National & International

Love in the workplace: Here’s why McDonald’s had to fire CEO Steve Easterbrook

The ouster of McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook over an admitted consensual relationship with an employee reflects the growing prevalence of company dating policies in the #MeToo era – and the potential consequences of violating them.

While office romances are generally discouraged, about half of U.S. companies have instituted a formal policy restricting certain consensual relationships, up from 25% in 2005, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management. Almost all organizations with such a policy forbid romance between a supervisor and a direct report.

Easterbrook, a longtime McDonald's executive who had helmed the Chicago-based fast-food giant since 2015, "violated company policy" by engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee, the company said Sunday, prompting the board to make a very high-profile example of its CEO.

"When you're the CEO and you are the embodiment of all company policy, it ties the hands of the board," said Tom Luetkemeyer, a Chicago employment attorney and adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. "If a pass is given to an individual at the very top of the organization, how do you enforce it against anybody else?"

Workplace romance is nonetheless a fact of life. One in 3 U.S. workers have participated in an office relationship, according to the human resources association. Fewer than a third of people in a consensual workplace relationship ever disclose it.

Failure to report a workplace romance is a violation of some company dating policies, particularly when it involves a supervisor. In fact, some companies require the dating employees to sign a "love contract" stating the relationship is consensual, and that neither will engage in favoritism or take any legal action against the employer.

Consensual relationships at work do not violate any federal, state, county or municipal laws, Luetkemeyer said. But the potential for litigation has made workplace romance part of a growing number of employee handbooks, and in some cases, a cause for termination.

The potential downside of workplace romance runs the gamut, from perceived favoritism to claims of sexual harassment or retaliation when the relationships go bad.

"When relationships go sour, it's no different than outside the workplace," Luetkemeyer said. "There tends to be hostility, there tends to be conflict and that could lead to claims."

A zero tolerance policy on office relationships may lead to unintended negative consequences, such as losing two productive employees who happen to find love as co-workers, Luetkemeyer said. In fact, more than 30% of office romances blossom into marriage, according to a CareerBuilder survey.

But prohibiting relationships in the chain of command or between a supervisor and subordinate employee – even when they're in different departments – is widely regarded as prudent policy. Such a relationship is a cause for termination at many companies.

The enforcement of the nonfraternization policy at the top of the McDonald's C-suite nonetheless surprised at least one longtime Chicago employment lawyer.

Mitchell Kline said the inherent power of a CEO makes it hard for an office relationship to be truly consensual, with subordinates potentially participating out of a desire for advancement or fear of retribution. He also said the more powerful the person, the harder it is to actually enforce a policy prohibiting dating relationships – consensual or not.

By standing up to its own CEO, the McDonald's board may have put teeth in company dating policies across the U.S., Kline said.

"It's a powerful message to men in powerful positions," Kline said.

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