McDonald’s board of directors ousted the fast-food, burger chain’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook. The board, according to a company statement, said he "demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee."
This is part of a growing trend in corporate ethics and responsibility, in which the CEO is being held more accountable than ever before. In several recent pieces, I covered the removal of roughly one dozen CEOs of major global corporations. In almost all instances, the incumbent CEOs were let go or pressured to leave.
Up until very recently, becoming a CEO was synonymous with being the king of the castle. They held power, influence and were largely above reproach. CEOs earned substantial fortunes in compensation, controlled their board of directors and some were even viewed as rock stars. These days are over—at least for now.
In this instance, it appears that McDonald’s exercised a zero-tolerance policy, with respect to its rules regarding workplace relationships—particularly those between a manager and subordinate. As a sign of the change, Microsoft founder and former CEO, Bill Gates, married a product manager at the company, Melinda French, in 1994. This was not seen as a problem or matter of concern at the time.
The current president of McDonald’s USA, Chris Kempczinksi, was named CEO, effective immediately. Kempczinski was invited to join the board as well. “Kempczinski succeeds Steve Easterbrook, who has separated from the company following the board's determination that he violated company policy and demonstrated poor judgment.”
Easterbrook, who is divorced, stated, "As for my departure, I engaged in a recent consensual relationship with an employee, which violated McDonald's policy." Easterbrook continued, "This was a mistake. Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on. Beyond this, I hope you can respect my desire to maintain my privacy."
McDonald’s is well known for its family-friendly advertising campaigns. The restaurant chain promotes its image as a wholesome place for families to enjoy a quick and inexpensive meal together. It appears that an intra-company relationship does not connect with the fast-food brand.
By all accounts, Easterbrook was highly successful as the CEO. It doesn't seem that the relationship was an excuse to fire a poor performer. He served as CEO since March 2015 and served at the company since 1993. Easterbrook was the global chief brand officer, president of McDonald's Europe and CEO of McDonald's U.K. He also spent some time as a restaurant manager at the chain.
Under Easterbrook’s stewardship, McDonald’s expanded and rapidly remodeled stores to include digital menu boards and artificial intelligence to improve the drive-thru experience and enhance sales. McDonald's sales had been growing under Easterbrook’s leadership and Wall Street even approved. The stock price doubled since he took over as CEO.
Terminating a CEO who was viewed as successful, improved sales, innovated and greatly enhanced shareholder value is a testament to the trend of not tolerating CEOs who violate the rules.