'Highly damaging' | Damning claims of sexual assault & racism highlight 'deep-rooted' problems at McDonald's

Damning claims of sexual assault & racism highlight 'deep-rooted' problems at McDonald's

Damning allegations of sexual assault, harassment, racism and bullying among the McDonald’s UK ranks have been raised by more than 100 current and former employees.

A BBC expose released yesterday revealed claims of a ‘toxic culture’ behind the counters at the fast food giant, including shocking claims of teenaged girls being routinely groped and harassed, racial slurs and even an outbreak of a sexually transmitted infection at a branch in Northern Ireland - the result of multiple sexual relationships between colleagues.

"It's the expectation that if you work at McDonald's, you will be harassed," a 20-year-old former employee told the national broadcaster. The ex-worker reportedly quit working for the company after a male colleague in his 60s kept stroking her hair in a sexually suggestive way.

Worryingly, it has also been alleged that some managers ignored the concerns of several victims who spoke out.

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One woman was told to ‘ignore’ the sexual and racial harassment of an older male colleague - and action was reportedly only taken when the woman’s stepfather complained directly to McDonald’s HQ and to the police.

Several workers also told the BBC that when they made complaints to their managers, they weren’t sacked or seriously disciplined, but instead moved on to another branch.

McDonald’s has been no stranger to similar controversies in recent times. These new claims come just months ago after McDonald’s signed a pledge with the equality watchdog, amid concerns over how it has handled previous sexual harassment complaints made by UK staff.

The legally binding agreement, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), committed the firm to a number of measures to better protect workers in the UK, including communicating a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment, providing anti-harassment training to staff, and implementing effective policies to manage complaints.

The agreement was signed in February 2023, following allegations by workers at the fast-food chain’s US restaurants of sexual harassment in the workplace over several years and the company’s failure to deal with the issue.

It is not known how many current complaints were made in the UK, but the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) claimed in 2019 that more than 1,000 UK cases had been reported.

And in 2019, McDonald’s former chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, was fired after it was revealed he had inappropriate consensual relationships with McDonald's employees.

'No place in our society'

At the time of signing the legal pledge, Alistair Macrow, Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s in the UK & Ireland, said harassment and abuse had “no place in our society or at McDonald’s”.

“As one of the UK’s leading employers, the safety and wellbeing of our people is our absolute priority,” Macrow said.

“It is hugely important to me that everyone in our organisation feels safe, respected and included at all times – this is core to the values of our business.”

In light of the new reports, he issued a fresh statement reiterating there was "simply no place for harassment, abuse, or discrimination" at the company.

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"Every one of the 177,000 employees in McDonald's UK deserves to work in a safe, respectful and inclusive workplace. There are clearly instances where we have fallen short and for that we deeply apologise," Macrow said.

"We will investigate all allegations brought to us, and all proven breaches of our code of conduct will be met with the most severe measures we can legally impose, up to and including dismissal."

The EHRC also spoke out, saying it was “concerned to hear of these new allegations of sexual and racial harassment.”

“We will look at them closely in the context of our current legal agreement with McDonald’s to tackle sexual harassment of staff in its restaurants’, the organisation said in a statement, adding: “Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed at work by another employee, if the employer has not taken all possible steps to prevent it from happening."

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Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chairwoman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “There should be zero tolerance of sexual harassment in every organisation. I’m concerned at these new reports of harassment at McDonald’s, where we have an existing legal agreement in place to ensure their restaurants are safe places to work.

“McDonald’s have committed to make improvements to set an example for others to follow, in the hospitality industry and elsewhere.

“Every employer, no matter how big or small, is responsible for protecting its workforce. We’re determined to continue to crack down on illegal harassment at places of work.”

McDonald’s ‘must take a firm grip on the issue’

Stephen Woodhouse, a senior associate solicitor at Stephensons said the reports were “highly damaging” and exposed “serious problems with its workplace culture as well as its legal and ethical responsibility to protect employees from harm.”

Woodhouse said: “McDonald’s signed a legally binding pledge with the equality watchdog earlier this year to address concerns over how it handles claims of sexual harassment. However, the testimony of its workers identifies a potentially deep-rooted problem within the organisation. The allegations that staff are reporting discrimination to managers and no action is being taken is extremely concerning.

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“For many McDonald's employees, this is their first job and sadly it seems that for some it is a baptism of fire.

“McDonalds must now take a firm grip on this issue and make significant changes to improve its policies and its organisational approach to issues of harassment and discrimination.”

McDonald’s must recognise the impact of harassment on victims

David Miers, Consultant Solicitor, Setfords, said: "For the victims, the impact of the harassment will continue to invade their lives long after leaving their employment at Mcdonald's, after all, many of the victims are aged between 16-25 and likely saw their roles as a good first step on the employment ladder.

“That is why it is so important for companies to protect workers in the first place or be held vicariously liable if they do not.

It’s not just about holding the Corporation to account; justice is about recognising the impact the harassment has had (and will continue to have) on the victims’ mental health and ability to earn money in the future.

“Victims will likely have legal redress in both the employment tribunal and the County Court. Many victims may already be out of time to bring claims (typically a 3-month time limit in the employment tribunal) however would be claimants have up to 6 years to bring a claim for harassment in the county court."

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