The former CEO of McDonald’s not only sexted a subordinate but carried on a sexual relationship with an employee before he was fired, a new lawsuit alleges. Filed by attorneys for McDonald’s in Delaware, the suit accuses Steve Easterbrook of “lying, concealing evidence and fraud,” according to the New York Times. Easterbrook left the company last year, after the McDonald’s board became aware of the sexting scandal. At the time, Easterbrook apologized, and received a sweetheart severance deal worth around $40 million.
McDonald’s now says that company officials didn’t realize the extent of Easterbrook’s misconduct. But the details of the lawsuit invite serious questions about the company’s workplace culture, and not only because of certain flaws in its initial investigation of Easterbrook. The company’s relatively lenient response to Easterbrook cuts a sharp contrast with the way it treats its lowest-wage workers.
Though Easterbrook had assured his board of directors that he’d never instigated a physical relationship with an employee, the company now believes he lied. A new investigation spurred by an anonymous tip found that Easterbrook had sexual relationships with three McDonald’s employees before he was fired in 2019. Easterbrook also awarded at least one of his partners “hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shares,” the Times reports. Had the company known the truth, Easterbrook wouldn’t have been eligible for his golden parachute. But investigators didn’t examine his emails at the time, which may have allowed him to keep his misconduct from the people in charge of his severance package.
McDonald’s tends not to show its cooks and cashiers the same benefit of the doubt. Two workers have said the burger chain fired them for organizing over unsafe conditions in their restaurants — and they didn’t get severance at all. The pandemic may have heightened worker concerns over their safety on the job, but complaints over the specific issue of sexual harassment are far older than COVID-19. As journalist Bryce Covert recently reported for The Nation, McDonald’s workers say that harassment and misconduct is rampant at the franchise level. The company’s negligence, they add, is similarly widespread. Workers filed one class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s for failing to implement and enforce procedures and reporting mechanisms to help keep harassment in check in 2019, and another earlier this year. Activists with the Fight for $15 campaign have also filed multiple rounds of complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“It’s like y’all are brushing this under the rug like it never happened. So I said, no, it’s not going to happen anymore. I will not allow this to happen to anybody else,” one complainant previously told Intelligencer.
Over time, McDonald’s stumbled performatively in the general direction of a solution. Last year, it created a sexual-harassment training program for workers. But the company has a long way to go before it copes with the problem it’s created. As Covert notes, that training program is required only for workers in corporate-owned franchises — a tiny fraction of McDonald’s restaurants overall. Privately owned franchises can exercise their discretion, much as they can with the company’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Workers still get harassed, like they still get sick from COVID, and the company counts its profits, seemingly unconcerned.
The cracks in McDonald’s family-friendly edifice are large. So large that anyone from a predatory supervisor in Michigan to the CEO of the company can tumble right through them. The vehemence with which the company now pursues its erstwhile chief executive can be understood as a tacit admission of fault. They let Easterbrook skate, and he made them look stupid; now they want payback. If the details in the company’s lawsuit are correct, Easterbrook does owe them. But the company owes workers a debt of its own that it shows no inclination to pay.