Insiders say McDonald's former head of HR's 'gross and dirty' behaviour sparked internal concerns long before his ouster

Business Insider US
Former McDonald's executives are under fire.
  • McDonald's former head of HR David Fairhurst is facing renewed scrutiny as McDonald's sues ex-CEO Steve Easterbrook. 
  • Heidi Capozzi, McDonald's head of HR, revealed during an internal meeting last week that Fairhurst was fired last November for making women at the company feel uncomfortable. 
  • One former corporate staffer said he was disturbed by what he saw as Fairhurst's "gross and dirty" behaviour when he was at the company, saying it sparked questions as to how seriously the company took HR complaints. 
  • McDonald's has seen internal shakeups on its HR team recently, including the abrupt departure of Melanie Steinbach a month after she was promoted to the head of HR in the US. 
  • McDonald's declined to comment further on Fairhurst and Steinbach's departures. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

McDonald's former head of HR David Fairhurst is facing renewed scrutiny, as the fast-food giant sues it ex-CEO Steve Easterbrook. 

According to notes from the town hall viewed by Business Insider, McDonald's head of HR Heidi Capozzi said that she and CEO Chris Kempczinski are committed "to the idea of transparency." While Capozzi said she is limited in some ways due to privacy concerns, she could share that Fairhurst was fired for cause based on an internal investigation. 

Fairhurst was fired after making female McDonald's employees feel "uncomfortable on numerous occasions at business events," Capozzi said during the meeting as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, 

Fairhurst left McDonald's in November, shortly after Easterbrook was terminated by the company. 

Easterbrook and Fairhurst both started their careers in McDonald's UK office. Both were known for drinking with McDonald's employees after work, The Wall Street Journal reported in January.

Stories about Fairhurst drinking with employees — including younger female staffers — sparked rumors and ethical concerns, current and former employees and franchisees told Business Insider. 

One holiday party in late 2018 prompted an investigation into Fairhurst's behaviour. The head of HR was spotted pulling a female employee onto his lap, internal sources told Business Insider. The Journal reports that McDonald's investigated the incident, ultimately telling employees that such excessive drinking was inappropriate.

Fairhurst did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment. McDonald's declined to comment further on Fairhurst's exit. 

When the head of HR is misbehaving, how can employees report concerns? 

Personal experiences as well as recent reporting about Fairhurst have made current and former McDonald's employees and franchisees question the work of McDonald's HR department in recent years. 

A former franchisee questioned how McDonald's HR team could have carried out corporate restructuring in a fair manner when the department was led by Fairhurst.

The Journal recently reported some former employees said HR leaders under Fairhurst ignored internal complaints, and that employees feared retaliation if they reported others' actions to HR. These reports of misconduct, a former franchisee told Business Insider, now color his view of McDonald's 2018 corporate restructuring. 

One former corporate staffer told Business Insider he was disturbed by what he saw as Fairhurst's "gross and dirty" behavior while drinking, which he saw first hand. If the head of HR was getting drunk with female staffers, he asked, how could anyone expect HR complaints to be taken seriously? 

A current corporate employee said that, while Fairhurst was known for partying with subordinates several levels below him at the company, it was seen as more "sad" than "gross." Prior to his departure, he was widely respected within the company, she said, even if he was seen as a bit pompous. This employee said she was not worried about Fairhurst's behavior impeding HR reports, in part because it would be rare for Fairhurst to handle a complaint alone. 

"We just thought he was a sad man who drank too much and weirdly didn't have friends outside of people who worked for him," she said. 

Executive shakeups continue on McDonald's HR team

McDonald's ex-CEO Steve Easterbrook.

Concerns about McDonald's HR department carry extra weight as McDonald's recently filed a lawsuit claiming that Easterbrook engaged in multiple sexual relationships with employees during his time as CEO. 

McDonald's sued Easterbrook earlier in August, claiming the CEO covered up sexual relationships with three employees at McDonald's during his last year leading the company. According to McDonald's complaint, investigators found dozens of sexually explicit photos of these employees attached to an email Easterbrook sent himself, after receiving an anonymous tip in July. 

McDonald's terminated Easterbrook "without cause" in November 2019, after investigating a consensual relationship between the CEO and another female staffer.

Investigators said McDonald's did not know of any other inappropriate relationships at the time and that Easterbrook denied having sexual relationships with other employees. The company is now suing Easterbrook to claw back his multi-million dollar severance package.

McDonald's said last week it is also investigating if Easterbrook covered up other executives' misconduct, as well as allegations into the HR department during Easterbrook's time as CEO. McDonald's said in a statement that, "The Board will follow the facts wherever they may lead." 

McDonald's announced in March that Heidi Capozzi, formerly head of HR at Boeing Company, would replace Fairhurst as the new global chief people officer. 

Melissa Kersey, who served as the head of HR in the US, left the company in late June. With Kersey's departure, McDonald's announced Melanie Steinbach would be promoted to the position of chief people officer in the US and Shammara Howell would take Steinbach's place as chief talent officer.

A month after she was promoted to the head of US HR and shortly after McDonald's filed its lawsuit against Easterbrook, Steinbach abruptly parted ways with the company. Prior to her departure earlier in August, her corporate email auto-reply indicated she was on "medical leave." She did not respond to Business Insider's multiple requests for comment. McDonald's declined to comment on her departure. 

Capozzi began a "top-to-bottom" review of the HR department after starting a global chief people officer in April, according to an executive.

When McDonald's filed its lawsuit against Easterbrook, Capozzi sent out a reminder on how employees can report "concerns about behavior that is not in line with our values," according to a message viewed by Business Insider. In last week's town hall, Capozzi again told employees to share any concerns they might have and that the company has policies to prevent discrimination. 

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