Belfast Telegraph

McDonald's boss sacking is food for thought

McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook who has been dismissed
McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook who has been dismissed

By Rachel Penny, Carson McDowell

The decision by McDonald's to dismiss its chief executive because he had a consensual relationship with an employee, which violated company policy, might seem harsh.

After all, is it your employer's business who you choose to have a relationship with? Isn't your private life, just that - private?

There is no doubt that strict no fraternisation policies tend to be more prevalent among US employers and are still rare here in the UK and Ireland.

But the wind is definitely changing direction in the #metoo era and I would not be surprised to see more employers reviewing their policies on workplace relationships in the next few years.

While the McDonald's case reported yesterday involved a consensual relationship, some employers prefer to have a zero tolerance rules on workplace relationships so that there can be no grey areas about what is and is not acceptable.

McDonald's said that its CEO Steve Easterbrook had shown "poor judgment" and in an email to staff the outgoing CEO himself said that "given the values of the company" he agreed with the board that it was time for him "to move on".

Last year, the CEO of another big US company, chip maker Intel, stepped down in similar circumstances relating to a consensual relationship that went against the company's rules. Other organisations have taken a more flexible approach where, for instance, a relationship must be declared to the HR department or relationships between peers up to a certain level or grade is acceptable provided the employees work in different teams.

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Other employers have implemented policies where it is relationships between line managers and direct reports - or those who have the power to determine benefits such as pay rises and promotions - that are forbidden, for obvious reasons.

What employers are trying to avoid, of course, is the risk of sexual harassment allegations or worse, especially where there is a risk or perceived risk of a misuse of power between someone senior in an organisation and his or her subordinate.

Even if there is no suggestion of coercion and a relationship is completely consensual, there are obvious risks of a conflict of interest which can cause resentment in the organisation if there is any hint of favouritism. And then there is the friction and conflict that can result if the relationship sours, which can and often does spill into the workplace. 

But it's a balancing act. We spend so much time at work, with (often) like-minded people, so it's not surprising that people often meet their partners at work.

And many employers who choose to deal with these situations informally manage to do so successfully, using a bit of common sense.

If you do decide to implement a formal policy, remember to make sure that it's applied equally and consistently to male and female employees.

If you don't, you might find that in seeking to protect against one type of sexual discrimination, you create another problem entirely.

Rachel Penny is a partner at law firm Carson McDowell

Belfast Telegraph