4 things McDonald’s must do to tackle its toxic workplace culture

The sexual harassment scandal engulfing the restaurant chain is a reminder that quality control should extend to people as well as products
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McDonald’s is in a mess. More than 100 former and current employees at the fast food giant in the UK have claimed they have been victims of sexual harassment and bullying, according to a BBC investigation. Since the results of that investigation were published, more people have also come forward.

“Being shouted at, intimidated or sexually harassed was common,” one former McDonald’s crew member, who was based in Scotland, recalled. She said that one colleague was “particularly aggressive, and at one point, threatened a group of girls working in the store, including me, with slitting our throats.”

Another, who was based in Berkshire, lamented the lewd behaviour of some male managers. “They’d grope stomachs, waists and bums,” she revealed. “Every shift I worked, there would be at least one [inappropriate] comment made.”

Other allegations arising from the BBC’s probe included managers taking drugs while on-shift, racism and physical assaults. Across different McDonald’s locations, victims alleged, the company did not take complaints seriously due to cronyism among its senior staff. Many incidents were dismissed as “banter”, the investigation found, and disciplinary action was rarely upheld.

The UK boss, Alistair Macrow, has issued a public apology. He also pledged to conduct an internal review of workplace practices. But this is just the latest scandal around workplace culture to engulf McDonald’s, after its CEO Steve Easterbrook was fired four years ago over sexual relationships he had with colleagues, while the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union said five years ago that it had received more than 1,000 complaints about sexual harassment.

The company may have signed an agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to protect staff from such abuse, but it appears there is a culture where this is not taken seriously, and that McDonald’s needs to address. Here are four steps it can take:

Appoint external consultants

Given the depth and breadth of the BBC’s investigation and the numerous tales of due process being dismissed, it seems fair to say that McDonald’s has forfeited the right to lead its own introspection. What’s to say that it won’t soon dismiss the BBC’s findings as “banter”, too? An external body, with experience of overhauling large organisations, needs to be viewed as a necessary investment, rather than an inconvenience. An apology has been issued, but do the higher-ups at McDonald’s really understand what they are apologising for? This deep-seated problem is not something that can be fixed with a finger-wag and a few corporate videos. McDonald’s needs to implement a long-term HR strategy, overseen by experts and regularly audited by its own staff through feedback.

Reassure staff, particularly young people

McDonald’s is one of the largest private sector employers in the UK and has one of the youngest workforces. It employs more than 170,000 mostly part-time or seasonal staff – many of whom are students on zero-hour contracts – across its nearly 1,500 locations. Staff, and in particular young people, need the reassurance that if they do have a complaint it will be taken seriously. McDonald’s could look into peer-to-peer schemes, such as mentoring or a buddy system. The company also needs to signpost a complaints procedure as soon as it hires someone, regardless of whether they are a full- or part-time employee. Too often people don’t report incidents, because they are worried about losing their job. McDonald’s needs to make it company policy that won’t be the case.

Make sure quality control extends to people, as well as products

More than 90% of McDonald’s restaurants in the UK are franchises. While the company conducts regular audits of its franchises on health and safety standards, ingredients and cooking techniques, the same scrutiny needs to be applied to employee performance – particularly those with management responsibilities. Again, it might make sense for these to be reviewed externally. The importance of pastoral care and being a collaborative, courteous and kind colleague must be stressed from the day of appointment. McDonald’s could factor this into its hiring process, with interview questions designed to gauge personality, as much as someone’s ability to operate a machine. Indeed, given McDonald’s reliance on short-term labour, the company would do well to ensure it is perceived positively by job-seekers. With ESG credentials of increasing importance to consumers and prospective employees alike, it would do McDonald’s no favours to be perceived as a firm that does not value its people.

Adopt a genuinely zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour

Another former McDonald’s employee, who was based in Birmingham, told the BBC that she was smacked on her bottom by a male colleague while she was a teenager. Despite immediately reporting it to her manager and the incident being caught on CCTV, she said she was forced to continue working with him, which made her so uncomfortable that she eventually chose to leave her job. If McDonald’s is serious about improving as an employer, then, bluntly, it must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate behaviour. There should be clear guidelines on what staff can or cannot do or say. When someone engages in unwanted physical contact with a colleague, they should not be keeping their job. This is not a radical position to take. Sacking people is never ideal. But if Macrow’s claim that McDonald’s is “simply no place for harassment, abuse or discrimination” is to be believed, then the company needs to get tough on those who undermine it. That should also go as far as terminating franchises where necessary. Franchises can lose their licence for not serving the right menus or using the correct marketing collateral. The same should be true if they do not follow labour laws and don’t take sexual harassment, bullying and abuse seriously.