Written by Mark Stretton
5 min read

Accusations of sexual assault, harassment, racism and bullying put McDonald’s in the headlines this week. Fleet Street CEO Mark Stretton shares his thoughts on the reputational damage and how the burger behemoth dealt with the crisis.

In terms of brand transformation, there are few organisations that have come as far as McDonald’s.

Not so long ago, in an era of McJobs and Super-Size Me, the world’s biggest burger business was arguably synonymous with dead-end jobs and the sort of food that, in polite society, many would not admit to eating, and was considered really bad for you.

Today, in many ways, McDonald’s serves as the standard setter and quality barometer, beneath which no other hospitality business or food brand can operate – be it for food quality (at the price point) and value for money or restaurant standards, its sustainable and ethical supply chain, its dedication to training and development, or the continual work it does to better its people proposition.

In the current, ever-expanding era of responsible business, its work in sustainability and purpose, is impressive. It is clearly forging a leadership position, and its dedicated Plan for Change website is worth a visit for anyone in hospitality and leisure,with more than a passing interest in these issues.

All this said, some of the hard-won reputational sheen came off this week when an investigation by the BBC revealed some deeply troubling allegations around the experiences of UK workers. More than 100 current and recent employees (many of whom worked at franchisee-operated stores) complained of sexual assault, harassment, racism and bullying.

The franchise defense

It would have been easy for McDonald’s to lean into the complexities of the franchise model to absolve it of any wrongdoing in response. The business should be commended for not taking this route. However, given that few companies have been better at distilling processes, and simplifying operations (on a journey to creating a world-dominating franchise system), some consumers may ask why the same care hasn’t been taken for its workforce.

It is clearly a complex issue, and what matters is how McDonald’s reacted. Faced with this damning evidence, the business took control of the narrative. From the outset, it demonstrated how seriously it took the allegations, acknowledged the veracity of some of the claims and apologised.

Visibly led by UK chief executive Alistair Macrow, the business quickly set out its corporate position: zero tolerance for the alleged behaviour. It spoke about carrying out a full investigation with the strongest possible consequences for anybody found guilty of wrongdoing. It also demonstrated measures already put in place to create a safe and respectful workplace.

Of course, in reality, the only way to deliver meaningful change in the scenario whereby part of a brand is run or delivered via a franchising system is to make zero tolerance a necessary and measurable non-negotiable of the relationship.

For now, its fast and sure response to this point has given McDonald’s time to investigate, take action and, eventually, move on – and this is critical, not just for the brand but for the wider hospitality sector too. The whole industry is moving (and has to move) towards the issues, although progress arguably feels slow.

Workforce issues

As hospitality faces into ongoing workforce challenges, amid a widespread desire to see the perceptions of careers elevated, this story must not be allowed to pass without all operators taking stock of where they are on the issues raised. They should also take the opportunity to clearly communicate, or reinforce, to their employees an unwavering commitment to safeguarding people, and to delivering safe workplaces.

In an industry employing millions of people of all ages; where many work odd or long hours, late at night, in small teams and in entrepreneurial companies; in “social” settings like bars and restaurants; with high staff turnover rates, and therefore constant training required; the industry should not kid itself that what happened this week was necessarily just a company specific, or isolated instance.

It is a good time for the industry to get on the front foot, to demonstrate it is doing everything in its power to stamp out unacceptable and toxic behaviour, and to deliver a progressive, warm and inclusive industry,where everyone is welcome.

Aligning to the issues positively is powerful. There are some great initiatives out there such as #ItStopsWithMe, supported by a clutch of blue-chip brands including Aldi, Budweiser, Deliveroo and Nestle.

Responsible businesses

For some, it may seem crass to discuss anything other than the deeply concerning personal impact that these alleged abuses at McDonald’s will have had on many young people. However, through the lens of a corporate perspective, it’s important to frame these issues in the era of “responsible business” in which all brands and businesses now operate.

Consumers increasingly judge companies not just on the brand they’ve built or service they provide, but also how they look after and grow their people, how they imbed in communities and what they’re doing to unwind the climate crisis. It’s about how brands and businesses show up in society.

Many hospitality and leisure businesses are accelerating their work in these areas. However, this week clearly represents another important moment for management teams in this industry to take stock; to reflect, reassess and react to the important issues raised. Business leaders understand the imperative nature of delivering a safe workplace for all; the challenge is ensuring it happens across every shift and for every colleague, in a complex, dynamic and ever-changing industry. The key question has to be: is every business doing enough?

 This piece first appeared in Propel Friday Opinion on 21st July 2023.

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