Ouster of McDonalds CEO Likely to Generate a McFlurry of Workplace Romance Policies

The McDonalds Board of Directors was not “lovin’ it” when they learned that CEO Steve Easterbrook was involved in a romantic relationship with an employee.  In fact, he was let go faster than you can say “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

Easterbrook violated company policy forbidding managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect subordinates. In an email to employees, Easterbrook admitted his behavior, acknowledged his mistake and accepted that it was “time for [him] to move on.”

McDonalds is just the latest in a line of large employers facing the fallout of C-suite romances. In recent years, the CEO’s of Intel, Priceline and Best Buy, among others, have been forced out after discovery of their workplace relationships. Of course, the issue is not limited to large multinationals; employers large and small are now grappling with how to address the risks raised by managers engaged in relationships with subordinates.

Lawsuits Drive Up Concerns About Office Romance

Romances between co-workers are actually a relatively common occurrence as full time workers spend roughly half their waking hours on the job.  A recent SHRM survey reported that fully one third of American workers have had a romantic relationship with a co-worker.  Some employers enact policies banning all dating and relationships throughout the workforce.  The majority, however, recognize that the heart wants what it wants and choose to address romances between rank-and-file employees by establishing conduct rules for the workplace and then monitoring to insure a minimum of negative effect.

However, managers and executives engaged in relationships with subordinates is a whole different filet of fish.  The potential for favoritism (or the perception of such) is much higher when the boss is dating a subordinate.  Moreover, when there is an imbalance in power, there is a great likelihood that the subordinate will someday claim that their consent to the relationship was coerced because of the power differential.

Indeed, the #MeToo movement has led many now to question whether true consent is even possible when there is a significant disparity in power between the two relationship participants.  If this is the prevailing view, or becomes so in the future, employers will have little defense to claims brought by the subordinate employee that he or she was seriously harmed by being coerced or manipulated into a non-consensual coupling.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Quarter-Pound of Cure

As a result of these concerns, many employers are now taking the proactive step of simply – but very directly – telling their managers and executives that they must not engage in a relationship with a subordinate.  They declare that the risk of harm posed by such relationships is so great that entering into one is an act of poor judgement worthy of termination.

For anyone considering such a policy, here are a few McNuggets of wisdom:

• Advise all employees of their right to be free from harassment and coercion of this type;

• Clearly identify the levels of management to which the policy against dating/relationships applies;

• Clearly define the behavior that is not acceptable, e.g. “Nobody at the manager level or above may initiate or participate in a romantic relationship with another employee at the same or lower level”;

• Explain the consequences of noncompliance;

• Train the covered group of managers to understand their obligations;

• Encourage people to come forward if they have had relationships in the past so that there are no surprises.

Bottom Line

A well-worded policy, some training and good judgment are a menu for success in averting the harms that might arise from romantic relationships between managers and subordinates.  Food for thought?