Chain’s Decision Reminds Boards, Executives, Workplace Dating Fraught With Risk

Like many HR staff, we’re pouring another cup of coffee while we Monday morning quarterback the weekend’s news from McDonald’s that the board ousted CEO Steve Easterbrook for conducting what is described in the press as a “consensual relationship” in the workplace. The board asked for Easterbrook’s resignation despite his success leading a turnaround after disappointing financial returns in 2015. McDonald’s Chief People Officer also left the company for undisclosed reasons.

Why HR Struggles With Workplace Dating

What difficulties does workplace dating impose on organizations and what are the particular dangers of dating subordinates? Any workplace romantic relationship can open up the organization to the potential for real or perceived conflict of interest, cultural and psychological issues. But, when executives and management date subordinates there’s also the possibility of perceived undue influence, favoritism and sexual harassment.

Despite all of this, a company’s human resources department often struggles with how to manage and respond to executive/subordinate relationships, particularly when they involve charismatic, successful leaders with strong ties to their boards of directors and deep support among shareholders.

What Companies Do About Workplace Dating

Historically, companies have taken a variety of approaches to managing this risk. McDonald’s uses many of the tools available to communicate what constitutes workplace sexual harassment and prohibition of workplace dating. Like almost all major companies, it conducts periodic workplace harassment prevention training that warns executives of the risks. In August of this year, McDonald’s rolled out company-wide harassment training online and in person at 14,000 U.S. stores, 95 percent of which are operated by franchises. This, along with the dating policy in its code of conduct and other steps the company has taken to mitigate sexual harassment, is an indicator of how its board would respond to its CEO engaging in a workplace relationship.

Like many companies, McDonald’s code of conduct has a “fraternization” policy that requires any employee in a reporting relationship to disclose their relationships immediately to HR, and mandates that steps be taken to eliminate any real or perceived conflict of interest. Some policies overtly state that minimizing perceived conflict of interest may include the transfer or termination of employment of one or both workers if necessary. For McDonald’s, this might be in the fine print.

What About A ‘Love Contract’?

While McDonald’s is checking the boxes on training and communicating its policies, our Monday morning review contemplates the concept of a “love contract.” Companies can take steps to make it clear, especially to executives, that superiors dating subordinates is their business by imposing so called “love contracts” on those involved in the relationship. These agreements attempt to commit the employees to maintaining acceptable parameters in the relationship, and secure an acknowledgment (particularly from the subordinate) that the relationship is “consensual” and a commitment (usually from the superior) that there will be no retaliation should the relationship end. Would this have been the right move in McDonald’s situation? We can’t say, because we don’t know how and when the relationship was revealed.

What Your Company Can Do Right Now About Workplace Dating

You know we’re going to say it, so put down that mug of coffee and start reviewing your policies. Also, get ready for upcoming compliance changes with amendments to the Illinois Human Rights Act (effective January 1, 2020) that expand anti-discrimination protections to virtually every employer with as few as one worker and that require employers to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training. This new harassment training requirement is just one of several changes to plan for in 2020. To learn more about this and other legal changes to prepare for, read our article here.

We’re always here to help you with training and policy reviews/updates. Now that we’ve put employee dating in your brain, add us to your calendar for a chat sometime between now and Valentine’s day 2020!