The Sudden Departure of McDonald’s CHRO:  4 Brutally Tough Lessons for HR Leaders…

by Alan Collins

This article is NOT pleasant.

It is brutally candid.

And absolutely critical for you to read if you currently are (or aspire to be) a top HR leader…whether you agree with it or not!

With that said, let’s get started.

As everyone on the planet knows by now, McDonald’s recently fired its CEO.  And shortly thereafter, they announced the sudden departure of the CHRO that reported to him. 


Very few people outside of McDonald’s saw these two moves coming.

Before getting into the HR leadership lessons we can all learn from this episode, here’s how the Wall Street Journal reported this story:

McDonald’s said its top human-resources executive has left the company, days after the burger giant fired its CEO, Steve Easterbrook, because of his relationship with an employee that violated the company’s code of conduct.

McDonald’s said Chief People Officer David Fairhurst left the company on Monday, without providing any details of the reasoning behind his departure. A McDonald’s representative said Mr. Fairhurst’s exit was not related to the firing of Mr. Easterbrook.

New CEO Chris Kempczinski said in an email to employees Monday that Mr. Fairhurst was moving on from McDonald’s after 15 years of service, and had helped enhance the company’s brand.

Mr. Fairhurst didn’t respond to requests for comment. He had worked for Mr. Easterbrook for McDonald’s in the U.K. and was promoted to the top human-resources job by Mr. Easterbrook soon after he became CEO in 2015.

Here’s my take: We’ll never know the true reasons why the CHRO left.  Clearly, he worked closely for years with the CEO who was fired for an inappropriate relationship.  Did this play a role in his sudden decision to leave or not?

My guess is that YES, it definitely did.

And I’m not alone. According to Kris Dunn, in his excellent article on this topic, he speculated that there were three possible reasons for the departure of the CHRO:

  1. He knew about the CEO’s improper relationship and didn’t escalate it appropriately.
  2. He didn’t know about the relationship, but should have known about it based on the circumstances.
  3. The Board didn’t evaluate whether he knew or not.  They just decided he couldn’t stay based on his long-term relationship with the CEO and the sensitivity of the issue related to the responsibility of the HR Function.

I totally agree with these possibilities.

However, regardless of what really happened, the departure of the McDonald’s CHRO should remind us all of four brutally tough lessons for a successful career as an HR leader.

Tough Lesson #1:
You are accountable for the
professional conduct and actions
of the leaders you support.

This is true if you’re the top HR leader supporting a tiny start-up – and especially if you’re supporting a mega-company like McDonald’s.

I know that being accountable for others’ behavior may seem unfair.

And some HR folks avoid it by deliberately closing their eyes to the bad actors in their organizations who violate ethics and their company’s code of conduct.

I’m sorry, this is just wrong.

As an HR leader, you get paid to stand up and speak out when it’s unpopular to do so.

If we know of a big time problem that puts our organizations at risk – even if it involves our direct boss – it’s our responsibility to bring it up and get it handled.

Yes, this is uncomfortable.
Yes, this is risky.
Yes, I don’t pretend that this is easy to do.
And yes, it can give you lots of sleepless nights.

But if you’re the head of HR, if you don’t bring it up…who will?

For example, what if you know about an executive who is stealing from the company…or someone being sexually harassed, suffering in silence – how can you do nothing, look yourself in the mirror and call yourself a HR leader?

How can you expect leaders in your organization to role model the right behavior, when you don’t do it yourself?

The answer is: you can’t.

It’s part of our job – so we should embrace it and act accordingly.

That leads us to…

Tough Lesson #2:
It’s your job to be aware
of what’s going on in
your organization.

When the crap hits the fan, it’s not good enough to say “Well, hey, I didn’t know that was happening…”

That’s no freakin’ excuse.  You lead the people function for your organization.

You SHOULD know. No excuses.

If you’re not plugged in to what’s REALLY going on in your organization…or if you’ve not built the relationships necessary to have your finger on the pulse beat of the workforce — you’re in trouble.

Impossible to achieve?  Perhaps it is.

But that’s the reality of being an HR leader.  Especially in the “Me Too” era.   You’re accountable.  And the departure of the McDonald’s CHRO is an important reminder for all of us of the need to well-connected and take action swiftly.

How do you stay plugged in?

It’s simple.

Get off your butt and turn off your laptop.
Get out of your office regularly.
Have lots of informal coffees.
Walk the halls.
Get out in the field.
Meet with people often — on their turf not yours.
Ask people about what issues they’re facing, don’t burden them with yours.
Don’t kill messengers — embrace them.
Be approachable.
Listen. Hear. Act.

And that leads us to the most difficult point of all…

Tough Lesson #3:
Be prepared to hit the street
…even if you take action and
do the right thing!

Don’t expect to be rewarded and glorified for stepping up and dealing with tough issues.  If you are, accept those accolades humbly, be grateful and keep on stepping.

However, to be perfectly honest, leading and taking action can be a double-edged sword.  

Sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I know of two HR leaders who absolutely did the right thing…but were rewarded with retaliation by their organizations.

In the first case, the HR VP acted…and was given the “cold shoulder” and ostracized by her fellow leadership team members who felt betrayed when she led the firing of one of their peers, who violated the company’s code of conduct.

