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Former McDonald's CEO Gets to Keep His Classroom. What's His Lesson?

Sarah Green Carmichael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Steve Easterbook, the now-former CEO of McDonalds, will retain his role as a visiting fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, reports Business Insider. At first blush this may seem deliciously ironic — a corporate titan, fired for having a relationship with a subordinate, giving lectures on PR! But I’d be more interested in hearing what he has to say now than I would have been before his ouster.

Think about it. Who better to give lectures on corporate reputation than someone who has stumbled? Too many of these lectures are full of pious platitudes from people with squeaky-clean pasts. It’s like a nun giving a lecture on sex education. (No offense to nuns.) It would be more educational to hear from someone who has faced the public spotlight’s unforgiving glare, someone who has made mistakes and lived to learn from them.

Moreover, while the McDonald’s board was right to show Easterbrook the door for violating company policy — which unambiguously forbids leaders from having romantic relationships with subordinates, whether they’re direct reports or not — there’s been no indication that this relationship was otherwise improper. A single man having a consensual relationship is not the kind of thing that should get one blacklisted from every corporate board or side project, even if it did violate the organization’s rules.

But it’s very easy for confounding factors to cloud this particular case. First, there are our still-raw feelings over #MeToo.

For corporate America, #MeToo provided catharsis. For too long, too many women had been belittled, intimidated and violated. Too many powerful men had been protected, often at great cost to their firms. Too many good guys were oblivious to what was happening.

#MeToo is also what social scientists call a “norms cascade” (a useful phrase I learned from law professor Joan Williams). What used to be OK suddenly isn’t anymore, and now no one knows how to act. It’s natural, after a norms cascade, to question which behaviors should be jettisoned and which are still acceptable. So it’s healthy to take stock of things like consensual work relationships with power differentials, which can be tricky to navigate even in the best cases.

But we can’t forget that #MeToo was about harassment, not sex. It might seem that a great way to eliminate harassment would be to ban sex, but they’re two different things. And given that about a third of people have dated a coworker — and about one in three of them ended up getting married — I hope no overzealous compliance officer tries anything as silly as banning workplace romances entirely. Finding love is hard enough already.

The second confounding factor in Easterbrook’s case is executive compensation. In an era of well-publicized income inequality, lots of us have capital-F Feelings about CEO pay. Much has been made of Easterbook’s $42 million going-away gift from McDonalds, a company where burger-flippers can earn less than $10 an hour.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO compensation is up almost a thousand percent since 1978, while worker pay has risen only 12%. CEOs today earn more than 200 times what the typical schmo earns — even as recently as 1989, they made only 58 times as much.

It makes sense that the rest of us might feel a certain schadenfreude when CEOs stumble. After all, sanctimony is one of life’s free pleasures. It also seems reasonable to hold chief executives to a relatively high standard of behavior, perhaps one that’s approximately 58 times higher than what goes for the rest of us.

Even so, for Easterbrook, losing such a high-profile job is surely punishment enough. Let the man keep his Oxford lecturing side-hustle. He probably has more insight to share now than he did a couple of weeks ago.

To contact the author of this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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