The McDonald's case shows that HR must help leaders tackle the causes of bullying

The shocking allegations of bullying, racism, abuse, and sexual harassment emerging from the BBC investigation into McDonald’s highlight why creating a culture of openness and transparency is essential in the modern workplace. 

Employees must feel empowered to come forward and report wrongdoing, and that comes from an understanding and expectation that action will be taken and why. 

Too often I see companies and leaders do the opposite, burying bad behaviour due to misplaced fear of ‘opening a can of worms’ or ‘encouraging employees to bring personal grievances into the workplace’.

It creates conditions where repeated behavioural breaches can thrive.

McDonald's sexual harassment alleged by staff

McDonald's under supervision from human rights watchdog

Why McDonald's is still getting it wrong on sexual harassment

Although McDonald's entered its legally binding agreement with EHRC with good intent, it has exposed examples where the opposite is happening.

Companies can be quick to say, 'we don't have a problem here', without seeking to find out or becoming blind to what really goes on. That needs to change.

I had a largely positive experience working as a senior manager at McDonald’s for seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s with responsibility for more than 70 staff across five restaurants.

It provided skills and opportunities I may not have had elsewhere at such an early age. 

It was a different time when sensibilities and social norms were not the same as they are now. That didn’t make the incidents of inappropriate behaviour, bullying, and even sexual harassment I witnessed any less wrong than they would be in a modern context

While these incidents were quickly and efficiently dealt with at the time – with those responsible dismissed – that’s where action ended. There was no communication with staff as to why those responsible had suddenly been let go.

No context or explanation was provided as to what they had done, or why it cannot be tolerated. 

It was an approach taken with good intentions, but it did not address root causes of these issues or help foster a culture where employees felt they would be listened to if they identified or reported inappropriate or unlawful behaviour. It’s an approach still prevalent in too many organisations today

The McDonald’s workforce is generally very young, and for most it will be their first part or full time job and step into a career.

There is an expectation of maturity in the workplace that does not necessarily reflect the stage of emotional development outside of work.

In that fast-paced, target driven, franchise environment, good role models are vital to establish the right behaviours and cultures – problems arise when the role models do the opposite.  

The company has strong management and leadership development programmes in place, but in my experience, these were very operationally focused, and did not cover developments in areas such as EDI or emotional support structures more commonplace today. There was too much focus on policy and procedure, but not always on the tactical element – how these issues would play out in real life. 

To create a culture where people learn the right behaviours, leaders must put the uncomfortable subjects on the kitchen table.

Employees must be able to engage with them and ask questions. Dismissal without explanation does not work. A round robin email won’t cut it. It must be two-way, employees need to know they’ll be listened to. 

A company we worked with recently arranged a town hall style meeting to discuss a dismissal. That kind of approach encourages a culture where employees can come forward so that issues can be nipped in the bud. I’m reminded of the message on the London Underground – see it, say it, sort it. 

HR professionals have an important role to play in guiding leaders towards creating this culture of openness. Leaders will often push back initially, but they must be educated on the benefits, from the obvious reduction in incidents of inappropriate behaviour, to lowering of staff turnover and helping attract and retain higher calibre staff. 

The McDonald’s investigation highlighted significant issues within the business, but the steps they need to take to address them serve as a lesson to all of us.

Colin Lamb is founder and CEO of leadership consultancy Connect Three