The boss of McDonald’s in the UK says the fast-food chain is cracking down on harassment in its restaurants following a major investigation into the conduct of its employees.
A BBC expose published in July 2023 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 one branch, resulting from 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 was also alleged that some managers ignored the concerns of several victims who spoke out.
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.
The claims came just months 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.
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Naturally, there was an outcry from the public, politicians and campaigners for McDonald’s leadership to be held accountable over the widespread problem.
This week, McDonald’s UK & Ireland’s Chief Executive Alistair Macrow told MPs on the Business and Trade Select Committee that 18 people have so far been sacked following the summer expose.
He said that of the 407 employee complaints received, they have so far investigated 157. Of those, 17 related to sexual harassment have resulted in disciplinary action. Another nine related to bullying and one was in relation to racial harassment.
Macrow also stated that McDonald's UK was receiving between one and two complaints of sexual harassment a week.
"To give you a picture of what we see on an ongoing basis, we typically would see between 20 to 25 contacts per week, of which one or two would be sexual harassment" he told the committee.
Employers should take steps to stamp out harassment, HR expert warns
Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, says that while it was vital for employers to take action against individuals found to have committed harassment in the workplace, businesses must also be taking steps to prevent these acts from happening in the first place.
“Of course, appropriate action needs to be taken against employees who are found to have committed acts of harassment in the workplace” Palmer explains.
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“A full investigation, disciplinary hearing, and potential dismissal is the likely course of action for employers who find themselves in such situations.
“But it is important that businesses take a root and branch approach to eliminate such behaviour from occurring in the first place. Ensuring that harassment has no place in the business is better than having to pick up the pieces and potentially face employment tribunal claims.
“Employers should take steps to stamp out harassment in the workplace.”
What the law says
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers can be held legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed or discriminated against at work by a colleague.
The onus on employers is also going to be even greater in the coming months when the new law on harassment takes effect. Given that employment tribunals could increase awards by up to 25% where employers fail to prevent harassment in the workplace, once this new law is in force, this needs to be taken very seriously.
As such, Palmer states that all businesses should pro-actively review their policies on sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace and assess how aware employees are of them.
She says: “While a robust policy is the first step in preventing misconduct, organisations should also ensure they have a clear, zero-tolerance attitude towards this behaviour. Similarly, workplace training for managers and workers on how to manage, avoid and report inappropriate actions can go a long way in discouraging all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, as can providing effective support for affected employees.
“While it’s good to see that McDonald’s are taking these allegations seriously, the extent of the allegations uncovered by the BBC is extremely disturbing. It’s sad to see sexual harassment and bullying still prevalent in so many workplaces and is clear that there is a lot more work still to be done to ensure no workers are subject to inappropriate behaviours in the workplace.”