake,” Easterbrook wrote in an email. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.”

McDonald’s has declined to reveal more details about the relationship or to say when the board found out about it. Easterbrook, who is divorced, also has declined to provide details about the relationship.

Easterbrook joins a growing list of chief executives forced out over relationships with employees as more companies adopt rules against dating subordinates in the wake of #MeToo complaints. Companies are reviewing codes of conduct and adding consensual relationships to anti-harassment policies. Having a consensual relationship with an employee or an outside client is rightly considered an unacceptable transgression for chief executives at many businesses. And not disclosing such a relationship to the board when there is a corporate emphasis on executive integrity and zero tolerance for misbehavior only compounds the indiscretion.

Some might question why a consensual relationship would lead to Easterbrook’s firing since many adults pursue relationships developed in the workplace. But make no mistake. The restaurant industry’s history of sexual harassment and the unequal power dynamics of manager to employee offer some meaningful context.

A Harvard Business Review study in 2018 concluded that 90% of women and 70% of men in the restaurant industry reported some form of sexual harassment. Months ago, a group of female McDonald’s employees in more than a dozen cities went on strike to protest what they argued was the company’s failure to take the issue seriously, citing alleged serious misconduct from groping to rape.

This is why Easterbrook’s failure to follow corporate policy is so damning. Easterbrook’s relationship has been described as consensual. But even if that is true, it grew from a position of power — the company’s top executive exempting himself from corporate policy to pursue a relationship with a subordinate. McDonald’s policies are in place not just to stave off charges of sexual harassment in the workplace, but to assure the rest of the workforce that a consensual relationship with a top executive isn’t depriving others of fair treatment and promotion opportunities earned on their merits.

Any corporate executive has to know that this is playing with legal fire, and in the case of McDonald’s, potentially damages the burger company’s family friendly reputation. Integrity must come from the top and, in this instance, it did not.

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