Feminist leader Gloria Feldt once said “Every company and organization is going to have to change now… Leaders will have to create work environments where women aren’t objectified and where implicit bias is at least recognized and at best eliminated from recruiting, hiring and retention practices” in response to the growing fervor of the #MeToo movement.
To those who don’t know, #MeToo is a social movement against sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workforce.
Now, one year after Feldt penned that line, we are able to see the effects of #MeToo. On Sunday, Nov. 3 McDonalds Corp. fired Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook after a “consensual” relationship with an employee.
Easterbrook worked as chief executive from March 2015 to November 2019. In his time as chief executive of McDonald’s, he managed to nearly double the shared price of the company. Regardless of his successes, Easterbrook’s relationship was unethical as he still violated the company’s policy he helped make successful.
The company policy that Easterbrook and his partner violated was the employee code, which states that “employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship.” The code itself is created to prevent “power differential” as stated by Laurie Weingart, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Power differential, as Weingart describes, involves a relationship between a supervisor and their employee in where the supervisor holds all the power, either to give favoritism or to influence the particular employee’s career. The power that the supervisor possesses over their partner is unimaginable; from bargaining to blackmailing, the supervisor possesses complete control of their partner’s decision based on how much the partner relies on his or her job. Because of this power differential, Easterbrook essentially held the employee’s job in his pocket.
One of the main problems that exist in a workplace relationship is the concern around favoritism. Undoubtedly, it’s completely natural to give preferential treatment to someone one has a strong connection to. In the same vein, the concern behind Easterbrook’s relationship has its repercussions. Consequently, if such behavior does occur, it would significantly change the atmosphere and the dynamics of the workplace itself, especially if one of the partners possesses a higher position than the employee, for example, a CEO.
For many people who have worked in the industry before, they would argue that the relationship is fair and right as the relationship itself is consensual.
However, this raises the question: what, exactly, is consensuality?
The word itself describes a relationship in which both partners are in a mutual agreement for something to happen. But in the case of Steve Easterbrook, is it really consensual? Even if both partners consented to the relationship, the employee would face all the repercussions because of such an unequal power gap. Moreover, long before Easterbrook, men in positions of power have abused their power to get what they want. How do we know that the employee wasn’t pressured, rather, coerced into the relationship? Regardless of the validity of their relationship, it is completely inappropriate for Easterbrook to date a subordinate.
Policies such as McDonald’s are placed to maintain strict boundaries between personal and professional life. Steve Easterbrook, being the CEO of the company for four years should be well aware of the policy; yet, he chose to violate it while knowing the full consequence of his actions. Not only do his actions violate the employee code, but the relationship he had also affected his coworkers too.
The sudden termination of Easterbrook represents a cultural shift, one where companies now care about what occurs behind closed doors, about the well-being of the employee. But now, due to the rising population of the #MeToo movement, many companies such as McDonald’s started to further reinforce their policy on relationships.
As stated by Sharyn Tejani, Director of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, “the fact that their own CEO is violating their policies gives you an idea of how un-seriously McDonald’s take workplace sexual harassment.” Due to the unserious policy of McDonald’s and the presence of the #MeToo movement, the incident quickly became controversial as the public would not allow this type of relationship to continue this time.
However, would the relationship of Easterbrook still be controversial without the #MeToo movement? The answer is, unfortunately, no, as it is thanks to the #MeToo movement that the incident became so widely known in the first place. It is the job of the #MeToo movement to spread awareness of sexual situations exactly like this one so that more people would consider their actions with the opposite gender. In the case of Steve Easterbrook, they have succeeded, not only they have managed to enforce the policy of the food industry, but they have also set an example of how not even the high-ups of a company can defy their own policy. They have made it clear that no one is above the rules no matter how long they have worked, how much they contribute to the company and what their accomplishments are.