McDonald’s, called out as a MeToo laggard, fired its CEO for an improper relationship

Former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook.
Former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has been kicked to the curb, following revelations that he had a consensual affair with an employee. The company chief had demonstrated poor judgment, McDonald’s said in a statement explaining the news, which the Wall Street Journal first reported yesterday (Nov. 3).

For his part, Easterbrook, 52,  admitted that the affair with an unnamed employee was a mistake. In an email to employees cited by several news outlets, he wrote, “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.”

To be clear, Easterbrook was not accused of sexual harassment. But arguably any relationship between a CEO and another employee raises concerns about the power dynamics involved. McDonald’s chief people officer David Fairhurst also has resigned in the wake of Easterbrook’s departure, CNBC reported.

For McDonald’s to take a hard line on this is all the more remarkable given what we learned about the company in She Said (Penguin Press, 2019), the book that New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey wrote about their reporting on the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the subsequent #MeToo movement. We know, for example, that as of just a few years ago, McDonald’s workers weren’t even sure who to turn to if a shift manager grabbed them from behind or made lewd comments. And it was only 18 months ago that Kimberly Lawson, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City who experienced harassment on the job and talked to Kantor and Twohey about it, spearheaded an historic walkout at McDonald’s to call attention to sexual harassment of employees at its restaurants.

Even though Lawson was paid by one of the biggest companies in the world, presumably rich with resources to protect its workers from situations like this, the book reveals that “it hadn’t been clear to Lawson what more she could do” about harassment she experienced from a co-worker and a supervisor soon after she began working at McDonald’s in 2015. Kantor and Twohey write:

As far as she could tell, McDonald’s had no sexual harassment training. (It did, but company officials later acknowledged that it didn’t reach many employees.) She didn’t know how to reach anyone at the parent company for help, and had feared that doing so would trigger retaliation.

“I have no idea of any number to call,” Lawson told Jodi. “I don’t know if there’s anyone else I could talk to.”

Lawson became one of ten employees who filed a complaint against the company with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), backed by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. She also spoke about her McDonald’s experience with other reporters, and became a public figure in the #MeToo movement who could draw attention to the experiences of hourly workers in the fast-food industry.

McDonald’s responded to the walkout and complaints by sending out educational posters about harassment to all restaurants. It also provided anti-harassment training to most franchise owners, according to the New York Times. But the efforts were seen as anemic by the company’s critics, who said little else changed.

Tanya Harrell, a McDonald’s worker in New Orleans and leader in a fight for $15-per-hour wages for all of the company’s US restaurant employees, told the Times that the fast-food giant was still ignoring demands for additional actions. The problem of sexual harassment was called “rampant” and “a public health crisis” in a letter from Time’s Up lawyers to Easterbook just last spring.

“With the firing of Steve Easterbrook, we now know why,” Harrell told the Times. “It’s clear McDonald’s culture is rotten from top to bottom. McDonald’s needs to sit down with worker-survivors and put them at the center of any solution.”

Perhaps this leadership change will afford the company the opportunity to do just that.