EY leader to team: 'Work until 11.30pm every night, and at weekends'

19 January 2021 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read

Big four consulting giant EY's Hong Kong staff are under pressure to work until 11.30pm each week night, and give up their weekends during their busiest periods, according to a series of leaked emails. While the possible breach of industrial relations laws is shocking, it is also all too common in the consulting industry, according to numerous sources.

When it comes to standard working hours, workers in Hong Kong face one of the most gruelling schedules in any advanced economy. The average working week is 50.1 hours – 38% above the global average – while a local government census in 2016 showed that roughly 10% of employees regularly put in 60-plus hours a week, while almost 1% do 75 hours and above. Couple this with the fact Hong Kong only has 17 public holidays per year, compared to an average of 23 around the world, and the country can claim to have one of the longest working weeks in the world.

Even in that toxic environment, however, one Manager from a Big Four firm has managed to catch the eyes of the world’s press – with a series of stunningly insensitive emails berating his team for failing to reply to Skype messages “in one minute,” having the temerity to want to spend time with friends and family, and even having food poisoning. Initially shared by Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, the screenshots of the EY Manager’s messages have since been republished by the Australian Financial Review, and GoingConcern.com, among other sources.

EY leader to team: 'Work until 11.30pm every night, and at weekends'

Entitled "peak season working protocol and expectation", the email said that staff must start work by 9.30am and finish no earlier than 11.30pm on weekdays. Meanwhile, on Friday, staff were allowed to get off at 7.30pm "to have dinner with family and friends", but were expected to work most of the weekend, and were even warned that “midnight is common in peak seasons,” while failing to comply with these requirements “counts on the discipline and responsibility of yourself.”

The email reportedly may constitute a breach of industrial relations laws, and has sparked an internal investigation at EY, while the firm has organised counselling for those involved. However, according to sources in the consulting industry, the EY Manager – who also worked with Big Four competitor Deloitte – is not wrong in stating it is common for such rules to be flouted in the sector. At the start of their careers, consultants are often leant on to work unpaid overtime, with the implication that their career progression will depend on it. As a result, it is not common for junior staff to work 60-hour weeks or more – especially in the world of strategy consulting, which is more towards 70 hours.

At PwC, for example, one source recently told the AFR that 70 hours is the norm, while another said working 12-hour days and weekends was standard practice in ‘busy season.’ Deloitte staff meanwhile reported similar conditions. Busy season, or peak season, happens ahead of listed companies' reporting season and lasts about three months, twice a year. It is typically the period when auditors need to prepare financial statements and companies need greater compliance support – however, the pushing for overtime have rarely been shown so blatantly as by EY’s Manager in Hong Kong.

On top of the suggestion that employees who did not bend to the Manager’s will could face disciplinary action, other messages leaked to the press showed that the individual’s dictatorial streak also extended to policing staff’s private lives and healthcare regimens. Having demanded “everytime… try to reply my skype within one minute,” one conversation saw the manager insist that employees should not try to turn off their “data or phone” from February onwards, while another saw him suggest “food poisoning” and “family issues” were “excuses” which staff should not allow to be a “stumbling block.”

According to the original Apple Daily article, Hong Kong working regulations state may well have been compromised by EY’s Manager. In the guidelines on “Rest Days, Statutory Holidays and Paid Annual Leave” in Chapter 4 of the Employment Ordinance of Hong Kong, employees who are employed under a continuous contract are entitled to at least one rest day every seven days.