RUTH SUNDERLAND: Did MeToo trigger Steve Easterbrook's departure?

Downfall of the lord of the fries: He’s the Watford Grammar School boy who rose from flipping burgers to running the global McDonald’s empire. But, asks RUTH SUNDERLAND, did MeToo mania trigger Steve Easterbrook’s departure?

  • McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook had consensual relationship with employee
  • Attend Watford Grammar School before flipping burgers in the 1990s 
  • He has been ‘separated’ from McDonald’s as he ‘violated company policy’ 
  • He signed non-disclosure agreement and advisers in the US and UK
  • Chief executives are being ousted for relationships with a colleague in the US

Steve Easterbrook is the boy from Watford who fell in love with McDonald’s as an 11-year-old in 1978 and rose to become chief executive of the quintessential American brand.

Now, despite having been a huge success in his five years at the helm, he is no longer Lord of the Fries.

Instead, he has been binned as casually as a used burger carton. His crime?

McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook (pictured) has stepped down after violating company policy by engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee, the fast food giant announced on Sunday

As a statement from the fast-food giant put it, Easterbrook is now ‘separated’ from the business because he ‘violated company policy’ and ‘demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee’.

Or, to put it another way, he dated a member of his staff.

To some observers, for Easterbrook to be ousted from his £12million-a-year job is a harsh penalty for what looks to be a relatively minor lapse in judgment, at least if no more damning facts emerge.

The father-of-three is divorced and therefore his affair is not even an extramarital one, on his side at least – we do not yet know the circumstances of the other party concerned.

The sacked boss became head of the world’s largest fast food chain in 2015 (pictured visiting a store in Sydney this year). He has been able to keep his share options and incentives which are normally stripped from those who leave in disgrace

Nonetheless, he has been branded with the modern day corporate equivalent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and publicly shamed around the planet.

Incongruously, however, he has also been allowed to keep his share options and incentives, which are normally stripped from those who leave in disgrace. With a multi-million-pound golden goodbye, he won’t need to worry how he’ll pay for his next Happy Meal.

But his dismissal has sparked a furious debate over whether, in a post-#MeToo world, the pendulum has swung too far against male bosses.

After allegations of sexual abuse against former film producer Harvey Weinstein, companies have rightly been zealous in trying to outlaw unwanted sexual advances and wandering hands in the workplace.

Top boss: Steve Easterbrook is pictured laughing with model Chrissy Teigen at a McDonald’s event

Countless women now feel safer and happier in their jobs as a consequence.

But is there a danger of hounding out high-achieving men because of trivial misdemeanours, or even for nothing worse than an office romance? Can a blunt corporate policy ever really do justice to the nuanced, treacherous terrain of modern sexual mores?

In the US at the moment, there is a climate of zero tolerance to any behaviour deemed to be a sexual transgression. Chief executives can be ousted not only for groping and grabbing, but also for any relationship with a colleague, even if both parties are single and willing participants.

The view is that it is unacceptable for a CEO to have any relationship at all with a colleague because there is an automatic imbalance of power and therefore potential for exploitation and abuse.

We don’t know, and perhaps never will, the true nature of Easterbrook’s liaison with his colleague.

He has signed a non-disclosure agreement and hired heavyweight advisers on both sides of the Atlantic – top PR man Fraser Hardie in the UK and Desiree Moore in the US, a lawyer who among other things is an expert in handling ‘celebrity disgrace events’.

But whatever the full story, it is an ignominious end to Easterbrook’s career at McDonald’s, which until this point had been a textbook case of upward mobility.

Very few Britons reach the top of Wall Street companies. The ascent of 52-year-old Easterbrook to the top at Maccy D’s is all the more remarkable because he comes from an ordinary background.

Easterbrook acknowledged he had a relationship with an unnamed employee in an email to staff, calling it a ‘mistake’. He is pictured in New York 2017 with Chrissy Teigen, who was the face of the McDonald’s Dollar Menu in the US. She is not the woman with whom Easterbrook had an affair. He grew up in the unprepossessing Hertfortdshire town of Watford, where he attended the local state grammar school

He grew up in the unprepossessing Hertfortdshire town of Watford, where he attended the local state grammar school. Although he has been living in Chicago, where McDonald’s has its headquarters, he still loyally supports his hometown team, Watford FC.

