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Office romance in the #MeToo era

In May, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination took an unlikely detour through the McDonald’s drive-through.

Candidates including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Texas Congressman Julian Castro adjusted their campaign schedules to join workers at McDonald’s protests across the country.

The headline grievance was a complaint about low pay. But they were also protesting about another issue: claims of rampant sexual abuse of women in McDonald’s restaurants.

These rallies may have presaged the downfall this week of the company’s chief executive and embroiled a corporation that likes to view itself as an exemplar of wholesome Midwestern values into an anguished public debate about how companies should manage workplace romances in the #MeToo era.

Steve Easterbrook, a 52-year-old native of Watford in England is credited with helping McDonald’s navigate the demand for healthy eating and reviving profits growth since he became chief executive in 2015. Its shares have nearly doubled on his watch.

Yet Mr Easterbrook was sacked on Sunday after the company revealed that he had been involved in a romantic relationship with an employee. Mr Easterbrook is divorced and McDonald’s has said the relationship was consensual. The company’s global head of human resources followed his boss out the door a day later.

Mr Easterbrook was hardly the first McDonald’s employee to have found romance at the office.

Founder Ray Kroc was at a convention in 1968 selling franchises for his fast-growing southern California burger chain when he encountered Joan Smith, then married to one of his franchisees. After a long and boozy night, the two would end up leaving their spouses and running off together — seemingly without ill-effect for McDonald’s drive toward global fast-food dominance.

McDonald’s workers in California protest for better treatment and higher wages © Lucy Nicholson/FT

Times have changed. Today’s workers spend long hours in offices where, in many cases, the old hierarchies and standards that governed behaviour are fast melting away. After alternatively ignoring it or trying to stamp it out, many companies have come to accept that desire — like gossip and jealousy — is an inevitable feature of office life.

The challenge, then, is to devise policies to police fraternisation so that relationships do not become an abuse of power. Even consenting office relationships can corrode an organisation by distracting employees and fuelling suspicions about how certain executives have advanced their careers.

Consent itself can be ambiguous. “People in positions of power tend to be oblivious to the influence they wield over others because they are less likely to take the other party’s perspective,” says Vanessa Bohns, a social psychology professor at Cornell University.

As companies attempt to draft new rules, they are doing so in the glare of lurid claims emerging about men such as film mogul Harvey Weinstein using their professional power to coerce women into sexual relationships.

“There are a lot of businesses looking to see what their policy is — and if one exists,” one corporate adviser says of the panic that has followed Mr Easterbrook’s ousting.

To Paul Bernard, a veteran New York human resources specialist, the old codes — if far from perfect — were at least understood. Nowadays, “the rules are much more nebulous,” Mr Bernard observes. In particular, he points to “a cognitive dissonance” between companies’ desire to create a permissive culture to appeal to young talent and their sudden fear of #MeToo litigation. “Boards are very wary,” he says.

According to The Conference Board, five of the 12 S&P 500 chief executives who were fired last year were #MeToo-related. Indeed, days after Mr Easterbrook’s sacking, the board of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, revealed that it was investigating how executives handled sexual harassment complaints, with a particular focus on the company’s chief legal officer David Drummond.

What struck some observers is that the facts about Mr Drummond’s relationships with co-workers — and those of other top Alphabet executives — were already well known. What appears to have changed is the Alphabet board’s awareness of the broader climate.

A small group of demonstrators stand in front of a McDonald's restaurant as they prepare to protest for another night in Ferguson, Missouri August 12, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD PACKAGE SEARCH BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD 17 OCT FOR ALL IMAGES - S1BEUHKTKEAA

Younger generations have criticised McDonald’s zero tolerance policy on relationships at work as an overreaction © Lucas Jackson/Reuters

“Boards are now asking themselves: Is this consistent with our culture? Is this how we want to be portrayed?” says Johnny C Taylor, president of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Mr Taylor saw the complexity of the issue when he took an informal sample of opinion about McDonald’s at a conference this week. Older men tended to understand the company’s decision. What surprised him was that many of the younger female attendees believed the…

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