It has been just over two years since the widespread allegations of sexual abuse against film producer Harvey Weinstein effectively launched a whole new era, summed up by the hashtag #MeToo.

The movement has largely focused on non-consensual actions such as discriminatory treatment, sexual harassment and assault. However, recent developments have shown that there could be reason for concern even in instances where relationships between colleagues are consensual.

The case of McDonald’s and Steve Easterbrook

Late last year, US fast food giant McDonald’s fired the British businessman, Steve Easterbrook, who had served as its president and chief executive since 2015, after he had a relationship with an employee. While the corporation said the relationship was consensual, it added that he had “violated company policy” and shown “poor judgement”.

Mr Easterbrook delivered considerable success for the company over his four-year spell at the helm, with the corporation’s share price reportedly doubling during this time.

Details about the relationship were not disclosed. However, it appears that McDonald’s has a standard policy prohibiting dating or sexual relationships between employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship, and that it has decided to take a zero-tolerance approach.

What it could all mean for firms – including your own

Office romances are hardly a recent phenomenon, of course, and nor will Mr Easterbrook be the last employee to be involved in one. Indeed, it has been said that between a quarter and a third of all long-term relationships begin in the workplace.

In the #MeToo era, however, such relationships raise difficult questions, including whether they are ethical or should be characterised as misconduct, or even gross misconduct. In association with this, many have asked whether dismissals for behaviour like Mr Easterbrook’s will become more frequent.

#MeToo has undoubtedly served to heighten awareness of these issues, which may lead to the adoption of more hard-line approaches by employers. Furthermore, with many relationships today now starting online, one might ask whether the office romance will become less common, thereby encouraging employers to be less tolerant when issues with workplace relationships do occur.

There’s no question that relationships between workers are often problematic for employers. They can cause disruption and discomfort among co-workers, while also undermining team hierarchy and impacting on retention. Conflicts of interests can also arise, and if a workplace relationship ends badly, there can be a heightened risk of dispute and litigation.

Turn to London Registrars for the most informed assistance and advice  

Is this an area of concern for your own organisation, and are you presently considering the best ways for your firm to respond to the challenges that employee relationships can pose?

If so, you may wish to talk to the London Registrars team about how we can provide the business support services to help – including by assisting in the preparation of appropriate policies. Call 020 7608 0011 or email [email protected] today, to learn more about our specialist expertise.

11 March 2020