In May, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination took an unlikely detour through the McDonald’s drive-through.
Candidates including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Texas Congressman Julian Castro adjusted their campaign schedules to join workers at McDonald’s protests across the country.
The headline grievance was a complaint about low pay. But they were also protesting about another issue: claims of rampant sexual abuse of women in McDonald’s restaurants.
These rallies may have presaged the downfall this week of the company’s chief executive and embroiled a corporation that likes to view itself as an exemplar of wholesome Midwestern values into an anguished public debate about how companies should manage workplace romances in the #MeToo era.
Steve Easterbrook, a 52-year-old native of Watford in England is credited with helping McDonald’s navigate the demand for healthy eating and reviving profits growth since he became chief executive in 2015. Its shares have nearly doubled on his watch.
Yet Mr Easterbrook was sacked on Sunday after the company revealed that he had been involved in a romantic relationship with an employee. Mr Easterbrook is divorced and McDonald’s has said the relationship was consensual. The company’s global head of human resources followed his boss out the door a day later.
Mr Easterbrook was hardly the first McDonald’s employee to have found romance at the office.
Founder Ray Kroc was at a convention in 1968 selling franchises for his fast-growing southern California burger chain when he encountered Joan Smith, then married to one of his franchisees. After a long and boozy night, the two would end up leaving their spouses and running off together — seemingly without ill-effect for McDonald’s drive toward global fast-food dominance.
Times have changed. Today’s workers spend long hours in offices where, in many cases, the old hierarchies and standards that governed behaviour are fast melting away. After alternatively ignoring it or trying to stamp it out, many companies have come to accept that desire — like gossip and jealousy — is an inevitable feature of office life.
The challenge, then, is to devise policies to police fraternisation so that relationships do not become an abuse of power. Even consenting office relationships can corrode an organisation by distracting employees and fuelling suspicions about how certain executives have advanced their careers.
Consent itself can be ambiguous. “People in positions of power tend to be oblivious to the influence they wield over others because they are less likely to take the other party’s perspective,” says Vanessa Bohns, a social psychology professor at Cornell University.
As companies attempt to draft new rules, they are doing so in the glare of lurid claims emerging about men such as film mogul Harvey Weinstein using their professional power to coerce women into sexual relationships.
“There are a lot of businesses looking to see what their policy is — and if one exists,” one corporate adviser says of the panic that has followed Mr Easterbrook’s ousting.
To Paul Bernard, a veteran New York human resources specialist, the old codes — if far from perfect — were at least understood. Nowadays, “the rules are much more nebulous,” Mr Bernard observes. In particular, he points to “a cognitive dissonance” between companies’ desire to create a permissive culture to appeal to young talent and their sudden fear of #MeToo litigation. “Boards are very wary,” he says.
According to The Conference Board, five of the 12 S&P 500 chief executives who were fired last year were #MeToo-related. Indeed, days after Mr Easterbrook’s sacking, the board of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, revealed that it was investigating how executives handled sexual harassment complaints, with a particular focus on the company’s chief legal officer David Drummond.
What struck some observers is that the facts about Mr Drummond’s relationships with co-workers — and those of other top Alphabet executives — were already well known. What appears to have changed is the Alphabet board’s awareness of the broader climate.
“Boards are now asking themselves: Is this consistent with our culture? Is this how we want to be portrayed?” says Johnny C Taylor, president of the Society for Human Resource Management.
Mr Taylor saw the complexity of the issue when he took an informal sample of opinion about McDonald’s at a conference this week. Older men tended to understand the company’s decision. What surprised him was that many of the younger female attendees believed the company had overreacted.
“This newer generation is saying: If it’s not sexual harassment, if it’s not quid-pro-quo, they should be able to do what they want,” he concludes.
Some 36 per cent of workers admitted to having engaged in a romance with a colleague, according to the CareerBuilder recruitment site. Some of them even worked out. The office, after all, is where Bill and Melinda Gates and Barack and Michelle Obama found love.
