McDonald's fired its president and CEO, Steve Easterbrook. CEOs come and go, but this one is leaving for consensual sex with an employee.

Please note, no one is claiming sexual harassment or coercion. They are reporting a consensual affair, so why the termination?

Because, as Easterbrook said in an email to employees, "This was a mistake. Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on."

I agree. Here's why.

Power exists, even if everyone consents

As CEO, Easterbrook was the most influential person at McDonald's. No one was his equal. No peers. No matter how loving and wonderful the relationship was, he still held an excessive amount of power over this unnamed person.

You cannot separate out the power from the outside relationship, no matter how much you try. This is why companies have policies against managers dating their direct reports. This is why your HR manager shouldn't be too buddy-buddy with the senior leadership team. Work relationships need to be professional, and when you introduce sex, it's difficult (if not impossible) to retain that professional relationship.

But my grandmother was my grandfather's secretary and they've been happily married for 57 years!

This is often an argument, fueled by old movies, undoubtedly. It's not that you can't find true love at the office. It's that when you're the boss, your obligation is to the company, not to your own love life. If your direct report is the true love of your life, find another job, quit, and then ask this person out on a date. Best of luck to you!

But, if you do that in the wrong order and it turns out that the person who you thought was your soul mate doesn't want to date you, work is now awkward. (Asking someone out on one date does not generally constitute sexual harassment, but just asking can make everyone uncomfortable.) And if the person says yes? Great! But, what if it's only because you have hire/fire power? What if this person feels pressure? It's not the way to build a relationship or keep a business running.

It damages morale

If the boss is romantically involved (or even just close friends) with one employee, the other employees feel slighted. Coworkers will question any perks the romantic partner receives, as no one can ever be sure whether they were earned or bestowed because of love. It doesn't matter if the actual promotion, perks, or projects were earned; there's always a layer of doubt.

What happened to the romantic partner?

McDonald's didn't identify the person, and I hope they don't. Easterbrook was single, and she wasn't the CEO. Is it a good idea to become romantically involved with your boss? No. Should you be fired for a consensual relationship with your boss? Well, that's a bit tougher.

Again, the problem stems from the word consensual. With the imbalance of power, you can't ever say. Certainly, if only one person is terminated, it should be the boss. You don't want to punish someone who was, in fact, a victim. (Please note, I am speaking in generalities. I have zero information that would indicate the relationship between Easterbrook and his employee was anything but consensual.) 

That said, if your boss asks you out or makes romantic overtures, you can say no. If you suffer any adverse consequences due to your refusal, that is sexual harassment, and you should notify HR immediately--even if that boss is the CEO.

McDonald's did the right thing here. They acknowledged that even though Easterbrook was a successful CEO, this is bad judgment. Your company should acknowledge the same.

This is a great example

All managers at McDonald's can be sure that romantic relationships with their employees are 100 percent off limits. If a high performing CEO can lose his job, you can bet that the accounting supervisor will lose his for the same behavior. The Board demonstrated great leadership in following their policies and not making an exception for a star performer. 

Published on: Nov 4, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.