Romance for McDonald's Chief Exec meets an unappetizing end

Romance for McDonald's Chief Exec meets an unappetizing end

McDonald's Chief Exec dismissed after consensual romance with colleague

The news that Steve Easterbrook, the Chief Executive of McDonald’s, has been dismissed from his post for engaging in a personal relationship with a colleague, will no doubt prompt more than a raised eyebrow amidst concerns that everyone has a supposed right to a private life. After all, what we do in our own time, whether it’s with a colleague or not, is none of the employer’s business - surely?

Is it ever acceptable to date a colleague?

Whilst the full details of what went on with Mr Easterbrook and his McDonald's colleague is unlikely to be made public, the company openly expressed the view that whilst the relationship was consensual, Mr Easterbrook “violated company policy" and showed “poor judgement".  He will reportedly leave with 26 week’s pay (this could be his notice period), shares and the arrangement also includes a provision that he will not work for a competitor for at least two years.

We are dealing with a consensual relationship and not cases of unwelcome attention from colleagues, which would then fall into the category of sexual harassment and may be treated as gross misconduct leading to dismissal.  Many companies now have a 'Relationship At Work' policy, which governs 'personal relationships' in the workplace. This relates to any emotional or romantic relationship which goes beyond the accepted boundaries of the professional sphere. It will include married colleagues or those living together and will also include less formal situations where the parties are 'seeing each other' or 'going out as a couple'.

Some employers may impose a ban (difficult in practice) or have notification clauses so that employees must declare a relationship which may result in a potential conflict of interests . Relationships may become problematic where they involve members of the same team, impact on other colleagues, negatively affect business efficiency and particularly where they involve a manager and subordinate colleague. Employers will argue that they then become a legitimate management concern. 

Managing work-place relationships

Formal written policies will usually address the following issues

  • Lack of transparency in relation to workplace matters
  • Risks to confidentiality of sensitive information
  • Legal risks regarding discrimination and harassment
  • Potential conflicts of interests
  • Actual or perceived bias regarding recruitment, promotion, rostering, annual leave allocation, appraisals and other performance review methods
  • Embarrassment of other staff
  • Adverse impact on team dynamics and reduction in output
  • Impact of  relationship breakdown

It may be appropriate and lawful for one or both partners in a relationship to be transferred out of their current role if they are in the same team or they are manager and subordinate. Ideally this should only be done by agreement but if not, it should not be assumed that the more junior person in a couple can be transferred as this could be open to allegations of indirect discrimination

A failure to disclose a personal relationship in breach of a policy may be treated as a disciplinary matter and subject to investigation resulting in disciplinary action up to dismissal. This might be justified where, for example, a disproportionate salary increase has been awarded by one party to the other as this would be a clear conflict of interests.

Your right to privacy at work

We all have a right to privacy at work but employment law recognises that there is a balance to be struck between this and protecting other colleagues and legitimate business interests when a personal relationship between two colleagues has or may have an adverse impact and place the employer at risk of claims. This risk might be increased especially in the event of a breakdown of the union.