It was announced yesterday that the CEO of McDonald’s was “fired” due to a relationship he had at work. But quickly the same comments have arisen; why should his private life have had any impact on his professional life?
There are no general legal rules preventing or governing relationships at work, but it is not unusual for company handbooks to contain Relationships at Work policies. The reason for employers monitoring or regulating relationships at work (especially with subordinates) is usually ensure impartiality when deciding (for example) promotions, disciplinaries, grievances, pay rises etc. It also ensures that such relationships do not become problematic and impact other colleagues or general conduct of the business.
Policies regarding relationships at work have also become ever more common following the #MeToo movement. Requiring people to disclose their relationships and having guidance on which romantic relationships are appropriate and inappropriate could protect employers from sexual harassment claims further down the line. Consensual relationship agreements or “love contracts” are common in the US, but have not yet crossed the pond due to issues surrounding the enforceability. These contracts ask both parties to sign to confirm that they are in a consensual relationship and that nothing which arises previously or during the relationship can be relied on in any sexual harassment claim and will usually outline agreements regarding their conduct towards each other at work.
Relationships at Work policies usually include clauses which either outright ban relationships with subordinates or require managers to report any relationships with their subordinates. More senior persons and HR are usually then able to assess the risk which that relationship could cause to the business, and perhaps consider relocating one party to a different office or department. Arguably, one of the distinctions in this news story is that Mr Easterbrook was the CEO therefore there is no one above him to regulate and manage the risk of his relationship.
So, whilst it is generally accepted that people have a right to their private life, it is clear that in Mr Easterbrook had violated an existing policy. MacDonald’s policy reportedly outright prohibits senior employees from becoming romantically involved with subordinates. The statement also stated that he had shown “poor judgement”. For these reasons, the Board of Directors voted for his departure last Friday.
Without any relevant policy or rules in place to cover the situation, the mere fact of a workplace relationship will not be a reason to discipline an employee (although inappropriate behaviour or damage to reputation linked to the relationship may be). This is why Relationships at Work policies are helpful; if there is a breach, then disciplinary action can naturally follow.
We regularly draft Relationship at Work policies or advise our client where concerns about such relationships arise. If you have any more questions, or want to know about our HR support for businesses please contact us here.
Written by Alicia Collinson