McDonald's is the first job for many people. The wages aren't high and they tend to hire people without a lot of experience for many of their positions. This is fabulous and they should be praised for giving people their first chance.

However, there's a downside to this: inexperience matters at work. It's easy enough to learn how to make hamburgers and fries, but it's not quite so easy to learn how to navigate a world of work. The result of that can mean that many employees are easy targets for sexual harassers. 

The New York Times reports that Times Up Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, and Fight for $15, combined forces to file a total of 23 new complaints against McDonald's. 20  of these are complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and three are civil lawsuits. All are of concern to McDonald's.

Low wage workers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment (and other workplace problems) because they tend to not have the experience to understand their rights and don't have the money to quit a job without a new one lined up. 

Employees at McDonald's (and Del Taco) went on strike last year to protest treatment at the fast food restaurants. These were also organized by the Times Up Legal Defense Fund and other groups.

McDonald's is a great target to make an example. No one has ever heard of the family-owned restaurant on the corner that has similar problems, but people love to hear about the fast food giant. McDonald's has deep pockets as well--although many of its restaurants are owned by individuals as franchises rather than by the corporate entity. And a recent NLRB ruling means that the corporate side of McDonald's is less likely to have to pay up under the new joint-employer standards

What should McDonald's do?

But, targeted or not, sexual harassment (or racial harassment, or any other type of illegal behavior) is still a problem. McDonald's needs to increase their training for their management staff--many of whom are not highly paid. And, every employee should be trained on their rights as well as their responsibilities. For example:

You don't have to put up with crude jokes, inappropriate touching, or any demands for sexual favors (or even being pressured to go on a date). Managers (including shift leaders) should never date employees. If you're that interested in a staff member, feel free to find a new job, quit, and then ask that person out.

If you make a complaint about sexual harassment (or any other illegal behavior) you should be protected against retaliation. Managers need to understand that they may not punish someone for complaining about a poor workplace condition.

Every complaint needs to be investigated. Every manager trained. Every employee advised of their rights. It's especially critical for entry level workers.

Keeping perspective

Corporate McDonald's has over 200,000 employees; with franchises that number (worldwide) jumps to almost 2 million. 23 complaints are practically nothing when you look at an organization of that scale. That doesn't mean that any of those complaints should not be taken seriously--all 23 should be. But, it does mean that this isn't necessarily indicative of a huge problem. McDonald's should be worried but so should your business. All it takes is one bad employee and one failed investigation to open your business to an expensive lawsuit.

Published on: May 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.