As stated in our previous blog, The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill will, if passed, introduce a proactive duty for employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment of its employees in the course of their work. One of the ways in which it will strengthen that proactive duty is by providing for enforcement via the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

EHRC investigations, like many regulatory investigations, can attract negative publicity and take up significant management time for employer organisations. A recent example of this was when the EHRC investigated the handling of sexual harassment complaints made by staff at McDonalds in the UK.

According to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) more than 1,000 cases of sexual harassment had been reported in McDonalds restaurants in the UK in 2019. In addition, there were allegations that McDonald’s failed to appropriately handle sexual harassment claims.

As a result, McDonald’s has been forced to sign a section 23 agreement with the EHRC. A section 23 agreement is a legally binding agreement which can make organisations reduce discrimination, and usually includes an action plan and a set timeframe in which to deliver change. The agreement outlines McDonald's new commitment to several measures to better protect UK workers. These include:

  • communicating a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment
  • conducting an anonymous survey of workers about workplace safety
  • enhancing policies and procedures to prevent sexual harassment and improve responses to complaints
  • delivering anti-harassment training for employees
  • introducing specific training and materials to help managers identify areas of risk within their restaurants and take steps to prevent sexual harassment
  • supporting the uptake of policy and training materials by franchisees within their independent organisations to support reporting of sexual harassment
  • monitoring progress towards a safe, respectful and inclusive working environment

Alistair Macrow, chief executive at McDonald’s UK and Ireland, said: “As one of the UK’s leading employers, the safety and wellbeing of our people is our absolute priority. It is hugely important to me that everyone in our organisation feels safe, respected and included at all times – this is core to the values of our business… We will partner with the EHRC to bolster our best practice training and reporting approaches across our business to ensure that our values are understood, lived and acted upon across our organisation. Harassment and abuse have no place in our society or at McDonald’s.”

EHRC chair Baroness Kishwer Falkner said: “We are pleased that McDonald’s has signed this agreement to signal their intent to make their restaurants safe places to work. The improvements they put in place can set an example for others to follow, whether in the hospitality industry or elsewhere”.

Sarah Woolley General Secretary of the BFAWU said: “McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski says ‘sexual harassment in the workplace is an affront to everything we stand for’, but sexual harassment is caused by the very structures within McDonald’s. This is not a few bad apples: this is caused by a system of zero hours contracts; when crew members must depend on the goodwill of managers to be allocated hours; when low pay is endemic and working women are expected to live pay cheque to pay cheque, when there’s a culture of cover-up with the use of NDAs; and when McDonald’s continue to victimise members of trade unions when unions form anywhere in McDonald’s. When all that continues to happen I’m afraid sexual harassment will continue to be an issue in McDonald’s.”

A McDonald’s worker told the union: “My store has had a number of problems with managers being inappropriate, often the victim was too scared to raise the issue, as they would be reporting it to someone who is friends with the manager, we need a trade union we can trust to report these issues to. McDonald’s needs to thank our union for raising these issues and recognise it as important part of ending sexual harassment at work.”

Clearly the issues at McDonald’s are part of a wider problem in society, particularly where employees are on zero hour contracts and working in the hospitality industry. Earlier in 2023, the EHRC teamed up with UK Hospitality to publish a new action plan and checklist for employers to help them prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. This was created following research which found that most hospitality workers have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, and most found it to be a “normal” part of the job in settings where alcohol is consumed.

Harassment in the workplace is not limited just to specific sectors, it can arise in any organisation and all businesses whatever their size or key purpose need to consider the safety of all employees and work to ensure a culture where harassment is no more.