Lessons HR can learn from the McDonald's ‘toxic workplace culture’ complaints

Jenny Winstanley has some advice that HR and people teams can take from the issues currently facing the fast-food chain

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The issues facing McDonald’s in the UK seem to be growing rapidly following a BBC investigation that published its findings in July.

It reported that workers were subject to a toxic workplace culture and this is now resulting in now daily reports that claims of sexual assault, racism and bullying have not been taken seriously.

McDonald’s has one of the youngest workforces in the country, with around 130,000 people aged 16 to 25 being employed by the company.

Many of the claims are being made by young people, who are often experiencing their first job with the fast-food chain.

Alistair Macrow, the UK and Ireland chief executive of McDonald’s, set up an investigation following the BBC report.

When it was published, he released a statement saying: "The allegations I have heard this week are personally and professionally shocking. I would like to reiterate my unreserved apology to, and empathy with, all those affected in any way, and I commend their bravery in coming forward.

"We have clearly fallen short in some critical areas and I am determined to root out any behaviour or conduct that falls below the high standards of respect, safety and inclusion we demand of everyone at McDonald’s as detailed in our global brand standards."

He recently told the Business and Trade Select Committee that McDonald's UK had received hundreds of employee complaints of a varying nature since July.

Clearly this situation is being watched by other companies, to understand how they can avoid staff being subjected to similar situations in the workplace.

So what can businesses do to ensure they provide a duty of care to their workers?

Providing a safe working environment

The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 recently received Royal Assent and is expected to come into force in October 2024.

It places a statutory duty upon employers to take 'reasonable steps' to prevent sexual harassment of employees.

Never become complacent

When it comes to your brand and employer reputation, maintaining a positive culture is an ongoing activity and should be at the centre of your HR strategy.

‘All quiet on the home front’ doesn’t always mean that an organisation has no or few employee relations issues.

Sometimes a lack of issues can be the tell-tale sign which provides the greatest insight and should be a cause of concern, because it often means issues aren’t reported correctly or managers are dealing with them informally, which can lead to the business taking unnecessary risks. 

Investigate all issues

An employee may believe an issue that impacts them to be trivial, but the business has a duty to complete a full and thorough investigation despite the employee stating that they do not want to take a formal approach.

The findings of an investigation are key to understanding the root cause of issues and acting in a timely and appropriate way to avoid escalation.  

Get the training right

Ensure managers are trained in spotting the signs of poor culture, changes in employee behaviour and investigating issues, along with educating employees about the expectations they should have for colleague behaviour and reporting issues.

Employers should train their staff on the Equality Act 2010 and the types of discrimination and harassment that fall within it. Most employers will have an equal opportunities policy or an equality and diversity policy and often the policy will form the basis of a training session.

One reason why employers should ensure that this training takes place is because of what is called the ‘statutory defence’ to discrimination claims.

This is relevant where an employee brings a claim of discrimination or harassment in an employment tribunal alleging that one of the employer’s managers has been guilty of discrimination.

Supporting whistleblowing

Employers should not discourage whistleblowing of any level and must be aware that, once complaints like these are made, the complainant should not be subjected to unfair treatment because they have made the complaint.

Regular communication

Talking with employees through 1:1s, feedback sessions and even exit interviews is vital to ensure that insight is gathered from the workforce.

The main takeaways are:

  • Employees should always feel safe at work

  • No managers or employers should be harassing other employees using sexual conduct or otherwise 

  • Employees should report misconduct at the first signs of it

Employers must:

  • Deal with complaints of discrimination and harassment without delay

  • Carry out full and fair investigations and use the sanctions available to them

  • Provide discrimination and harassment training to staff on a regular basis

  • Ensure their policies are up to date – EDI, grievance, whistleblowing

  • Ensure staff are appropriately trained in how to deal with complaints of this nature

  • Provide training for all staff regarding EDI

  • Ensure that they not only have policies in place, but ensure the organisation truly reflects them.

Jenny Winstanley is the head of HR consultancy at employment law and HR firm AfterAthena