KPMG’s Head of Deal Advisory steps down amid 'bullying' storm

03 July 2019 7 min. read

KPMG’s UK Head of Deal Advisory has stepped down to take a leave of absence “in the wider interest of the firm”, following complaints regarding the way he spoke to colleagues. The move comes despite the Big Four firm having found Sanjay Thakkar’s behaviour “did not amount to bullying” during an internal investigation, something which seemingly caused two experienced figures to quit the firm in protest.

Sanjay Thakkar joined KPMG’s St Albans office in 1991, becoming a UK Partner in 2005 before a stint working in its Indian practice. He has since become one of the most senior Partners at the Big Four accounting and consulting firm, and is one of its 14-strong executive committee in Britain, having become KPMG’s Head of Deal Advisory in the UK in 2014. Now, however, Thakkar has stepped down from his role, following a period of mounting scrutiny for KPMG in light of his being sent for ‘leadership training’ by the firm, following allegations of bullying from several senior staff members.

As reported by The Times, a formal complaint was understood to have been made through KPMG’s whistle-blower hotline in October 2018, in the fallout of a meeting with other senior colleagues over graduate recruitment – an issue which the firm has also been criticised for on reviews, with one stating, “You can feel the pressure as the company is struggling, thus people are playing politics rather than performing. The graduates in Deal Advisory suffer the most, as there is a lack of structural training unlike in Audit.”

Following this particular meeting, a complaint accused Thakkar of having expressed himself too harshly, and preventing others from speaking, to the extent it suggested his behaviour amounted to bullying. This was something KPMG’s subsequent internal investigation ultimately found against, though the complaint was upheld.

Maggie Brereton and Ina Amaro Kjaer

After the investigation, Thakkar reportedly apologised to the colleagues concerned in the presence of his line manager, Philip Davidson, KPMG Managing Partner and a member of the UK board. He was also sent for leadership training, while KPMG has installed its UK board Deputy Chair Melanie Richards in a new additional role as Chair of Deal Advisory. This role is understood to see her working closely with Thakkar on his leadership.

Issuing a statement on the matter, a KPMG spokesperson told the press, “It is important to note that while aspects of Sanjay’s behaviour required improvement, they did not amount to bullying. For the avoidance of doubt, KPMG does not tolerate bullying of any sort.”

However, The Financial Times reported that Maggie Brereton, who was Head of UK Transaction Services and a board member, and Ina Kjaer, who was Head of UK Integration in the Deal Advisory team, had both resigned over the matter. According to reports in the press, neither of the women gave a reason why they left the firm in February 2019, but the pair are alleged to have shared concerns over KPMG’s handling of the complaints.

On their LinkedIn profiles, both Brereton and Kjaer confirmed that they had both resigned from KPMG and are currently on ‘garden leave’, taking 40 years of experience working at KPMG with them. The Financial Times reported that they were highly respected, and two of the firm’s most talented Partners. Their departure arrives in the wake of a bruising period at KPMG, with a series of accounting controversies in the UK fuelling calls for the Big Four to be broken up.

Meanwhile, pressure continued to build on KPMG, with public sentiment suggesting the firm had failed to tackle the issue. Commenting via the article on The Times’ website, a number of readers pilloried the firm, calling its statement “typically tone deaf and damaging,” suggesting “a man in power being let off again,” and even recounting tales of abuse from earlier periods in KPMG’s history. One noted they had spent “the most miserable year of my life working there”, being “relentlessly bullied by the men in my dept, some of whom were managers. Unfortunately, the easiest thing was to leave.”

Sanjay Thakkar, Partner Deal Advisory at KPMG

At the same time, social media saw KPMG similarly lambasted. Prem Sikka, an Emeritus Professor of Accounting tweeted that the list of things wrong at big accounting firms “continues to grow daily. No reaction from clients,” while environmental campaigner Joel Benjamin also brought up the idea that clients should be taking a stance on KPMG’s perceived inaction, stating KPMG are “the same people auditing your NHS Hospital & local Council.”

Following this, the Financial Times also reported that issues with Thakkar’s conduct had been raised back in 2017 but ignored by senior executives. Soon, revelations emerged that the firm had been reported to the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) over its handling of Thakkar’s behaviour and subsequent internal handling of the investigation. Amid this intensifying criticism, Thakkar stepped down to take a leave of absence “in the wider interest of the firm”, according to a leaked internal email.

Continuing matter

Evidently, KPMG had hoped Thakkar's stepping down would put an end to the matter. The company was quick to send an article to Accountancy Age, in which two senior female executives at KPMG “weigh in on allegation processes.”

Michelle Quest, Head of Tax, Pensions, and Legal Services at KPMG UK, and Melissa Geiger, Head of International Tax and Tax Policy at KPMG UK, declined to comment specifically about the allegations against Thakkar or the bullying investigation, but both were happy to speak about KPMG’s “very inclusive culture” in glowing terms.

Quest then added, “As a former Head of People at KPMG and now Head of Tax and sitting on the executive committee, we have processes in place, we follow those processes – not everyone will always like the outcome of those processes, and we have to always look at continuous improvement.”

This particular statement seems to have added fuel to the fire, however. Accounting news site Going Concern went as far as to tweet “KPMG UK doesn’t really care if you don’t like how it handled complaints against Partner accused of bullying”, while publishing a piece in which it paraphrased Quest’s comments as “if you don’t like the processes the firm uses when complaints are made, too bad.”

With the firm still facing suggestions it sided with a male Partner caught out by its own whistleblowing system, KPMG seems to be left facing some awkward questions. While the company might have felt it had taken adequate action for what it believed was not bullying, and the Partner in question has now stepped down, the resignation of two long-time female Partners in relation to its complaints procedures, and its repeated defence of that system has put more pressure on the firm.

The furore also comes after December 2018 saw the Big Four admit they had sacked almost 40 Partners between them within the past four years for inappropriate conduct, such as sexual harassment and bullying. Seven of those had worked at KPMG.

Commenting at the time, Anna Purchas, Head of People for KPMG, said its anti-harassment, victimisation and bullying policy “strictly prohibits” such behaviours at the firm. She explained, “When our people experience or see behaviour they believe contravenes this policy, we actively encourage them to report it to us, either by speaking to a manager, senior colleague, dedicated HR contact or via Speak Up, our whistleblowing hotline or our Values Helpline.”