KPMG’s mishandling of the alleged bullying conduct of a male partner has led to two prominent female partners to leave the Big Four firm.
According to The Financial Times (paywall), two female KPMG partners left in protest over the Big Four firm’s verdict that a male partner’s behaviour did not amount to bullying.
The male partner’s communication style was brought into question following an anonymous complaint made via KPMG’s whistleblowing hotline and directly to his line manager.
However, the investigation stopped short of dismissing the partner. Instead, he had to apologise to the affected employees and ordered to undertake leadership coaching in January.
Since KPMG didn’t recognise the complaints as bullying following an investigation, the male partner remains in the same position.
The two KPMG partners at the centre of this story – Maggie Brereton and Ina Kjaer – quit the firm in February to the dismay of colleagues who described Brereton as a “prized asset” and both as talented partners.
KPMG defends decision
KPMG has defended its decision to not take action against the male partner in question. “It is important to note that while aspects of the individual’s behaviour required improvement, they did not amount to bullying,” a spokesperson told the FT.
The Big Four also reiterated its stance against bullying of any sort. “When we receive reports of behaviour that contravene our policy we have a set investigation process and where allegations are upheld, we have taken a range of actions up to and including dismissal.”
These resignations harken back to similar concerns voiced in December last year when the Big Four accountancy firms disclosed for the first time the inappropriate behaviour within its senior ranks.
KPMG revealed at the time that seven partners had left the firm over bullying and sexual harassment claims. Over the course of a few days all the Big Four firms publically announced their commitment against harassment and bullying.
With the highest number of sackings at 20 partners, Deloitte came swinging with the most robust statement against inappropriate workplace behaviour with its outgoing chief executive David Sproul warning that the firm will fire people. “No one is protected,” he said.
KPMG needs to rethink its leadership
Brereton and Kjaer's exit also points to the disparity of gender balance with the big accounting firms, which the gender pay gap figures continue to demonstrate.
But leadership coach Blaire Palmer, CEO of The People Thing, said it's not often a lack of confidence or ambition that stops women from stepping into high profile roles, it's their “unwillingness to tolerate some of the behaviour they see at this level”.
“For too long business has tolerated and often promoted subtle and not-so subtle hard-man behaviours, willing to overlook a little 'light bullying' by top performers or brushing it aside as harmless banter. And then we wonder why there are so few women at the top of our big firms," she said.
Palmer believes firms like KPMG need to rethink their ideas about what leadership looks like and the kind of behaviour we admire in so-called leaders.
“What these two senior women have demonstrated is that this behaviour was worth putting their own careers on the line for. Principled leaders like this, male or female, are what business needs in leadership roles, not individuals who believe employees should expect a bit bullying, teasing, favouritism, rudeness, some saucy language or a few jokes at their expense.”
Palmer also emphasised that firms like KPMG should send a message that their workplace "should be a safe space for people to do their best work".
“Most companies have policies to tackle the most extreme cases of bullying. But what you permit you promote and KPMG has sent a message that it is willing to permit behaviour that at least two senior women find unacceptable.
“Increasingly people are prioritising organisational culture over salary and benefits package and KPMG is sending a message out to the market that its culture needs serious work.”
About Richard Hattersley
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