McDonald’s said Sunday that it had fired CEO Steve Easterbrook due to what the company described as a “recent consensual relationship with an employee” that violated company policy.
The board voted Friday to oust Easterbrook after a review, concluding that he violated a policy against manager relationships with direct or indirect reports, according to the company. Chris Kempczinski, president of McDonald’s USA, will take over as CEO, according to the company’s press release Sunday night
Easterbrook called his recent relationship with an employee “a mistake” in an email to McDonald’s employees.
“Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on,” he wrote.
Desiree Moore, a Chicago-based lawyer acting as a spokeswoman for Easterbrook, said he is “deeply grateful for his time at McDonald’s.”
“He acknowledges his error in judgment and supports the company’s decision,” Moore said, adding that Easterbrook will be not be commenting further.
Details of Easterbrook’s severance package will be disclosed by Tuesday in a federal filing, the company said.
McDonald’s has not shared further details of the relationship that led to the firing.
Easterbrook, a former head of the company’s U.K. operations, is divorced, according to The Sunday Times.
He joins a growing list of chief executives forced out over relationships with employees as more companies implement rules against dating subordinates in the #MeToo era.
“We are seeing substantially more interest” in these policies, Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia-based employment lawyer, told The Washington Post last year, after Intel’s chief executive stepped down for breaking his company’s rules with a consensual relationship.
“I’m seeing more companies ask about them,” Segal said. “I’m seeing more companies add them to their anti-harassment policies. I’ve seen more companies look at them in their codes of conduct.”
Easterbrook became CEO in 2015 as McDonald’s struggled to keep its customers. After the chain announced a drop in U.S. sales as well as a 33 percent dip in global profits in the first quarter of that year, he promised a plan to “better address today’s consumer needs, expectations and the competitive marketplace.”
McDonald’s shares rose under Easterbrook’s leadership, and the company retains its spot at the top of U.S. fast food sales, even as the industry faces challenges. Last year, Easterbrook – who is also on the board of Walmart – received $15.9 million in pay.
Easterbrook pushed McDonald’s forward from a tough time, said Jonathan Maze, the editor of Restaurant Business. He improved sales – still on the upswing this year – and restructured the company, speeding up decision-making and cutting hundreds of millions in overhead costs, Maze said.
He also embraced technology in the form of in-store kiosks, online-order delivery and, in March, a $300 million start-up acquisition meant to speed up McDonald’s drive-through services.
“He’s been pretty consequential,” said Maze, who considers Easterbrook’s firing as part of a trend of companies taking relationship policy violations “a lot more seriously” than they used to.
Kempczinski became head of McDonald’s USA in 2016. Easterbrook told staff members that Kempczinski was “an important partner to me over the last four years and . . . the ideal person to take on the role of CEO.”
McDonald’s, too, praised Kempczinski’s contributions.
“Chris was instrumental in the development of the Company’s strategic plan, which has enabled global growth and leadership, and has overseen the most comprehensive transformation of the U.S. business in McDonald’s history,” Enrique Hernandez, chairman of the chain’s board of directors, said in a statement.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kempczinski, said he will continue Easterbrook’s investments in technology and looks forward to discussing franchisees’ concerns.
“There isn’t going to be some radical, strategic shift,” he told The Journal on Sunday. “The plan is working.”