As a boy, he and a friend would catch a train to Harrow to visit the McDonald’s there, back when the burger chain was still viewed as an aspirational and exotic arrival in Britain.

At Durham University, where he studied natural sciences, he showed talent as a spin bowler and played on the cricket team alongside Nasser Hussain, who went on to captain England.

Commerce, rather than sport, beckoned on graduation. After training as an accountant with Price Waterhouse, he took his first job at McDonald’s in the 1990s, cutting his teeth as manager of a branch near his home town on the A41.

His ascent up the burger-flipping hierarchy – helped by a stint at Hamburger University, the company training academy in Illinois – was rapid. By 2006, he was in charge of the UK business and also became president of northern European operations. In 2011 he briefly left to become chief executive of the Pizza Express and Wagamama restaurant chains, but rejoined McDonald’s in 2013 as global chief brand officer before becoming chief executive two years later.

Steve Easterbrook, then CEO of Mcdonalds UK, pictured with Alesha Dixon and Lord Coe at the London 2012 Olympics.  Under his leadership, McDonald’s share price has almost doubled so that the company is valued on the US stock market at a phenomenal $147billion (£114billion)

Coincidentally, he is not the only high-flyer in the family to have had a professional setback recently. His sister-in-law Jill Easterbrook is leaving her job as CEO of fashion firm Boden after a profit warning.

Whatever Steve Easterbrook’s bedroom misdemeanours may or may not be, no one disputes that he has delivered in the boardroom.

When he took over at McDonald’s, the company was at a low ebb. Under his command, its share price has almost doubled so that the company is valued on the US stock market at a phenomenal $147billion (£114billion).

McDonald’s, whose empire sprawls over most corners of the world, is a deeply divisive company. Loved by millions of devotees who adore tucking into its quarter-pounders with cheese and Egg McMuffins, it is despised by critics who see it as a downmarket purveyor of calorie-laden junk food.

Easterbrook showed an evangelical fervour for overturning the negative stereotypes.

He switched to eggs from cage-free hens, antibiotic-free chickens and hormone-free milk. Restaurants were spruced up, healthier options appeared on menus and packaging was made more environmentally friendly.

He introduced digital ordering kiosks to cut down on queuing and invested in home delivery services.

Easterbrook’s three daughters remained with their mother Susie, a part-time estate agent and former training boss at PwC, at the £1.3million family home in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire (pictured)

He is pictured outside McDonald’s Corporation new global headquarters, Chicago, US, in June last year. Chief executives have been sacked for relationships with their colleagues across the US, in the wake of his case

Keen to get rid of the slur that staff were stuck in low-paid positions with poor prospects, he raised pay rates above the minimum wage.

He even tried, unsuccessfully, to have the derogatory word ‘McJobs’ deleted from the Oxford English Dictionary.

In short, he wanted to make McDonald’s a ‘modern progressive burger company’.

The problem for him was that it had a very old-fashioned view on relationships.

On Wall Street, his departure was greeted with shock. Although McDonald’s most recent quarterly earnings had been disappointing, traders fretted that the company was losing a boss with a fabulous track record.

At one stage, the news had knocked $4billion (£3billion) off the company’s market value. Corporate morality, it seems, can come at a steep price.

One irony is that if Easterbrook had conducted his affair almost anywhere but the US, he would probably have got away with little more than a raised eyebrow from the chairman and a few sniggers at shareholder meetings.

Attitudes in the US to bosses who have liaisons with employees are far more puritanical than in the UK, let alone France or Italy.

Countless British bosses have dallied with, or even married, their secretaries, with no backlash whatsoever, at least in their professional lives.

The view in Britain, traditionally at least, has been that a chap’s private life is precisely that. Unless he’s used company cash to wine and dine a mistress or committed some other business sin, then shareholders don’t think it’s their concern.

Indeed, bosses of large British companies, such as Antonio Horta-Osorio, the married Lloyds boss whose illicit affair was splashed across the front pages a few years ago, can survive salacious and highly public revelations.

In the US, however, bosses are expected to be models of marital virtue. This is particularly the case at a company such as McDonald’s, which prides itself on its family values and where mothers, who make the decision whether or not to take the children, might disapprove of a libidinous male CEO.

Right or wrong, that’s why the boy-made-good from Hertfordshire has been kicked out from under the Golden Arches.


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