Mr Easterbrook’s expulsion has certainly prompted bewilderment in Japan, where long working hours mean the office is by far the most common place to meet a romantic partner, and magazines publish rankings of which companies have the most internal marriages. As one ex-chief executive puts it: if office romance was banned, nobody in Japan would ever get married.
In France and elsewhere in western Europe, executives and politicians are rarely bound by McDonald’s-style rules on personal relationships, and any attempt to impose them would mark a revolutionary change in corporate policy and social attitudes.
Yet there are reasons beyond American puritanism to explain why McDonald’s took a hard line with Mr Easterbrook. Few companies have found it harder to distinguish between consenting relationships and harassment.
McDonald’s policy forbids employees from dating or having a sexual relationship with anyone with whom they have a direct or indirect reporting relationship. “It is not appropriate to show favouritism or make business decisions based on emotions or friendships rather than on the best interests of the company,” its policy states.
For Mr Easterbrook, the chief executive, that pretty much ruled out the workplace as a dating pool. His failure to comply may have been more sensitive as the company has increasingly found itself in the crosshairs of activists, who are campaigning for higher wages — the Fight for $15 — and also against sexual harassment at McDonald’s.
Workers at the chain have filed nearly 50 lawsuits and complaints with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces laws on workplace discrimination. They allege groping, lewd comments, and propositions for sex. In some cases those who reported sexual harassment say they were fired or suffered retaliation.
A complaint from a 17-year-old high school student working for $11.75 an hour said that she was subject to unwanted advances from an older male co-worker at a McDonald’s in Cortland, New York, including cornering her in tight spaces and trying to kiss her. A manager told her: “If you’re freaking out so bad about it, stop talking about it so it won’t get worse.”
“It’s a brutal reality across the fast food industry that at least one in four workers — especially women of colour working low-wage jobs — experience sexual harassment as a routine part of their job,” Sharyn Tejani, director of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, said in May. “Every day, workers are forced to choose between getting a pay cheque or speaking up about their abuse.” Members of Congress have written to McDonald’s to demand that the company do more to prevent sexual harassment.
In August, the fast-food chain unveiled its response. It created a training programme aimed at all 850,000 employees — not just managers as an earlier one had done — that included videos and in-person discussions about unconscious bias, bullying, and harassment. An anonymous telephone line to report incidents was also established.
There was a catch: The training would be required only at the roughly 5 per cent of McDonald’s restaurants owned by the corporation. It was left to franchise owners who operate the rest to decide whether to use the programme.
Activists were not impressed. “This is a company where the franchisee agreement is so specific that they mandate that everyone use a specialised gun to put sauce on the Big Mac, so as to ensure that every single burger has the exact same amount of sauce,” says Linda Seabrook, a lawyer at Futures Without Violence, a non-profit group. “Isn’t keeping the people who work for you safe as important as the amount of sauce?”
McDonald’s Corporation says it strives to operate “safe and respectful workplaces in communities throughout the US and around the world”.
Dorothy Stingley, a leader of a US federation of franchisees who herself owns 16 outlets in Arizona, says the company is actively working to encourage franchisees to take the training.
“It is true that it is easier for McDonald’s corporation to mandate that we all use a certain blue spatula and then send out people to count the spatulas,” says Ms Stingley, a 67 year-old who employs two of her children and two of her grandchildren. “But changing hearts and minds to really reform the culture is another ballgame. It’s much harder
Even the punishment meted out against Mr Easterbrook struck some experts as strangely lenient, since his $37m of stock options remain intact.
“What does that say to people on the front lines of McDonald’s, which is a company known to have a real problem with sexual harassment?” says Paula Brantner, a lawyer at Workplace Fairness, a workers’ rights non-profit group.
Ms Brantner warns that sweeping prohibitions on office relationships merely risk driving them underground, creating a climate of secrecy and suspicion. “Companies need to be thinking beyond: what are my legal risks in terms of liability?” she says.
Mr Taylor agrees. Before a company establishes a policy, he says, it needs to first understand its culture and values. “The board has to sit down and say: what do we stand for?” he says. “There is no one-size-fits all.”
In other words, it is not like a McDonald’s hamburger.