McDonald’s HR chief exits in wake of CEO’s dismissal

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McDonald’s, which just announced the departure of its star chief executive officer, is also losing its top human resources manager as the fast-food chain navigates pressure from politicians and activists.

David Fairhurst, who carried the title of global chief people officer, left the company, according to an internal memo sent Monday by newly minted CEO Chris Kempczinski, who assumed the role vacated by Steve Easterbrook. Fairhurst had been with the chain for 15 years, and was promoted to the top HR job in 2015. The company declined to comment on the nature of his departure.

Human resources moves at McDonald’s draw more scrutiny than at other big corporations, because the world’s largest restaurant company is seen as a bellwether for labor issues. Its size has made it the principle target of groups like Fight for $15 and the American Civil Liberties Union, who say McDonald’s has tolerated workplace harassment and ignored safety issues. They say the company has failed to prevent misconduct including groping, inappropriate comments from supervisors and retaliation for speaking up.

Mason Smoot, a senior vice president who oversees strategic alignment and staff, has replaced Fairhurst on an interim basis.

Following an inquiry from U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth earlier this year, McDonald’s said it was training workers to deal with harassment and starting a hotline for victims, along with other measures. Easterbrook said in a letter to Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, that the changes create “a clear message that we are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected.”

See Also: Ousted McDonald’s CEO Gets to Keep $37 Million of Stock Awards

The pressure remains high, however, and there are signs that McDonald’s is taking note. The company recently said it will drop its resistance to laws raising the minimum wages -- a contrast from its past position on the issue.

‘Completely Transparent’

Fight for $15 said Easterbrook’s departure shows the company’s “culture is rotten from top to bottom.” The group called on McDonald’s to meet with victims of harassment and “put them at the center of any solution.”

The group also said McDonald’s needs to be “completely transparent about Easterbrook’s firing and any other executive departures related to these issues.”

Easterbrook left McDonald’s for having a consensual relationship with another worker. The increased attention that McDonald’s faces on labor and harassment issues likely limited the company’s room to maneuver -- even for the CEO that guided the stock to outperform most of the S&P 500 during his tenure.

“If the CEO is allowed in engage in policy violations on this topic, the message to employees and to other stakeholders is that McDonald’s is not really committed to providing those protections promised in the policies,” said Lynne Anne Anderson, a partner at Drinker Biddle who advises companies and represents them in misconduct cases. “The level of conduct that is being required from executives in this #MeToo era is to set the tone and to lead by example.”

‘Me Too McDonald’s’

Despite McDonald’s new policies aimed at protecting workers and eliminating harassment, the pressure hasn’t relented.

At the Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum in New York last month, Kempczinski, then head of U.S. operations, was interrupted as he spoke about McDonald’s being a “responsible actor.” Protesters chanted “Me Too McDonald’s, Me Too McDonald’s,” startling Kempczinksi.

“So I think that’s the MeToo movement,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience, before referring to the company’s “whole initiative” to address safety and harassment. He said he was proud of McDonald’s work on topics like climate change and workplace safety, while acknowledging that “there’s a lot of different voices out there.”

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