ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
McDonald's has made striking new allegations against its former CEO. The company says Steve Easterbrook hid sexual relationships with employees and concealed the evidence. The fast food giant fired Easterbrook last year. Now it is suing him to get back his multi-million-dollar severance package. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: What makes this case pretty remarkable is that it's been nine months since Easterbrook was fired. The reason - a consensual relationship with an employee that amounted to sexting. And American corporate culture typically is all about sorting these kinds of internal scandals quickly and behind closed doors. Here's Tim Hubbard, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.
TIM HUBBARD: There's always this tendency to want to settle it quietly and get it completely out of the media.
SELYUKH: But here we are talking about it again because now McDonald's is suing Easterbrook, saying he covered up more inappropriate behavior. McDonald's made this unusual choice because back in November, Easterbrook left with a severance estimated at over $40 million. But in July, an anonymous tip led the company to search corporate servers. And there, investigators found explicit photos and videos sent from Easterbrook's corporate account. Evidence of sexual relationships with three employees, including one woman for whom Easterbrook approved a stock grant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
HUBBARD: I think that there was an expectation as they were negotiating a settlement that the former chief executive officer be open and honest.
SELYUKH: The company says he lied to get a better exit payout and is suing to get that money back. Few companies fight these kind of public battles with former executives. McDonald's says it's already moved to block Easterbrook from selling any stock he might still have from his equity awards.
HUBBARD: I don't really see the likelihood of him returning the money without a bit of force needed. I think it gets pretty nasty.
SELYUKH: Easterbrook's legal team did not respond to NPR's inquiries, and we should note that McDonald's is among NPR's recent sponsors. Easterbrook's compensation for being fired drew much attention and criticism last year. It included six months of severance pay, shares and other equity, leading many low-wage frontline workers to muse about their pay gap with executives and use the moment to highlight allegations of rampant sexual harassment of female employees by male co-workers and managers across McDonald's restaurants. Sharyn Tejani directs the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund, which is backing workplace sexual harassment lawsuits by McDonald's workers.
SHARYN TEJANI: If we're going to say you can't do certain things and we're going to take conduct seriously, then they should be taking it seriously when it comes to their workers being sexually harassed and, at a minimum, commit the 40 million they're trying to get back from Easterbrook to stop that.
SELYUKH: Easterbrook's successor, CEO Chris Kempczinski, often speaks about recommitting to company values of integrity and inclusion. On Monday, McDonald's told workers it's conducting a global survey and listening sessions to assess the state of its corporate culture.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "SECOND SUN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.