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CEO fired for breaching McDonald’s relationship rules

Publish date: 06 November 2019
Issue Number: 311
Diary: Legalbrief Workplace
Category: Workplace

McDonald’s chief executive officer, Steve Easterbrook, has left the business after the board decided that a relationship he had with a colleague contravened company rules. Personnel Today reports that according to McDonald’s the relationship, although consensual, demonstrated poor judgment and was not in accordance with the company’s workplace policies. Easterbrook admitted his error and wrote: ‘Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.’ The report says some large employers adopt a written policy on personal relationships at work. A typical policy will allow relationships between colleagues as long as they do not negatively influence the employees’ conduct in the workplace. Keely Rushmore, partner at SA Law, is quoted in the report as saying that the climate around work romances had changed in recent years: ‘Everyone is entitled to a private life, and that private life can extend into the workplace. However, work relationships can raise the legal risk that an employer is exposed to – particularly risks of claims of harassment and sex discrimination if the relationship doesn’t work out. Taking this into account, as well as the increased scrutiny to which employers and their employees are being subjected in the wake on the #MeToo movement, it’s perhaps not surprising that many employers now choose to implement a policy specifically addressing workplace relationships.’

Full Personnel Today report

Following the news, employers have been urged to think carefully about how they manage romantic relationships in the workplace, says a People Management report. Experts said while workplace romances could cause problems for businesses, they should be viewed as a fact of working life and HR professionals dealing with the topic needed to balance employees’ rights to a private life with the broader interests of the business. They also suggested that in most cases that did not involve an influential and high-profile individual, it could be difficult to justify terminating employment for conducting a relationship with a colleague. Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said workplace romances were a ‘fact of working life’, and employers needed to make clear the standards they expected from their staff. ‘People spend a lot of time with their colleagues and it’s not surprising that sometimes work relationships turn into something more than that. The key is for employers to have clear standards of behaviour and clear policies and processes for tackling inappropriate behaviour,’ said Willmott.

Full People Management report

CNBC reports that the key word in Easterbrook’s e-mail to employees was 'values'. The report says values increasingly matter to workers, and in a tight labour market with intense competition for talent, values should matter to employers. A survey found more than nine in 10 employed people say it is both important to them to work for a company with clearly stated values (92%), as well as for a company whose values are aligned with their own personal values (91%). These results vary little by age, race, gender, salary, full- or part-time status or job level. What’s more, the report says, a third of younger workers (ages 18–34) say they have left a job in the past five years because their company did something that was ‘morally unacceptable’ to them. Laura Wronski, senior research scientist, said: ‘These survey results show that corporations also are being held to a higher standard by their own workers. Young workers in particular are willing to walk out if they deem their company is acting in a morally unacceptable way, but all workers say they want to be associated with a value-oriented workplace.’

Full CNBC report