McDonald’s case provides key lesson on sexual harassment

The #MeToo era empowers victims to hold their harassers accountable and major corporations are taking note.

McDonald's recently made headlines for firing its chief executive officer (CEO). The termination was the result of accusations the CEO violated company policy. The violation: a romantic relationship with an employee. Based on these allegations, McDonald's board voted to remove the accused from his position in the company.

The company's history of sexual harassment claims likely played a role in the board's swift and decisive dismissal of the accused. In the last two years alone, workers at McDonald's restaurants and offices have been the subject of at least 50 sexual harassment claims.

The case provides an example of how the #MeToo movement has impacted the workplace. A major corporation upheld its policy against a key executive member to help better ensure a culture within the workplace that discouraged potential harassment. The case also lends itself to an opportunity to discuss the dangers that can come with romantic relationships within the workplace.

Is it illegal to have a romantic relationship with an employee?

Sexual harassment at work is illegal. Managers, employers and coworkers cannot make unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances.

But what if the conduct is consensual? What if two consenting adults have a relationship when one happens to be the other's superior at work?

On its face, the relationship may not be illegal. However, many companies have policies in place to avoid such relationships and mitigate the risk of sexual harassment within the workplace. This is because these relationships inherently involve an imbalance of power. It is possible the relationship appears consensual, but the subordinate may feel pressure to agree to the relationship because of this imbalance. These types of relationships can also result in a toxic workplace culture and may lead to allegations the subject of the employer's affection is receiving preferential treatment due to the relationship.

As noted above, many employers have policies in place that either prohibit these types of relationships or provide guidelines on consensual relationships to avoid these issues. Facebook, for example, has a policy that allows employees a single opportunity to ask a co-worker if they are interested in a romantic relationship. If denied, they cannot pursue the relationship again. McDonald's had a strict policy prohibiting these relationships in place. This led to the dismissal of their CEO.

What can employers and employees learn from this case?

The key lesson from this case: Abuse of power at the workplace is a serious issue. As part of the #MeToo era victims are rightfully empowered to hold their abusers accountable. As such, employers are motivated to take steps to help better ensure a harassment free workplace with policies that guide or prohibit such relationships.

Unfortunately, even with these policies abuses can happen. Those who are the subject of unwanted advances and sexual harassment within the workplace are wise to seek legal counsel to better ensure their rights are protected.