In the wake of a revealing BBC investigation, McDonald’s UK finds itself contending with an alarming frequency of sexual harassment claims, with one or two being reported each week.
Alistair Macrow, the UK boss of the fast-food giant, disclosed this information during a session with MPs, acknowledging the receipt of over 400 complaints from employees since July when the BBC exposed numerous allegations of misconduct within the company.
During the session before the Business and Trade Select Committee on Tuesday, Macrow informed MPs that 18 individuals had been terminated as a result of the investigation into these claims. However, he was unable to confirm how many cases had been referred to law enforcement.
The BBC’s investigation brought to light a distressing pattern of misconduct within McDonald’s, with reports of harassment and groping affecting workers as young as 17. Employees painted a picture of a toxic workplace culture where complaints of sexual assault, racism, and bullying were allegedly not taken seriously.
Macrow detailed that since the initial BBC report in the summer, McDonald’s UK established an investigation handling unit to address the rising number of complaints. Of the 157 cases investigated so far, 17 were related to sexual harassment, resulting in disciplinary actions. Nine cases involved bullying, and one was related to racial harassment.
In response to ongoing concerns, Macrow stated, “To give you a picture of what we see on an ongoing basis, we typically would see between 20 to 25 contacts per week, of which one or two would be sexual harassment.”
A concerning scale
The scale of the issue is particularly concerning as McDonald’s is one of the largest private sector employers in the UK, with over 170,000 employees, a majority aged 16 to 25. The fast-food chain operates 1,450 restaurants, with 89 percent of its UK branches being run by franchisees.
Despite the severity of the allegations, no franchisees have lost their contracts due to claims of harassment and abuse, according to Macrow. When questioned by the Business and Trade Committee about whether profit took precedence over worker protection, Macrow vehemently denied the accusation, asserting that the well-being of their employees is of utmost importance.
The testimony of over 200 current and former McDonald’s workers, who shared their experiences with the BBC, painted a bleak picture of working conditions within the company. Ed and Emily, two former employees who experienced harassment at McDonald’s, expressed dissatisfaction with Macrow’s assurances during the committee hearing.
Profit over people?
Emily, who was harassed at 17, accused McDonald’s of prioritising profit over people and recounted her futile attempt to report the incident to the company’s support service. Ed, who endured months of harassment, criticised McDonald’s for its apparent failure to address the issue adequately.
The gravity of the situation prompted the intervention of Liam Byrne, chair of the Business and Trade Committee, who questioned whether McDonald’s was doing enough to protect its workers. Ian Hodson, national president at the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, characterised some of the stories shared by McDonald’s employees as “absolutely horrific” and emphasised the need for change.
As the company grapples with the fallout from the BBC investigation, the HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, Kate Palmer, urged businesses to take proactive measures to eliminate harassment from the workplace. She emphasised the legal consequences that employers may face if they fail to prevent harassment, particularly as new laws on harassment are set to take effect. Palmer recommended a comprehensive approach, including policy reviews, training programs, and a zero-tolerance attitude toward harassment.
She said that employers “should take steps to stamp out harassment in the workplace.”
“Under the Equality Act 2010, employers can be held legally responsible if an employee is sexually harassed or discriminated against at work by a colleague. The onus on employers is also going to be even greater in the coming months when the new law on harassment takes effect. Given that employment tribunals could increase awards by up to 25 percent where employers fail to prevent harassment in the workplace, once this new law is in force, this needs to be taken very seriously.”
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.