"His private life should remain private!"

Victoria Lewis




The newspapers are full of the dismissal of Steve Easterbook, Chief Executive of McDonalds, today. Working at my desk with a radio phone-in on in the background, people are calling in ....

  • "there's no deceit";
  • "it's consensual";
  • "power is something in the mind .... you're employed by the Company not by the boss";
  • "he's divorced";
  • "I married my boss".

And so it goes on. 

But let's look at the detail. There was a policy prohibiting relationships at work, he had not disclosed this relationship to the board (early on) as the policy dictated, and as the CEO, it is the ultimate power dynamic. He was the face of the business. A culture carrier. How does a company uphold its policies if its leaders do not abide by them? 

Perhaps for me though it is Mr Easterbrook's own comment in his email to staff that rang most true: “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on” .  One of McDonald's values is "Responsible Leadership". 

Given that I spend the majority of my working hours thinking and talking about how people interact at work,  I'm often asked whether it is ok to date a colleague. At the heart of this issue, is not whether it is more likely or not that one can find a partner at work, it's about the accountability that leaders and managers (and everyone) has to reflect on how their behaviour might be viewed, and who by. At byrne·dean we ask participants in our training sessions to think about the lenses through which their behaviour or actions may be viewed. To go wider than they usually do. Responsible Leadership is underpinned by the concept of accountability. Accountability is about answerability - it's not just responsibility, it's about how you might explain your behaviour or decisions to the person or body that is observing you.

So just what amounted to Mr Easterbook's accountability list? The list might look like this:

  • At the top our list, we might put Mr Easterbook, himself. Ultimately we're most accountable to ourselves. The rule set could be our moral code, our spirituality or our personal values. No doubt Mr Easterbook had reflected on his relationship and presumably, for a period of time, he was able to justify it to himself (possibly with reference to some of the bullet points above made on the radio phone-in);
  • Next might come the people / colleagues around him - what would they think? Possibly that there is a risk of preferential treatment? Even if they don't work closely together,  one can imagine that any advancement or career progression for the junior person in the relationship could be perceived as unfair by others. It casts a shadow of doubt over their merit.
  • Next is the Board - the ultimate internal leadership body, that sets the rules and monitors their compliance and enforceability.
  • Next might be the Shareholders - they may question just how focused the CEO is on their investment.
  • The applicable regulators - who as we know increasingly want to know what's going on "behind closed doors", as it may illustrate whether the checks and balances are working or not.
  • Finally in our list, we need to add the public generally - hence the radio phone-in!

So how do we get this right? How do we test our behaviour at work? Well it's not easy to do but perhaps we could ask:

1. Am I being true to myself? Is this a right, honest, fair thing for me to do here?

2. Does this behaviour / decision fit with the Values and Behaviours supported by my employer?

3. Can I imagine explaining this behaviour / decision to  one of the accountability bullet points on the above list? Is one trickier than the others? If so, perhaps I need to share it, raise it, talk about it? If I don't, how might that look? How would I explain that it passed my personal accountability test?

It is clear that Mr Easterbook turned the profits of McDonald's around in the last few years - he has been viewed as a successful CEO. It is unfortunate, therefore, that his name is in the press today for anything other than his leadership ability and track record. His private life is not private today.