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Updated: KPMG chair resigns after staff revolt

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KPMG UK chairman Bill Michael has now resigned following accusations that he told staff to "stop moaning" about the pandemic and continuing lockdown and to stop "playing the victim card".

11th Feb 2021
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Updated 12 February 2021 – KPMG official statement:

KPMG confirms resignation of Bill Michael

KPMG UK confirms that Bill Michael, its Chair and Senior Partner, has resigned and will leave the firm at the end of this month.

Bill Michael said: “I love the firm and I am truly sorry that my words have caused hurt amongst my colleagues and for the impact the events of this week have had on them. In light of that, I regard my position as untenable and so I have decided to leave the firm.  It has been a privilege to have acted as Chair of KPMG.  I feel hugely proud of all our people and the things they have achieved, particularly during these very challenging times.”

In line with the firm’s governance protocols, Bina Mehta, as Senior Elected Board Member, has stepped in as Acting Chair of the Board and Mary O’Connor, Head of Clients and Markets has assumed Bill’s day-to-day Executive responsibilities as Acting Senior Partner.

Bina Mehta, Acting Chair of the Board of KPMG UK said: “Bill has made a huge contribution to our firm over the last thirty years, especially over the last three years as Chairman, and we wish him all the best for the future.”

The firm will undertake a leadership election in due course.

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KPMG has announced that chairman Bill Michael is stepping aside while the Big Four firm investigates allegations of telling staff to stop complaining about the pandemic during a video meeting.

According to the Financial Times, which originally reported the allegations, Michael reportedly told staff to "stop moaning" about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown and to stop "playing the victim card".

The meeting included 1,500 staff – a third of KPMG’s consulting team, all of which he included in an email at the end of the call apologising for his comments. 

“I know that words matter and I regret the ones I chose to use today,” emailed Michael. “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.” 

KPMG has now opened an “independent investigation” into the allegations.

“Mr Michael has decided to step aside from his duties as chair while the investigation is underway,” commented a spokeswoman. “We take this matter very seriously and will not comment further while the investigation is ongoing.” 

KPMG board member Bina Mehta is will step in as interim chairman, and will be KPMG UK's first female leader.

Staff complain anonymously through app

Many KPMG staff present complained of his poor conduct through an anonymous posting app during the meeting. Two meeting members reported him telling staff he would be seeing clients in person, despite lockdown rules and rejected unconscious bias as “complete crap”. 

“He literally said, ‘I know I’m breaking the law’ to meet up with people during the pandemic,” a participant commented. 

“There’s no such thing as unconscious bias?! Are you joking? Please do your research before just making such statements. Check your privilege,” stated one post.

“Did Bill Michael say unconscious bias is just crap? Herein lies the issue. Whilst the training may not be effective, to say it doesn't exist is just reckless,” said another. 

Many staff were disappointed in Michael's suggestion that staff should stop complaining and work harder. 

Others were allegedly upset over his dismissal of staff concerns about potential staff bonus cuts, pay and pensions. Michael had also been hospitalised with confirmed Covid in 2020.

Comments come after poll showing staff struggling

What is curious, is that Michael’s comments came after the meeting’s opening staff poll which showed the consultants were struggling to cope during the pandemic.

“I am sorry for the words I used, which did not reflect what I believe in, and I have apologised to my colleagues,” Michael later responded. “Looking after the wellbeing of our people and creating a culture where everyone can thrive is of critical importance to me and is at the heart of everything we do as a firm.”

KPMG will not confirm whether Michael’s pay will cease during the investigation. He was paid £1.7m in 2020, even after a 14% pay cut – and nearly £2mn in 2019.

No sympathy for employees

“Over 50% of us on this call have just said we are either ‘hanging in there’ [or] ‘drained’. I’m left incredibly unimpressed by the comments from our leadership,” an employee posted anonymously via the app. 

“Many junior employees [have been] unable to see loved ones for ages and living in cramped quarters. Where is the empathy from leadership?” said another.

“People are struggling with serious mental health issues and having our [leaders] tell us to shut up and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps is heartbreaking.”

Toxic work culture

This incident is not the first time KPMG has come under fire for having a toxic work culture. In 2019, two female partners quit KPMG over the alleged bullying conduct of a male partner. 

KPMG was accused of mishandling the incident, failing to dismiss the partner and ordering him to apologise to the affected employees and undertake leadership coaching.

Meanwhile, Matt Portt, the founder of Portt and Co, told AccountingWEB: "This type of archaic leadership shows how out of touch some of the larger firms are with today’s workforce. No longer will people tolerate being treated as a commodity. 

