McDonald’s sues ex-CEO over CONSENSUAL flings: A virtue-signalling distraction for firm plagued with sex harassment probes?

McDonald’s is suing ex-CEO Stephen Easterbrook for allegedly concealing relationships with employees. Axed for a consensual fling last year, he’s an ideal distraction from the fast food giant’s larger sexual harassment problem.

The megachain has claimed that while Easterbrook admitted to one (consensual, non-physical) relationship with an employee when he was fired in November, he concealed three others — and destroyed evidence to cover his tracks, according to the lawsuit, revealed Monday in an SEC filing. He is accused of deleting sexually explicit photos and videos sent from corporate email accounts from his cell phone in order to keep them from investigators.

McDonald’s is using the latest accusations to attempt to claw back $670,000 the former exec received as part of his “without cause” separation agreement — the equivalent of 26 weeks salary — as well as compensatory damages. The company also wants to block him from exercising some $42 million in stock options, complaining he wouldn’t have been allowed to keep them had McDonald’s known about the other relationships prior to his firing and charging he “breached his fiduciary duties” as an officer of the corporation.

When he was terminated for the text- and video-based hookup last year, Easterbrook attested that there were no similar “instances.” Relationships between employees of different ranks are forbidden under McDonald’s company policy, though they are reportedly common.

However, the lawsuit alleges that after being tipped off that Easterbrook had had a sexual relationship with another employee, McDonald’s discovered he’d had not one but three such relationships in the year preceding his firing, even rewarding one of the employees he’d trysted with by giving her a restricted stock grant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Current CEO Chris Kempczinski condemned his predecessor’s alleged attempt to conceal his dalliances. “McDonald’s does not tolerate behavior from employees that does not reflect our values,” he said in a message to employees on Monday.

But this moral posturing over the ex-CEO’s indiscretions offers McDonald’s a welcome chance to grandstand, distracting from what is reportedly a widespread issue within the company. Just last week, the Nation ran an exhaustive cover story detailing sexual harassment allegations at McDonald’s restaurants in the US, and in May, the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) charged that sexual harassment was “systematic” and “rampant” throughout the company’s global fast food empire in a complaint filed with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Additionally, the Time’s Up legal defense fund filed 24 separate harassment complaints against McDonald’s last year, on the same day Brazilian authorities began probing the restaurant’s locations in that country over allegations of sexual assaults, racism, and promotions offered in exchange for sexual favors. Time’s Up also assisted in a $500 million class action lawsuit against McDonald’s in April for “systemic sexual harassment.” 

Because McDonald’s is a franchise, it has argued the company is not responsible for what happens at individual locations. 

But attacking the former CEO for consensual relationships while washing its hands of what the IUF called a “sexual harassment crisis” that is very much non-consensual comes off as tone-deaf and — given the hefty value of the stock options that could potentially end up back in McDonald’s hands — money-grubbing.

Already under fire for underpaying workers and continuing to serve up highly-processed, unhealthy food in a nation facing an unprecedented obesity crisis, McDonald’s certainly didn’t need another scandal. But attempting to reframe itself as a paragon of #MeToo virtue by suing its former CEO will not silence those demanding accountability for the fast food giant.

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