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How McDonald’s can avoid future accusations of sexual harassment, racism and bullying

The issue involves a global brand relying on its management and franchisees to maintain the culture and behaviour the ‘golden arches’ deserves and has worked hard to build and develop. 

Working at McDonald’s was seen as an entry level career option, suitable for students and those looking for a stepping stone to greater things.

However, over recent years McDonald’s has taken steps to adjust its customer and employer brand. 

Earlier this year McDonald’s signed a legally binding agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in which it pledged to protect its staff from sexual harassment, and claimed to enjoy a strong track record in this area.

More on harassment allegations:

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McDonald's under supervision from human rights watchdog

These recent and further allegations could set it back massively.

A place of work should be a safe place to go. Free from the risk of violence, harassment or assault. That’s the bare minimum an employer should ensure.

However, the reports by the BBC highlighted serious concerns in relation to complaints about racism, sexual harassment, sexual assault and homophobia.

Over an investigation lasting for five months, 100 allegations were made by employees, of which 31 related to sexual assault and 78 related to sexual harassment. Now hundreds more allegations are emerging.

It was reported that managers across UK locations were responsible for the alleged harassment and assaults, and that senior management did nothing about it.

The allegations are well timed following news that the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 had received Royal Assent.

The bill is expected to come into force in October 2024, and places a statutory duty on employers to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment of employees. 

But what does ‘reasonable steps’ mean, and in light of the McDonald’s investigation, how can businesses ensure that they provide a culture which is free from sexual harassment, bulling and discrimination?

‘Reasonable’ will very much depend on the nature, size of the business and the resources available. 

However, the first step has to be an assessment of the current risks along with understanding the culture at the heart of the business – you need to understand what’s broken before you can fix it.

Following this, consider how employees can report complaints, anonymously if necessary, and how these reports are recorded and handled.

Awareness and training are a must for all employees and managers to ensure that inappropriate behaviour is ended immediately, and a safe and inclusive culture thrives.

McDonald’s’ employees complained of being afraid to go to work, managers turning a blind eye, and training not being taken seriously.

Let’s consider these three issues and why they are of concern to any employer.


Being afraid to go to work

Nobody should be afraid to go to work. This is especially the case when the cause of that fear is harassment by management. 

A fear of going to work is unproductive for an employer because it can lead to employees not attending and cause staffing issues. How does an employer remedy this situation?

The employer must understand what’s causing the employee to be off work, usually through the use of welfare meetings, and consider what can be done to remove that barrier. 

In cases of harassment this would likely form the basis for a grievance and a conscientious employer would investigate and take necessary action, including providing training, disciplining and even dismissing those responsible.

Employees being afraid to attend work can also lead to reputational damage. Employees might tell other staff, friends outside of work or family, creating a negative image of the company. 


Managers turning a blind eye

As mentioned above, it’s important that companies manage complaints of harassment and sexual harassment thoroughly and efficiently.

This requires managers to be available for employees to speak with and share the relevant information.

It appears in the case of McDonald’s that the managers were a major part of the problem and it seems more senior managers did not understand there was an issue to address or looked the other way.

If a company should have identified a situation where managers were involved in the sexual harassment of employees, which appears to be the case here, this is clearly grounds for the employer to take disciplinary action and potentially dismiss for gross misconduct.

It’s important to investigate thoroughly in such cases and just because someone is accused, doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. The investigation should consider:

  • How detailed is the complaint? The more detailed the more likely it is to be true.
  • Has there been a delay? If there is a delay in bringing the complaint, why?
  • Are there other complainants to corroborate the allegations by perhaps giving examples of similar conduct?
  • Is there CCTV footage?
  • Are there any witnesses of the alleged conduct?

The more information a complainant can provide and the more evidence there is to back it up, the more likely it is that the allegations are accurate.

Otherwise, it could be one word against the other, with the alleged harasser denying all knowledge.

In an employment setting the employer only needs to show they have a reasonable belief that gross misconduct has taken place in order to dismiss. It doesn’t have to be proven beyond doubt.


Training not being taken seriously

In the same way they’re training to build a Big Mac, make fries or serve customers, employees should also have training on the Equality Act 2010 and the types of discrimination and harassment within it.

Most employers will have an equal opportunities policy or an equality and diversity policy, and often the policy will form the basis of a training session. 

Another reason why employers should make sure that this training occurs is because of the ‘statutory defence’ to discrimination claims.

This is relevant where an employee brings a claim of discrimination or harassment in an employment tribunal alleging that one of the employer’s managers has been guilty of discrimination. 

As the manager is an employee of the employer, the employer will ultimately be liable for that discrimination and the manager won’t be personally liable.

However, if an employer can show that they’ve taken all reasonable steps to stop such conduct taking place, for example by providing training on what is and isn’t acceptable at work in terms of discrimination and harassment, then the employer won’t be liable. This is the statutory defence.

This training should take place on a regular basis, and employment tribunals have refused to allow this defence where there was too much of a gap between training sessions, not deemed to be reasonable. I would suggest once a year is acceptable. 

If McDonald’s put this training in place for staff but it was not taken seriously, this could lead to the statutory defence failing because taking all reasonable steps would include taking the training seriously and making sure staff take the training seriously.

Many employers fail when it comes to providing sufficient training for staff in relation to discrimination and harassment.

The provisions of the Equality Act 2010 are some of the most difficult for employers to deal with when it comes to protecting staff. It’s often one word against the other and difficult to tell which version of events is correct. 

The main takeaways from the McDonald’s case are:

  • Employees should always feel safe at work.
  • No managers or employers should be harassing other employees using sexual conduct or otherwise.
  • Employees should report the first signs of misconduct.
  • Employers should deal with complaints of discrimination and harassment without delay.
  • Employers should carry out full and fair investigations and use the sanctions available to them.
  • Employers should provide discrimination and harassment training to staff on a regular basis.

Jenny Winstanley is head of HR consultancy at employment law and HR firm AfterAthena