How McDonald’s Can Course Correct After The Sexual Harassment Scandal

The world’s largest food chain has been facing internal challenges when it comes to corporate purpose. While McDonald’s has taken concerted efforts over the last several years to address sustainability issues like packaging, climate resiliency, and emissions reductions targets, it’s in hot water in regards to social responsibility.

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McDonald’s workers recently held a strike to confront the company’s lack of attention to sexual harassment. This apparent lack of internal accountability around sexual harassment shows a missing link in McDonald’s’ corporate culture. McDonald’s claims to already have sexual harassment protocol in place; however, this methodology is clearly not working. McDonald’s representatives defended the company by referencing policies in place and an effort to seek expert consult from organizations like Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

While working with a nonprofit to address sexual harassment is a step in the right direction and may help with McDonald’s image, further work is needed to shift corporate culture. To be a truly accountable leader, McDonald’s must address purpose from the inside out. By creating teams based on respect, a shared mission, individual empowerment and employee respect, McDonald’s can strengthen its employee base and its public image.

Key steps brands must take to address sexual harassment and cultivate a more purposeful culture:

  1. Ensure senior leadership is committed: When the leaders of a company dedicate time and resources to addressing social issues, employees and mid-level management see that the company is taking it seriously. Without buy-in from C suite executives, you run the risk that staff members will shirk off purpose-driven initiatives as lip service. If McDonald’s is going to truly address systemic sexual harassment, the senior leadership must make a stand internally to demonstrate they mean business. Demonstrations can start with conversations and internal emails to the entire staff. Ultimately, the first step to addressing sexual harassment is for senior leadership to take an internal and public stand for justice.

2. Build a purposeful business framework: While talking about sexual harassment protocol and a culture of respect is important, the company must take it further to ensure the alleged behavior doesn’t persist. It’s critical to have proper systems put into place to avoid sexual harassment and address issues if they arise. To do this, McDonald’s must have clearly defined protocol that outlines consequences for unacceptable behavior. Consequences should include anti-harassment classes, suspension without pay, and, if behavior persists, termination. The framework should also include courses for employees who could be subject to sexual harassment. This means training people on how to address sexual harassment and where to turn if they need help. Strikers demanded a national Council of McDonald’s workers and anti-harassment training. The outraged staff also want a more robust response system put into place to address sexual harassment cases. Ultimately, McDonald’s must institute a more robust framework for addressing sexual harassment.

3. Support grassroots organizers: While its important for the C-suite and board to lead with purpose from the top, it’s equally as important to have local champions to ensure policies are implemented. Employees leading the strike are demanding a national council of McDonald’s workers composed of employees, corporate executives, franchisers and members of women’s rights nonprofits. Picketers are also combining the effort with the Fight for $15, which is working to raise the national minimum wage. This effort would organize McDonald’s workers in what would essentially be a union. A union style entity would increase employee bargaining power and representation at both national and local levels. Financial instability is highly correlated with sexual harassment, as victims often fear losing their job if they speak up about abuse. In fact, a recent study found that 40 percent of fast-food workers said they experienced sexual harassment on the job and 42 percent feared losing their jobs if they reported the issue. A national workers’ committee would improve employee representation and reduce the risk for employees who report harassment. Essentially, supporting employee representation in key decision making and enforcement procedure is critical to establishing an equitable corporate culture.

4. Adopt long-term perspectives: If McDonald’s heeds the picketers requests, they may have to pay their employees more; however, it will improve their public image and make their company more attractive to employees and prospects. Today’s consumers are increasingly aware of the impact company’s have on their employees, communities and the planet. It may be costly upfront to put in the work necessary to make institutional changes that support more responsible business practices. However, these changes lay the groundwork for long term growth and improve brand image for years to come.

While McDonald’s is making a concerted effort to address environmental issues, it has more work to do if it hopes to build a transparent and accountable corporate culture. To address sexual harassment and strengthen internal culture overall, McDonald’s senior leadership must ensure that franchise managers and all employees know the company is ready to take harassment seriously. Additionally, the fast-food chain must implement and enforce anti-harassment procedures, support employee representation on a national level via an employee-led committee, and put in the institutional policies now to course correct the company for years to come.

Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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