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

McDonald's anti-sexual harassment pledge with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), though laudable in principle, misses the mark.

The fast food chain went public in February with its tough stance on sexual harassment in the workplace, promising a no-nonsense position by signing a legally binding pledge with the human rights watchdog.

The drastic action came after the UK’s Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union claimed that in 2019 alone there had been more than 1,000 cases of sexual harassment among McDonald’s staff.

Sexual harassment was “rife” said the union, a result of “a system of zero-hours contracts, when crew members must depend on the good will of managers to be allocated hours, when low pay is endemic and working women are expected to live pay cheque to pay cheque, when there’s a culture of cover up with the use of NDAs."

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The pledge to the EHRC means a commitment to improving practices around how cases are dealt with, including: communicating a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment among workers; carrying out an anonymous survey of workers about workplace safety; and delivering anti-harassment training for employees; and training for managers on identifying areas of risk.

But what does a zero-tolerance position actually mean? No one would disagree that sexual harassment – or bullying or abuse of any kind – should in any way be tolerated in the workplace.

A review of policies and staff awareness of them is a start. But it’s only the practice and look and feel of delivery of zero-tolerance among employees that means anything.

In itself, all that a hardline approach does is raise the stakes. It makes it even tougher for employees to speak out, particularly in a zero-hours setting or anywhere where staff feel insecure about their roles and prospects.

When disclosures or complaints bring so much danger to careers, it encourages bullies to work harder at staying under the radar and operate in more subtle and discreet ways.

Employees who believe they’re being harassed or bullied keep it to themselves because they can’t imagine a positive resolution, it involves too much potential for blame on both sides.

What’s needed is the rebuilding of trust and confidence in management and each other.

Workplaces need to be willing to open up, encourage more honesty, more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality.

That doesn’t mean more cases of whistleblowing, but making constructive forms of challenge a normal and healthy part of the workplace culture.

Having these kinds of clear-air cultures in the workplace is important for supporting good everyday working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early.

There’s a positive cycle where staff at all levels know there will be conversations – mature, open, constructive conversations – about their experience and what’s appropriate and what might need to change.

On a basic level, HR teams need to ensure there are clear policies in place around any kind of grievance or conflict in order to respond quickly and build trust.

Employees have to feel total confidence in the organisation’s response; that they will be listened to and their concerns dealt with appropriately; that there are trained staff able to provide mediation if necessary; and if the situation demands it, there will be an investigation, carried out professionally and impartially; and that their department is fair and reasonable in everything it does.

Dramatic announcements from the top of organisations look like they galvanise action.

But culture change takes time, and rather than a crackdown, there always needs to be a more human-shaped response that appreciates the complexity of working lives and relationships and allows for flexibility and a rebuilding of real trust in each other.

Arran Heal is managing director at workplace relationships consultancy CMP