McDonald’s Sues Its Ex-Chief

Thom Weidlich 08.13.20


Last November we and many others praised McDonald’s after it fired Steve Easterbrook, its CEO since 2015, for having a consensual relationship with an employee. This week, the burger chain is eating up new accolades because it’s gone ahead and sued the former leader.

In its Aug. 10 lawsuit, Mickey D’s accuses Easterbrook of lying about sexual relationships with three other employees. He had been fired “without cause,” meaning he kept his generous severance. But now the company says that, given the new information, it should have axed him for cause. It wants its money back.

In our post last year, we noted that Easterbrook’s firing was part of a trend of crisis-related executive exoduses. That includes, in this #MeToo era, over sexual misconduct. McDonald’s was lauded for being forthright in a press release about the reason for its action.

The legal complaint is yet further evidence that the time of downplaying such accusations is ending.

“The lawsuit represents an extraordinary departure from the traditional disclose-it-and-move-on decorum that American corporations have often embraced when confronted with allegations of wrongdoing by senior executives,” The New York Times wrote.


McDonald’s does not tolerate behavior from any employee that does not reflect our values.

— McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski

The issue goes to the importance a company places on its culture and the needs of employees and customers. The Times quoted an internal memo from current CEO Chris Kempczinski: “McDonald’s does not tolerate behavior from any employee that does not reflect our values.”

Public Communication

One disappointment: The company (despite the leaked memo) hasn’t explained its latest initiative through a public communication. It would be better counseled to do so; it needs to express these views to its customers. As far as we can tell, Easterbrook, who last year wrote a memo to employees admitting his one mistake, also hasn’t commented on the suit.

McDonald’s says it uncovered Easterbrook’s further misconduct after it got an anonymous tip last month and started a second investigation. For a company to have to launch two probes into the same matter is unusual (it’s like getting your first crisis statement wrong and having to issue updates or even corrections — not a good practice). The Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 11 that investors are grumbling that McDonald’s should have unearthed Easterbrook’s other infractions earlier.

Still, for corporate communicators, especially those in publicly traded companies, the McDonald’s lawsuit makes clear that any attempt to hide an executive’s misbehavior will not be welcomed by the public.

Photo Credit: McDonald’s

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