Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

The Great Debate: should you be fired for having a relationship with someone you work with?

We question the news that McDonald's chief executive Steve Easterbrook was dismissed for dating a colleague

McDonald’s Corp. fired chief executive Steve Easterbrook because he had a relationship with an employee, it was announced on Sunday, November 3, 2019. Bloomberg
McDonald’s Corp. fired chief executive Steve Easterbrook because he had a relationship with an employee, it was announced on Sunday, November 3, 2019. Bloomberg

Earlier this week, it was announced that fast-food giant McDonald's has dismissed chief executive Steve Easterbrook for having a relationship with an employee. Here, The National's Nyree McFarlane, head of features, and Weekend editor Katy Gillett, discuss how fair the decision may or may not have been.

Nyree McFarlane: Context, dear readers – this week, McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook was fired by the keepers of the Golden Arches for having a “consensual” relationship with an employee. McDonald’s corporate policy dictates that managers can’t have romantic relationships with subordinates. And the thing is, in his role, he was technically above absolutely everyone else in the joint, even Señor Ronald.

Katy Gillett: According to a 2019 study, 58 per cent of people have been in a relationship with someone they work with. While psychologists suggest this high figure could be because we spend so much time with our colleagues, ultimately heightening attraction, I think it must also have something to do with working with like-minded people who share our interests. Otherwise, for many people, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.

Steve Easterbrook, president and chief executive officer of McDonald's Corp. Bloomberg
Steve Easterbrook, president and chief executive officer of McDonald's Corp. Bloomberg

NM: I totally get that many people meet their future spouses in the office, and I don’t want to get in the way of love: but, in 2018, Easterbrook earned Dh58.4 million in one year, while the average McDonald’s annual wage globally is Dh27,447. That means he earned more than 2,000 times the median salary at the company. That represents a huge power imbalance …

KG: It’s difficult for me to judge this specific situation, as I don’t know the ins and outs of Easterbrook’s relationship

NM: He sent a company-wide email after his dismissal calling the relationship a “mistake”. Burn. That had to be awkward for the other person involved, as colleagues probably knew what was going on (water coolers are fertile ground for gossip …)

KG: I mean, he’s obviously going to say that once it’s been found out, considering the company’s policies regarding inter-work relationships, but he’s a divorced man, single from what I can tell, free to have relationships with whomever. For me, it’s more about whether or not companies should have such strict bans on workplace relationships. I think as long as there are policies and rules in place enabling people to be open and honest about what’s going on, so any power imbalances and conflicts can be monitored, then people should be able to be with whomever they want.

The man who earned, in one year, more than I will probably earn in my entire career had to be the one to go

Nyree McFarlane

NM: We don’t know what position the person Easterbrook was in a relationship with held at the company – they may have been very senior. But what kind of a policy could, as you say, make sure “any power imbalances and conflicts can be monitored”? I can’t think of any way to ensure that …

KG: I’m no HR expert, but surely there are places where relationships are allowed and, as long as they’re declared, then any favourable or unfavourable behaviour to either person can be scrutinised. One of the biggest concerns of this is of someone scorned using their authority to stop the other from progressing in their career. Or, on the other hand, giving them an unfair helping hand, to the detriment of other, perhaps better, employees.

NM: Exactly. I think the major issue is that Easterbrook was everyone’s boss. If you want to earn Dh58.4m a year, there are sacrifices to be made …

KG: Let’s say we’re talking about mid-level employees, then I would suggest one of them hunt out another job or at least move to another department within the company. But we can’t say that about every situation. If someone relies on the wage, then we’re coming from a place of privilege to say “leave your job”.

NM: Yes, and so in this instance, the man who earned, in one year, more than I will probably earn in my entire career had to be the one to go. In 2018, he took home Dh486,666 per month. He’ll be all right.

KG: I was going to say that perhaps his role in the company was too important for him to leave because of a relationship – not that I’m saying she should – but recent news proves that’s not the case …

Steve Easterbrook speaks during the opening of the company's new headquarters in Chicago in 2018. Bloomberg
Steve Easterbrook speaks during the opening of the company's new headquarters in Chicago in 2018. Bloomberg

NM: As you said, it’s hard to speculate on the ins and outs of this particular “love match”, but I feel strongly about managers never approaching subordinates for anything other than work. When I was in my first professional job, my boss, who was probably in his sixties, made advances towards me. Regularly. I felt so powerless that I said nothing.

KG: Up until now I’ve been working on the premise that this is a consensual relationship, but the question of sexual harassment in the workplace, to me, only cements my belief that there should be a formal process in place for declaring romantic relationships.

NM: But what if a more junior person feels pressure to enter a relationship to keep their job? A power imbalance is likely to be at play from the beginning.

KG: It’s clearly not a bulletproof plan, but at least there’s a layer of protection – and if they haven’t declared it, then it should 100 per cent be investigated. While it’s related, I think this is a whole other debate and there are no easy answers to weeding out sexual harassment in the workplace. When it comes to consenting adults who are genuinely pursuing a loving relationship, surely there are ways to let that happen.

NM: But, as you say, what if the person who is lower down in the company’s food chain “relies on their wage”? The less senior person is also likely to be the person to experience bullying or judgment from other employees about the relationship – subordinates tend to be polite to chief executives. Surely, rather than expecting the employee to declare the relationship, it’s easier just to say to managers, “no relationships with people you are senior to”?

KG: Perhaps you’re right. The naive romantic in me would like to think otherwise, and I do believe formal policies should definitely be in place rather than there being a blanket ban, but when it comes to senior management there are added layers of complexity. If they are in love, then they should be the ones to seek out another job, if the situation calls for it.

NM: Yeah, move to another department so you don’t work together, and if you’re so powerful in an organisation that you run every division, look elsewhere for love.

KG: I wonder if Easterbrook will rekindle his relationship outside the Golden Arches?

NM: If so, good on them. He can go work at Burger King, and they can argue into their dotage about whether the Whopper or the Big Mac is the superior product.

Updated: November 7, 2019 03:48 PM

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