McDonald's said Wednesday that it will mandate worker training to combat harassment, discrimination and violence in its restaurants worldwide starting next year.
The training will be required for 2 million workers at 39,000 stores worldwide.
"It's really important that we be very clear: A safe and respectful workplace where people feel like they're going to be protected is critically important for our business," McDonald's President and CEO Chris Kempczinski said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's just what society is expecting."
The change is part of a larger reckoning over sexual harassment at the world's largest burger chain. At least 50 workers have filed charges against the company over the last five years, alleging physical and verbal harassment and, in some cases, retaliation when they complained. The problem wasn't confined to restaurants. In November 2019, McDonald's fired its former CEO Steve Easterbrook after he acknowledged having a relationship with an employee.
Kempczinski, who joined McDonald's in 2015, said the company needs to set expectations and then continually refer to them, especially since staff turnover in restaurants can be high.
"If you're not constantly talking about values and keeping them in the fore, if you get complacent, then perhaps they're not as obvious to people or they're not as inspiring as they could be," he said.
McDonald's restaurants worldwide -- 93% of which are owned by franchisees -- will be required to meet the new standards starting in January 2022. They must also collect feedback on the store's work environment from employees and managers and share those results with staff. Corporate evaluations will consider whether employees feel safe, both physically and emotionally, Kempckinski said.
In legal filings, McDonald's workers have complained about unwanted touching, lewd comments, verbal abuse and physical assaults while on the job. In some cases, workers accused managers of ignoring their complaints or retaliating by giving them fewer shifts or transferring them to other stores.
Kimberly Lawson, a McDonald's employee in Kansas City, Missouri, filed sexual harassment charges against McDonald's with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018.
"Finally, it appears the company is starting to listen," Lawson said Wednesday in a statement distributed by Fight for $15, an effort to unionize fast-food workers that Lawson helps lead.
But Lawson said she would like to see more details about McDonald's plans, including what the training looks like and how often it will be offered. She also said the company should talk to workers like her if it wants to develop a truly effective program.
"The changes announced today didn't come from us; they came from lawyers and executives. There can be no solution for us without us," Lawson said.
Details are still being worked out, but Kempczinski said he expects employees will be given training when they start working for McDonald's. Restaurants might also have training once a year for all employees. That's similar to the kind of training that is already being done at the company's Chicago headquarters.
McDonald's first attempted to deal with the problem in 2018 by introducing harassment training for its U.S. franchisees and general managers. The following year, it started a hotline for employees to report problems and opened the training program to all of its 850,000 U.S. workers. But at that time, the company didn't require franchisees to provide the training.
Kempczinski, who became president and CEO after Easterbrook was forced out, said many franchisees provided the training. But as he thought about the company's values during the pandemic, which put more emphasis than ever on the health and safety of food workers, he felt it was important to expand the training and make it a requirement.
He wouldn't say whether McDonald's has removed any franchisees from its system because of worker-harassment charges. Often, when a franchise isn't ensuring workers' safety, it has other problems that can lead to its dismissal from the system, he said.
Many McDonald's franchisees support the change.
"As employers, we have an important role to play in setting the bar high for a values-led, safe and inclusive working environment," said Mark Salebra, the chairman of the National Franchisee Leadership Alliance, in a statement distributed by McDonald's. The alliance represents more than 2,000 U.S. franchisees.
McDonald's said it will continue to work with experts and make anti-harassment materials available, but franchisees will be allowed to choose their own training programs.
Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, said sexual harassment training alone may not be effective and can actually lead to backlash.
Bohns said McDonald's should combat harassment in other ways, including teaching bystanders how to intervene when they witness harassment and ensuring that women -- and especially minority women -- are being promoted into managerial positions.
McDonald's announced in February that it will begin tying executive pay to progress toward meeting goals for adding more women and underrepresented minorities to its management ranks.
Kempczinski said he hopes McDonald's anti-harassment effort becomes a model for the restaurant industry.
"Let's use this to raise the entire standards for the industry," he said.