Steve Easterbrook, an Englishman in Chicago, had to find out the hard way that America is no longer the land of the free — or, in his case, free love.
The former McDonald’s CEO was recently fired for having a relationship with a company employee. The relationship was consensual but, unfortunately, Steve had forgotten to run his plan d’amour by, and get permission from, his human resources department before steaming ahead.
You’d think that after growing up in the land of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, such a funny move would have come naturally to Easterbrook. The blow to his career was cushioned, however, by a sizable golden parachute that allowed him a very soft landing outside the premises of “Things that make you go MMMMMM!” (which, and I am not making this up, used to be McDonald’s slogan in the UK).
Last month, though, Easterbrook’s ex-employer learned that, shockingly, Easterbrook had conducted more than one unapproved relationship at work.
Board members felt deeply betrayed, clutched their pearls and, after regaining consciousness, decided to sue Easterbrook for the return of the parachute.
I continue to be baffled at the deep dives American businesses are taking into their employees’ private lives. Over the past years almost all enterprises, private and public, have established codes of conduct that tell their employees to lead a good life and report colleagues who don’t. Some are at the level of kindergarten pledges (be honest, don’t lie, don’t do harm) while others are dripping so heavily with righteousness that they sound like church catechisms.
And, in tune with the neo-Victorian zeitgeist, they all sound very matter-of-fact when it comes to regulating romance at the workplace.
Here is what McDonald’s has on its business conduct website: “Employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship. If you are either in a relationship or plan to enter into a relationship that may violate Company policies, you must advise your Human Resources Representative or Director immediately.”
Why am I so baffled? Because all of this would be absolutely illegal where I come from. Protection of privacy — not freedom of religion or the right to bear arms — ranks at the top of Germany’s bill of rights, which is not surprising after the country’s experience with privacy-wrecking totalitarian regimes, both fascist and communist. Your private life, including relationships, is nobody’s business, certainly not your employer’s — at least as long as there is no proven damage to the company’s interests.
A human resource department requesting to be informed about budding relationships between employees would be a laughing stock in any German court. It’s like arresting someone to prevent imaginary crimes from happening. Sound familiar? I bet it does to a lot of Japanese Americans.
Why are Americans willing to let companies control their love lives but consider a government mandate to wear masks during a pandemic as something straight from the Nazi toolbox?
Let’s discuss this mystery over a happy meal.
Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @HenningSchroed1.