Tuesday 5 November 2019 6:31 pm

A mountain out of a McFlurry?

Paul Blanchard is founder of global reputation management practice Right Angles, host of the Media Masters podcast and author of Fast PR

The discussion surrounding the departure of McDonald’s former CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has revealed a nuanced landscape. In such a space, sweeping conclusions aren’t always illustrative. The fact remains, we don’t yet know any details of Easterbrook’s relationship with a colleague beyond that is was consensual. Was it a one-off fling? Are they in love? We don’t know.

If we are to take it as it is, that this was a consenting relationship between two adults, then the point that the board’s decision champions gender rights and the prevention of sexual harassment risks a conflation. A consensual relationship between two adults does not become predatory exploitation because it happens at work. Indeed, there is a clear argument to suggest that a relationship happening within a professional environment will remain respectful throughout because it bears scrutiny. Further, the idea that employees can only seek partners away from the workplace raises its own questions.

I doubt few people would choose to have a relationship with someone they work with, but the reality is that you are far more likely to fall for a work colleague, with whom you spend most of your life, than a complete stranger you meet in a nightclub. Given human nature it is at best prudish – and at worse, obtuse – to prevent these things from happening. 

Most companies know this – but in trying to ban workplace relationships they simply end up pretending to prevent them, creating a strange complicit limbo for all parties. McDonald’s have clearly not done that, but they have sent a mixed message in granting a severance package worth in excess of $37 million. Would they send two teenage burger flippers packing for an off-shift dalliance with a comparative share package?

The reasoning for this ‘golden sack’ is that Easterbrook broke a company rule, but not a federal law. This in itself recognises that the company is playing with the nuances. The danger here is that it creates a space of mixed messages which compound the potential for exploitation and, equally likely, conflate two very different things: consensual relationships and sexual abuse.

The allegations against Harvey Weinstein epitomise the horrific actions that sparked #MeToo and #TimesUp. These abuses are clear examples of perverted power leverages within a deliberately created grey area that merges workplace hierarchy with misogynist excess to mask the misdeeds of powerful men. This is clearly not the same as a consensual relationship within the workplace. I appreciate the latter could theoretically lead to the former, but in an open environment where relationships are unhindered and the rules clear, that is less likely. The same nuances and maturity we exercise with relationships away from work still apply; prudence should prevail. For that reason, McDonald’s have over reached themselves.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.