Big Whack: McDonalds CEO ousted over affair with underling

“We have absolutely no tolerance at all for any sort of harassment,” McDonalds CEO Steve Easterbrook declared last year — and that turned out to be correct. The fast-food giant fired its self-proclaimed “progressive” leader after he admitted to a sexual affair with an underling. As NBC’s Today notes, Easterbroook’s firing comes at a time when complaints about sexual harassment within McDonald’s have multiplied:

In other words, this looks like the board’s attempt to make an example of Easterbrook, but they would have had little choice anyway. To give Easterbrook a pass would have created a double standard between top executives and the rest of the company, which would have set up some real problems for McDonalds in short order. Easterbrook’s smart enough to understand that, and said he won’t put up a fight over the Big Whack:

The burger giant said Sunday that its board voted Friday to terminate Mr. Easterbrook after investigating his relationship with the unnamed employee. Mr. Easterbrook resigned from McDonald’s board as well. He wrote in an email to McDonald’s employees on Sunday that he had violated company policy on personal conduct.

“This was a mistake,” Mr. Easterbrook wrote in the email. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.” …

The board was alerted to the relationship, conducted a thorough investigation and acted swiftly, according to McDonald’s. The company declined to provide any other details.

Most companies have had rules against sexual relationships with underlings in place for decades, even before sexual harassment in the workplace became a legal issue in the late 1980s. Affairs with direct reports or underlings within the same organization undermine staff morale and create all sorts of interpersonal problems, even when they don’t involve harassing behavior. Some companies allowed for such relationships if one of the people involved transfers to a different org, but the CEO position made that an impossible option for Easterbrook, if that is even still an option.

This makes Katie Hill’s claims of double standards completely absurd. If anything, Congress came decades late to the no-office-affairs rule, only passing it last year after a series of embarrassing scandals in the House. Daily Beast political reporter and Citizen Jane founder Patricia Murphy argues in a Roll Call op-ed today that not enforcing the rule with Hill would have created a double standard — and put women at further risk on Capitol Hill:

After the yearslong battle to end rampant harassment and abuse in Congress, there was no way Hill could stay on in a chamber that has promised to change its ways. The fact that the woman in Hill’s case was a staffer on a campaign, rather than a D.C. office, is a distinction without a difference. A sexual relationship with any staffer is unacceptable. Katie Hill had to go.

It’s crucial here to remember where the Capitol Hill community was in terms of harassment protections just two years ago. Although the #MeToo movement had swept across the country and rooted out bad behavior from Hollywood to boardrooms, the Capitol complex was unusually silent on its own bad behavior. Only excellent reporting by Roll Call and others at the time revealed to the country what those of us on the inside knew all along — that sexual harassment of staffers was flagrant, punishment was rare, compensation was secret and paid with taxpayer dollars, and disclosure of settlements against members was illegal. Shielded by a culture of abuse without consequences, sexual harassment was not just tolerated by congressional rules, it was protected. …

That moment yielded the first real change to harassment rules on the Hill in decades. Pushed by a team of female lawmakers in both parties, staffers were given access to counsel, settlements against members had to be paid by members and made public every six months, harassment claims got an automatic referral to the House Ethics Committee, and relationships between staffers and members were entirely prohibited — even consensual ones. Although it’s rarely discussed, consensual relationships both endangered the staffers involved when relationships ended and opened the door to favorable treatment at the expense of other staffers in the meantime. More than anything, they represented an abuse of power over the entire staff that is both inappropriate and wrong.

That’s exactly right. So why did corporate America learn that lesson decades earlier than Congress? Accountability. Congress could hide these payments from taxpayers, whereas publicly traded corporations could not hide them (forever) from shareholders. Plus, corporate America had the media to deal with, too, and their own agenda. The media made much of these issues in the private sector for some time as well without ever shining a light on them in Congress or the executive branch, not even when Bill Clinton gave them a perfect entrée for investigative reporting on the topic. And note well that the media never bothered to shine that line on themselves either, not until #MeToo — and still only grudgingly so.

And even now, Hill’s trying to evade responsibility by blaming the scrutiny rather than her own very bad judgment and rule-breaking. Both Hill and Easterbrook are being held to the same standard, one only recently adopted by Hill’s colleagues and clearly needed. At least Easterbrook isn’t blaming Ronald McDonald on his way out the door.