McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook recently stepped down from his position in the company after a company investigation found he had been in a relationship described as “consensual” with an employee. Specific details of the relationship, including the employee’s name, are not public, but Easterbrook has admitted the relationship was a mistake and unprofessional in official comments. Despite the details not being known, we can still inspect why it was for the best that Easterbrook left.
If it was consensual, what’s the problem?
Relationships between employees are against company policy, and enforcing that policy is important for keeping everyone safe. This is because of:
If one party in the relationship can control whether or not the other party gets promoted or has a job, it can make the relationship damaging for the work environment and potentially cross the line into workplace harassment. Even if the less distinguished party verbally consents or initiates the situation, it is the responsibility of the more influential party to stop the relationship to protect both of their positions. Relationships between parties of similar positions are different but still aren’t a great idea.
Potential for Discrimination
Even if power dynamics are not a problem between the parties in a relationship, gender and sexuality often are in the workplace. Women who have been in relationships with coworkers are treated very differently than men in the same situation. The same can be said for same-sex couples when compared to heterosexual couples. Consensual relationships can end, and private relationships can easily become public. This can open both parties up to workplace harassment, which can be severely damaging to productivity and, more importantly, the mental health of the employees.
Shouldn’t We Be Focusing on Abusive Relationships?
Yes. We should. Unfortunately, we often don’t. Large companies have a terrible reputation for protecting executive-suite employees at the expense of abused employees in imbalanced relationships through the use of non-disclosure agreements and settlements. Serious cases of sexual harassment can be easily covered up by policies saying that personal relationships are allowed in the workplace, which is why revising those policies is so important. Ending abusive workplace relationships should be the end-goal of restricting inter-employee relationships.
Company relationships are complicated and should be handled with care. Steve Easterbrook has probably made the most responsible decision by stepping down without argument. As the CEO of the company, any relationship he would have had with an employee would have had a severe power imbalance, and due to the company’s need to find it through an investigation, it probably wasn’t above board. Easterbrook is providing a good example to those caught in similar situations; it’s better to admit your mistakes and remove yourself from the equation than to deny everything and lead a company while surrounded by mistrust.