When we talk about a corporation’s “culture,” what the heck are we talking about?
Two things basically, the corporation’s values, how it prioritizes its business and human choices and the choices themselves.
That high-toned word “culture” tends to focus the discussion on equally elevated subjects like corporate philosophies, and administrative procedures; but more important is what happens when culture goes into action, when things can become down and dirty.
Culture means all of that – thought, belief or rationalization, and action. A corporation’s culture is written in its mission statement and its history and what it says and does every day – blood and bone.
So when it is suggested that McDonald’s has a culture of sexual harassment, it means you can find sexual harassment – especially if you are a female employee – in Mickey Ds from coast to coast, from the aisle behind the griddles and deep fryers, to the service window, to the executive suite of the CEO.
All the world knows about the now former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was fired last November when he confessed to what he called a consensual sexual relationship with a company subordinate. The firing, McDonald’s said, expressed how its corporate culture defined itself on inappropriate sexual relationships in the workplace.
The corporation didn’t address how Easterbrook’s “golden handshake” of stock awards worth more than $40 million and $675,000 in severance and health insurance benefits fit into that definition.
Now, we know the answer to that, too. One improper relationship and it’s goodbye and good luck and here’s your goodie bag; but three more, with an archive of compromising photos and videos, all shuttled from his office email account to his personal one? That, saith the McDonald’s board violates our cultural conscience. We want our money back.
But what does it say about how Steve Easterbrook rated the culture of his office that he’d record his relationships on office email. Did he figure no one would find out, or did he figure so what if someone did – no one would care?
The same questions hang over another of the allegations in McDonald’s claw-back the retirement money lawsuit: that Easterbrook approved a stock grant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to one of the women “shortly after their first sexual encounter.”
A stock grant has a built-in paper trail, but that apparently didn’t bother Easterbrook, who figured a man paid $55 million over his three years as CEO could reward his paramour with corporate money and the culture wouldn’t mind.
Here’s the thing about cultures, they roll downhill. The practices cultured at the top get reenacted down the corporate slope. A recent survey of 782 current and former McDonald’s nonmanagerial employees found three-quarters of them had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. 22 percent said they’d been offered an Easterbrook-ish reward, money or more or better hours for sex. 19 percent said they were threatened if they didn’t agree to sex, which reinforces the fact that 71 percent said after they reported the offensive behavior, they were punished for it.
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about corporate culture.
Bryce Covert is a contributor at The Nation and a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times.