KPMG UK Chair faces investigation following controversial remarks

12 February 2021 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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Big Four firm KPMG has seen its UK arm plunge into disarray, after comments of its Chair Bill Michael suggested that he did not believe in the firm’s efforts to address unconscious bias. Michael also accused staff of “playing the victim card” regarding KPMG’s staff performance measurement technique, which reportedly ranks staff from best to worst.

The Chair of KPMG UK, Bill Michael, has temporarily resigned from his position at the head of the firm, due to an investigation the professional services giant is conducting into "alleged statements" he made during an internal online meeting. According to the Financial Times, the meeting saw Michael tell consultants to “stop whining” amid a discussion about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their working lives.

As reported since, during the call a number of KPMG's expressed concerns about possible cuts in their pension contributions, salaries and bonuses. They also raised objections to the "forced distribution curve" – a controversial performance assessment system which currently sees the company rank individuals within a team from best to worst. Michael’s response to these comments is said to have been that consultants should not “play the victim card,” which two employees later took umbrage with.

Bill Michael, KPMG UK Chairman

Speaking to the Financial Times, the sources said, “If someone tells you to stop whining in the middle of a recession while people are dying, it says it all.”

Piecing together conversations with various employees privy to the conversation, the UK newspaper also reported that some employees defended his sentiments. While one admitted Michael’s words were “way too blunt,” they contended that his intention was appropriate, and they believed he had meant that people who are struggling should "do something and seek help."

The controversy regarding the well-being of consultants amid the current lockdown drew comment from Management Consultancies Association CEO Tamzen Isacsson, who stated, “The well-being of the consulting sector’s staff and clients has been the number one priority for firms during recent lockdowns as evidenced by the high priority given to enhanced staff well-being programmes and this best practice has been shared across the sector at industry events over the past year. Staff experiencing personal well-being issues and self-isolation have been given extensive support and office space has been made available, where it is critically necessary, for those that cannot work from home.”

Unconscious bias

Michael’s tirade did not end there, however, and his comments have also landed him in hot water regarding his attitude toward the UK’s pandemic lockdown rules, and KPMG’s workplace diversity and inclusivity efforts. Two insiders said he told staff he was meeting clients for coffee in spite of lockdown rules, while he also dismissed unconscious bias training as “complete crap.” A video of Michael making the comments has since been leaked to the MailOnline, where Michael he added that he felt the practice of training for it was without merit.

He said, “I don’t think this point of, what do you call it? Unconscious bias. I think unconscious bias is complete crap. Complete and utter crap for years. There is no such thing as unconscious bias. I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that’s ever been done nothing’s ever improved. So unless you care, you actually won’t change. And I think there’s a lot more care, more generally, to change.”

Unconscious bias training programs are designed to expose people to their implicit biases, provide tools to adjust patterns of thinking, and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviour. It has been rapidly adopted by firms in recent years – particularly in response to the Black Lives Matter campaign’s rise to prominence. The technique remains divisive among activists however, with some criticising it for neglecting systemic causes of inequality – including the corporate governance and leadership structure of organisations. This is something which has seen it labelled by some equality experts as a risk-mitigation and compliance tool, designed to protect organisations from litigation rather than effect demonstrable change.

In its defence, MCA leader Isacsson added, “For several years unconscious bias training has been a core part of diversity programmes in firms and huge amounts of time and effort have been invested in ensuring staff receive training to support our commitment to diversity and inclusion. Unconscious bias training is one of many techniques, tools and training courses which are used by firms to ensure they are improving staff awareness and understanding of difference and creating a more inclusive environment where difference is valued, respected and celebrated at all levels.

Meanwhile, Michael has since apologised for his comments in an email to KPMG’s 1,500-strong financial services consulting team. The message stated, “I know that words matter and I regret the ones I chose to use today. I think lockdown is proving difficult for all of us. I am very sorry for what I said and the way that I said it.”