Should McDonald’s CEO have been fired over a ‘consensual relationship’?

Discussion
Source: McDonald's
Nov 04, 2019

Steve Easterbrook has generally gotten positive marks for the changes that he has made since taking over as CEO of McDonald’s in 2015. Mr. Easterbrook, who previously served as the fast food chain’s chief brand officer and ran some of its European divisions before that, presumably knows as much as anyone when it comes to McDonald’s corporate culture and rules of conduct. That’s what makes yesterday’s announcement that McDonald’s board fired him after learning that “he violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee” all the more puzzling.

In an email to employees, The New York Times reports, Mr. Easterbrook wrote that he had made “a mistake” and agreed with the board that “it is time for me to move on.” McDonald’s has not released details about the relationship or how it came to the attention of the company’s board.

The fact that Mr. Easterbrook had a relationship with a co-worker is not unusual. Office romances, for better and worse, have been a feature of the workplace probably for as long as there have been workplaces. That a person in a position of privilege within a business organization chose to ignore rules that apply to others is also not novel. From the outside looking in, however, it seems particularly odd in the age of #MeToo and allegations of sexual wrongdoing from Hollywood to the White House that Mr. Easterbrook would have knowingly put himself in this position, consensual relationship or not. All that matters, at this point, is that he did.

McDonald’s has named Chris Kempczinski, most recently the chain’s president of its U.S. business, as its new president and CEO, effective immediately.

“Chris takes the reins of this great company at a time of strong, sustained performance, and the board has every confidence that he is the best leader to set the vision and drive the plans for the company’s continued success,” said Enrique Hernandez Jr., McDonald’s chairman, in a statement. “He has the right mix of skills and experience to lead us forward having run our U.S. business, where franchisees are delivering strong financial and operational results, and overseen global strategy, business development and innovation. In particular, Chris was instrumental in the development of the company’s strategic plan, which has enabled global growth and leadership, and has overseen the most comprehensive transformation of the U.S. business in McDonald’s history.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should retailers and other businesses set rules that prohibit personal relationships between co-workers, regardless of their positions in the company? If not, what policies should companies set to handle such occurrences?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"People thrown together are going to form relationships. Rather than ban that and expect something inhuman, maybe just try to manage it a little better."
"A relationship can never be 100 percent consensual if there is a power/authority difference."
"Office politics are wicked enough when there is no romance involved."

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39 Comments on "Should McDonald’s CEO have been fired over a ‘consensual relationship’?"


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Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 7 months ago

Lead by example, others will follow. If this is the policy set within the company, it applies to all. As noted in the article, this is not the first time this has happened in a Fortune 500 company — it pretty much erases all the good that leader has accomplished. He, as others in the past, will be remembered for that incident and not for the years of hard work to turn around a company.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

I have to say, out of this story the most surprising part was that the company forbids relationships with employees. That seems a bit draconian. As long as one employee is not in a position to control the fate of the other’s employment, there seem to be plenty of companies who have figured out how to make that work. Even for a CEO, just have someone else be responsible for reviews and evaluations. The fact that a CEO completely ignored these rules – when he had a high probability of being able to change them – speaks to a very large lapse in judgment. That McDonald’s chose not to sweep it under a rug as so many other companies have, is important. But I also feel like the company needs to get with the times. People thrown together are going to form relationships. Rather than ban that and expect something inhuman, maybe just try to manage it a little better.

Shelley E. Kohan
BrainTrust

Nikki! You are so right! The policy itself seems to set up employees for failure and is outdated thinking especially since many people meet their significant others at work. Setting up a policy of notifying the employer when people have personal relationships allows for better decisions in regards to determining the impact of work performance and/or favoritism.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

These policies have been in place in various industries for a long time. My sister had to quit her job as a bank exec almost 30 years ago because she was falling in love with her boss. It’s an oddity, and I do wonder what the risk is — it does seem like a holdover from another era.

Lee Kent
Guest

Yes, Nikki, at the risk of getting dinged for this, I agree. My goodness one of the co-founders of a major company in my city met, dated and married an employee. When I was there doing some work and a company meeting was called, they even had her speak. Why did this work as it did? Full disclosure. But let’s not kid ourselves, surely they dated a bit before they decided to make full disclosure. I would bet he told his co-partner and possibly some others just to be above board. Therein lies the difference between a MeToo and a possible future wife. And that’s my 2 cents.

Rick Moss
Staff

Not sure I agree, Nikki. In theory, a company should be able to handle these situations by putting proper rules in place, but we all know the reality is that men (especially) in positions of power can pressure women into relationships, and even if that employee is not reporting directly to him, she might fear suffering repercussions were she not to play along. I’m not sure that not reporting directly to that executive would make much difference. It would depend on the chains of intimidation running throughout the organization.

