Easterbrook's Partial-Truth Lie a Short-Sighted Response
Expressing a partial truth might prove helpful in escaping lie detection and consequences in disputes or scandal, at least temporarily, yet if it is discovered it is going to be labeled as an even more egregious lie with greater costs.
Steve Easterbrook, former president and chief executive officer of McDonalds, in his attempt to do damage control to his reputation, career and financial payouts after his sexual misconduct within the company, consciously chose the partial-truth ruse as a manipulation for cover up.
In early November, 2019, McDonald’s board of directors terminated Easterbrook over a relationship with a single employee. Consensual or not, his behavior as a leader was deemed unprofessional and unethical as he rejected company policy.
Easterbrook, cornered with nowhere to hide, confessed his error, downplaying it to the label of “mistake” to hide from further scrutiny and risk. He then asked for privacy, of course.
New allegations came to light, reported the Wall Street Journal, that Easterbrook allegedly was involved in at least three known sexual relationships with McDonald’s employees during his employment.
He reportedly destroyed evidence of his misconduct and lied about the depth of his relationships. Despite that behavior, significant evidence was still found; numerous naked or otherwise explicit photographs and videos of women, some of which were McDonald’s employees.
Alarming as this was to the company, it was also determined that Easterbrook, the lawsuit says, used his work account to send these images to his personal email.
His twenty-seven years of service and reputation building in the company was imploding in front of him and in the public light.
Terminated and disgraced CEOs regularly, contractually collect on financial benefits and Easterbrook was no different, as CBS News reported that Easterbrook “could pocket $70 million worth of stock and options in compensation as part of his forced exit. The number could rise as high as $85 million…”
Despite the public relations damage done to the company and possible liability he exposed it to, he was not going to have to endure the full financial penalty for his reckless transgressions.
McDonald’s, predictably and reasonably, was offended and angry. Its lawsuit reads “These actions constitute breaches of Easterbrook’s duties to McDonald’s. Had Easterbrook been candid with McDonald’s investigators and not concealed evidence, McDonald’s would have known that it had legal cause to terminate him in 2019 and would not have agreed that his termination was ‘without cause.’”
He had motivation to hide and when exposed, resorted to the partial-truth lie to go away quietly and maximize his payout. He knew the depth of his misdeeds and different, potential costs and penalties so he chose to admit to just what was known at the time, not the totality of his offenses against his employer.
As biologically, psychologically instinctual as it is to self protect there is also an expectation in business relationships and society to fully own mistakes, errors and wrongdoing. Maybe that smacks of being idealistic and Pollyanna yet self-serving behavior and cover up at the expense of humility, contrition and responsibility is a dangerous path to travel, exacerbating damages.
Easterbrook can retire without a financial worry yet now owns an escalated, unsavory reputation compounded by the low-level tactic (partial-truth lie) he was implementing to fraudulently exploit his employer and that relationship, without remorse.
A Korn Ferry statistic might prove sobering to learn:
“A study that tracked CEO successions found that 43% of CEOs who had been ousted weren’t hired again.”
Honesty would have helped him confess his contribution to the harm he brought to the employer that granted him opportunity, authority, status and wealth. This would have exhibited noble character in the face of disgrace.
Easterbrook, for all his professional accomplishments and earned respect brought negative publicity and anger from the outside to McDonalds, unrest to the board of directors, exposed the company to liability and sought to escape with a large, unwarranted going-away financial windfall. He looks even smaller in character for his calculated response to his unethical behavior.
Employed CEOs can learn that partial-truth lies are high risk and deeply damaging to trust, credibility and career. Those who don’t reject this stress reaction become examples of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s finding:
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Michael Toebe helps individuals and organizations accurately analyze disputes, conflicts and crisis and wisely, ethically, successful respond and navigate them. He has written advisory pieces for Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, the New York Law Journal, Corporate Compliance Insights, Physicians Practice and Training Industry and regularly writes on beBee, LinkedIn and Medium.
This article was first published at Red Diamonds Essays (on the Medium platform) on September 9th, 2020.