McDonald's CEO's firing over 'poor judgment' relationship: A second look

On Monday, Ed Morrissey looked into the sudden, unceremonious departure of McDonald’s CEO Steven Easterbrook after it was revealed that he’d been in a consensual sexual relationship with one of his underlings. Since that time, we’ve learned that the company’s “chief people officer,” David Fairhurst, has also packed up his things and departed. The company isn’t saying if these two departures are related or not, but it would be quite the coincidence if someone that high up the ladder just happened to decide to go spend more time with his family within 24 hours.

Ed covered all the nuts and bolts of the story, as well as how the decision likely played out, so if you happened to miss it, you can go back to the link above and catch up. There was one aspect of this story, however, that sort of set off some internal alarms for me, and I wanted to toss this out there for our readers’ consideration. Let’s go back to the NBC News coverage of the story for a moment and consider one key part of the facts as they’ve been portrayed thus far. (Emphasis added.)

McDonald’s announced Sunday that its chief executive has “separated from the company” after demonstrating “poor judgement” in having a relationship with an employee.

The company said in a press release that Steve Easterbrook violated company policy by engaging in the consensual relationship, but did not provide further details.

First of all, it’s clear that the company (like so many others) has a clear policy in place forbidding romantic/sexual relationships between management and those reporting to them. As Ed pointed out yesterday, some companies will allow exceptions if the manager immediately transfers to another department where their paramour would no longer report to them. Easterbrook had no such option because everyone in the company reported to him sooner or later. With that in mind, firing him was at least technically the correct thing to do.

But what set my mental wheels spinning was the emphasis everyone was placing on the consensual nature of the relationship. If we are to assume that these two people cared deeply for each other and there was no pressure applied to the employee to provide sexual favors in exchange for keeping her job or some promotion or other perquisites, they must have found themselves in a rather untenable situation. I’m not trying to get all sappy about true love and the deeper lessons of “The Princess Bride” here, but their options would have been rather limited.

After realizing that they were going to try to make a go of it, one choice would have been for the CEO of one of the larger companies in the country to simply step down with no reason given. That would be awkward, to say the least, and probably result in a negative effect on the couple’s future prosperity. But what’s the alternative? Tell the woman who is far further down the food chain (pun intended) that she’s the one who needs to quit her job if she wants to keep her new boyfriend? Also, a terrible answer.

I’m not saying this is a cut and dry situation by any means. Allowing the relationship to continue in the open, particularly in violation of company policy, could have set the company up for a disastrous disclosure at a later time. And how could the board know if the relationship was really 100 percent consensual or if she was just saying that while silently feeling pressure to make sure the big boss was happy?

But at the same time, shouldn’t the lessons of the #MeToo era instruct us somewhat differently these days? One of the chief assumptions of those flying the Me Too banner most proudly has been that we should “believe all women.” That’s generally interpreted to mean that we should believe women airing claims of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace. But should we not also “believe all women” if they say that there’s nothing amiss going on and they’re actually very much in love?

Again, perhaps the risk of the woman falsely denying feelings of pressure or coercion when describing the relationship is too great to take the chance. And company policy must be respected by everyone at every level if it’s to be meaningful. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel that these situations open the door to people losing (or missing out on) a special relationship and potential future family situation because of how we need to monitor their personal lives while on the job. I don’t really have an answer to this conundrum, but the more I consider it, the more I realize that this story might not be as clear-cut as it was initially portrayed. And it could affect a lot more people than one CEO of a major company and his girlfriend.