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

I agree, Rick. Not to mention the unfair advantage other employees might perceive this particular employee having as a result of a romantic relationship with the CEO. Call me a killjoy, but I think this is entirely inappropriate at CEO level–and unhealthy for the organization for lower level employees of differing positions in the hierarchy, too. Ultimately, this should be mapped out in company policy, but determined on a case-by-case basis.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Rick, it’s critical to note that coercion is about power and not gender specific. As glass ceilings continue to shatter the potential for either gender to coerce or be coerced increases. I note that you said, “… men (especially) … ,” but it is important to remember that, even now, that doesn’t mean, “exclusively.”

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

What is it about men in power feeling like the rules don’t apply to them? And he was let go — he couldn’t argue with it and yet arguably he made a huge impact on McDonald’s. I can’t believe a person of that much influence and wealth couldn’t have found somebody outside of work to have developed a relationship with.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

One can argue both sides of this question. Most people who work spend most of their waking life at work so it is unrealistic that these relationships won’t happen at work. The problems can occur when preferential treatment becomes an issue, or when a person in a position of high responsibility can be blackmailed, or when one party pressures or takes advantage of a person not in a position of power. It is a good question to ask and it should not be answered from a puritanical perspective but from a pragmatic and realistic one.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

McDonald’s has a clear company policy about dating co-workers and Mr. Easterbrook broke it. He clearly knew what he was doing and had to accept the consequences.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

Corporate policies around rules of conduct must be followed regardless of an individual’s position in an organization. Any corporation that lets an employee “slide around policy” and looks the other way sets themselves up for more employee issues and lawsuits. I understand the relationship was consensual, but he was CEO. This means all employees of the company ultimately report to him including his consensual partner. In the end I feel Mr. Easterbrook and the Board made the right decision to part ways.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

Forty years ago, I became involved in a consensual relationship with my boss. Few people knew until we got engaged, and we’re still married, now with kids and grandkids. I sometimes kid her that she’s still my boss. We’re glad neither of us was fired! Come on, lighten up! Love happens when and where it happens.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Congratulations!

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I hate corporate policies on principle – there’s still some ’60s rebellion left in me. But if the policy is no nookie and you get caught, shame on you. And to Nikki, with whom I usually agree – it doesn’t matter what degree of separation there is, if he can say “You know, she’s not doing so hot,” her career might be toast.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

What, exactly, is the company policy about consensual relationships? As Nikki points out, trying to snuff out relationships between employees entirely is not an achievable or fair outcome. (Speaking as somebody whose wife of 37 years worked for the same department store company, although in different operating divisions.) But relationships where one partner has the power over another’s career should clearly be avoided.

If this is the aim of McDonald’s policy, it makes sense — and since the CEO has the power over everybody else’s career, the decision to let Mr. Easterbrook go was the right call.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Assuming that the relationship was totally consensual, I think this is a study in failed leadership. Whether McDonald’s should have a rule against employee relationships or not, the fact is they do. And, as CEO, Easterbrook had an obligation to play by the rules he (presumably) expected the rest of the organization to play by. If he thought the rule was stupid or draconian, he should have changed it. Absent that change, or even an attempt to make that change, he is bound to enforce it — even on himself. Leaders aren’t like everyone else, they take on a higher ethical burden along with the big salaries and perks of their position. Again, assuming Easterbrook’s relationship was totally consensual and there was no pressure on his partner, the truth is those conditions may not apply to a store manager seeking coercive sex from his or her subordinates and using Easterbrook’s example to justify her or his behavior. When anyone thinks they operate above the rules, it’s past time to make sure they aren’t in a… Read more »
Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

This isn’t even a close call. Of course there should be rules about personal relationships in the work place and of course they should be enforced. Work environments are tough enough without personal relationships making things even messier. The first hint that the environment isn’t honest and fair, ruled by integrity, and offering equal opportunities, will create very unwelcome distractions. Office politics are wicked enough when there is no romance involved.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

It is fascinating what a high profile impact this has made in the news. Why does it have such a high profile? Is it because McDonald’s are unusual in their approach with regard to rules? Or could it be that they are unusual in actually enforcing the rules that they lay down?

The reality is that, irrespective of industry, many of us are aware of such relationships existing at someplace or other, at some time or other with little or no consequences – despite any rules, guidelines or code of conduct being in place.

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

If there is no conflict of interest, then a consensual relationship should not be prohibited.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Yes, and those conflicts of interest should be pretty easy to define: Do the two partners work in the same division of the company, or in different areas like marketing and finance? And, especially, does one partner have reporting responsibility to the other, even if indirect? Those ought to be the standards, not just a blanket denial of what seems inevitable in many workplaces.