In the second case, the HR director experienced backlash from his boss, a General Manager, who wanted a racial discrimination charge “swept under the rug.”  And when that didn’t happen – the GM made life a living hell for that HR director.

In both cases, out of frustration, these HR leaders wound up leaving their jobs voluntarily for better positions elsewhere.

However, in retrospect, neither would have done anything differently.  In their view, failing to act would have done immeasurable harm to their reputation and further ruined their credibility within the organization.

I agree.

Unfortunately, the career of an HR leader can take an unfair turn sometimes.

This is especially true when you serve in the top HR role.  You must be prepared to resign or shown the door — perhaps when you least expect it. 

It doesn’t happen often.

But sadly, it happens more times than you think.

So it pays to be prepared by embracing…

Tough Lesson #4:
Take control of your own job security.
It falls to you, no one else.

Job security no longer exists, if it ever did.

Today, hundreds of HR leaders every year lose their jobs — for cause, unjustifiably or due to factors outside of their control like cost cuts and downsizings.

So, the best employment security you can create for yourself lies in your network.

Having a thriving network of contacts, admirers, supporters and advocates – both inside and outside of your organization – is an important element of building a successful and continuous career as an HR leader.

Your network should consist of folks that can speak favorably about you and refer you to new opportunities, should you find yourself on the street in a hurry.

This means that the absolute worst thing you can possibly do is to get so busy grinding away at your HR day job that you neglect to build and expand your relationships.

Let me be even more blunt.  Never let a day pass without doing something to grow or enhance your network, no matter how busy you are with work.

  1. Take people outside of your organization to lunch.
  2. Put on your calendar coffees, dinners, and after-work networking events.
  3. Make sure you’re expanding, cultivating and deepening the relationships with your tribe.

Here’s why:  It’s 90% likely that your next job in HR will come through the relationships you’ve built.

Of course, none of this is new.

But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself that only YOU can create your own job security.

No one else can.

Let’s recap.

A situation like that at McDonald’s can happen anytime and anywhere.

So, as an HR leader, it’s important that you be prepared for them by reminding yourself often that:

That’s my take.

What’s yours?  Would love to hear your comments, please add them below by clicking HERE.


Want to avoid even MORE painful hurdles and traps that stand in the way of your success as a new HR leader? Then check out:  THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS: How To Start Strong, Hit The Ground Running & ACHIEVE SUCCESS FASTER As A New Human Resources Manager, Director and VP.  You can get more details HERE.

About the Author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling HR books on career advancement including the New HR Leader’s First 100 Days.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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16 Responses to “The Sudden Departure of McDonald’s CHRO:  4 Brutally Tough Lessons for HR Leaders…”

  1. Patti Says:

    A great reminder of why we are HR. We can get prepared now to deal with this situation now. Thanks for another great article!

  2. Joseph Raviraj Says:

    Superb … hit the naval … Let’s be HR professionals….

  3. Sikirah Abdulsalam Says:

    Nice piece. I appreciate it.

  4. Alex Kakungi Says:

    I too believe that an organization is bigger than an individual and cannot be held in ramsom by an individual’s egoism…open-minded persons use the their current job platform to create their next job.This is the new paradigm shift in the reality of the stable-evolving job security!

  5. Janis P Moore Says:

    Tough lessons. I have always said, that I have to be able to sleep at night based on the actions I take in dealing with the situations around me. I will never sit around and be responsible or accountable for other folks actions.

  6. Alan Says:

    Well said, Janis. Being able to sleep at night based on our own actions is a great litmus test.

  7. Phyllis Says:

    Well said and thanks for the reminder

  8. Alan Says:

    You’re welcome, Phyllis.

  9. Mpafya Mutapa Says:

    Ethics goes beyond the security of one’s job indeed at times you win some and lose some. Unfortunate looking through the lense the corporate world is losing its trust to the stakeholders and a few individuals are making a difference! Job security is also about being in the right circles i.e. people who uphold values cause if they dint they won’t help you after learning the reasons for your departure!

  10. Alan Says:

    Mpafya, thank you. Interesting comments. My thoughts: (1) Being ethical is all about doing the right thing, it’s not much more complex than that. (2) Every now and then being ethical and principled requires taking a risk and suffering some consequences. Job security is all about giving yourself even more confidence in standing by your convictions. That’s all. (3) Landing a great job quickly after departing is 100% about how you position your reasons for leaving – it’s not that hard – see my book “HR Interview Secrets.”

  11. Payal Says:

    Very well put and would agree to it 100%. Ethics, values should not be compromised at any cost and HR lead should continue to speak up, fight for the right. Right that puts organization ahead of individuals..

  12. Surekha Nair Says:

    It requires a lot of courage and conviction to do what is right.
    As HR leader one’s mind should never get clouded or have dilemma on taking decision whenever there is tricky situation.

  13. Shantams Says:

    Great article re: Professional vs. Personal Life. This overlap creates the gap in Professional ethics.

  14. gire Says:

    Some bosses would never accept criticism of their conduct but a HR leader must stand up and make a difference.

  15. sylvia washington Says:

    Good advice. “Don’t kill messengers — embrace them.”

  16. Gus Lopez Says:

    The truth tends to always come out. Ultimately it depends on who believes in you. A member of the board, a CEO/President, owner. Unless someone supports you it’s a precarious step to be sure. A mentor once told me, always be right, but avoid being dead right.