Portt and Co recently committed to becoming a B Corp to demonstrate how the firm values its people the same as profits. "We understand that if a firm does not value its people, its people will not value the clients of the firm and client service suffers."

Replies (35)

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By Paul Crowley
11th Feb 2021 20:49

How can anyone be that rich and still be that dumb
But I suppose the big (insert your own number) have partners seriously insulated from real life.
I care about each member of my staff
Not many of them and all had 100% income when furlough and lockdown was relevant.

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
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By Donny7
12th Feb 2021 07:56

It's quite 'cut throat' in the big 4. They just want the service to be delivered no matter what.

I ran after the name and decided to go there with big hopes. It turned out to be the biggest mistake I have ever made. I absolutely hated it, but it was the toxic staff who put me off.

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Replying to Donny7:
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By Jackson4321
27th Feb 2021 09:37

Donny7 wrote:

It's quite 'cut throat' in the big 4. They just want the service to be delivered no matter what.

I ran after the name and decided to go there with big hopes. It turned out to be the biggest mistake I have ever made. I absolutely hated it, but it was the toxic staff who put me off.

Thanks for the informaiton keep sharing

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By Donny7
12th Feb 2021 07:51

Good grief...

Glad I'm not there anymore, it was one of the worst experiences of my life.

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By Justin Bryant
12th Feb 2021 09:59

It's worse though if you say one thing & do another and how many people are like that (a lot, lot more - practically all politicians for a start)?

When I was at the Big 4 the worst people were the latter types who would surely just pay lip service to such matters (at least you know where you stand with the other, far less common, plain speaking types!).

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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 10:18

Without in any way condoning or condemning what happened in this particular situation, here are two questions: (1) What is the best way to act when staff, in fact, are moaning and making excuses while not doing what they should to cope with a difficult situation? (2) What is the best way to act when staff are acting out of exaggerated perceptions of unfair discrimination by, for example, white people against non-white people, or men against women? What if they are claiming/believing that unconscious bias is much, much more prevalent and powerful than in fact it is? What can be said to counter this today?

Both these things are bound to happen from time to time. In a very large organization there will almost certainly be some people, a few, who are doing these things.

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Replying to matthewleitch:
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By Donny7
12th Feb 2021 10:45

Have you ever worked in the big4?

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Replying to Donny7:
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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 11:01

Yes. For several years up to 2002 I worked at PwC, which was then the most greed-driven, political, and horrible place I have ever worked. It was also intellectually stifling and repressive to someone with my interest in research and innovation. However, this was not due to leadership. Colleagues at my relatively low level were just as likely to stab you in the back as anyone else.

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Replying to matthewleitch:
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By Paul Crowley
12th Feb 2021 11:19

Leadership drives the corporate culture
Junior back stabbers observe and adopt

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 11:27

I don't think it is as simple as that. Leaders often are a reflection, to some extent, of the collective behaviours of those they lead. I do not know what made PwC quite the place it was (at least in the London offices where I worked). Some of the more senior partners I met seemed (superficially) to be more decent than many at lower levels. I certainly could not say that the example they set from day to day was a bad one. Some of the worst were ambitious partners at lower levels. Others were partners keeping things easy for themselves in the run up to a very comfortable retirement.

The key point is that every employee, at every level, has at least some personal responsibility for how things are done where they work.

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
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By Justin Bryant
12th Feb 2021 11:33

That's not necessarily true - I was at PwC too back then and agree 100% with the above comments.

Who's to say this KPMG fellow has not been stitched up by some evil junior? Who leaked to the press etc., etc.?

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 12:09

The new behaviours in these situations that were not around back in 2002 when I left PwC are (1) raising racial and gender differences at work, (2) attacking firm instructions to try harder as bullying, (3) complaining outside the firm, to the press/websites, and (4) apologies and resignations as a result.

Presumably people in senior positions today need to have learned exactly what to say in response to these equality talking points so that they can respond without getting into trouble. Some seem to do this by going along with it. Others have worked out some words that gently but firmly stand up to exaggerations and unfair insinuations.

They also need to know how to respond to allegations or insinuations of 'bullying', which are another way a senior person can be attacked, even on occasions when they are doing their jobs quite well.

In this case, the Chairman used the wrong words and then compounded his mistake by apologising instead of restating and clarifying any valid messages he may have had in mind.

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
Melchett
By thestudyman
12th Feb 2021 14:06

Paul Crowley wrote:

Leadership drives the corporate culture
Junior back stabbers observe and adopt

Very true. The phrase "A fish rots from the head down" comes to mind.

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By martinhayward
12th Feb 2021 11:45

Reaction to this just about sums up the snowflake culture of many of the current workforce in the accountancy and other professions. So the guy told people to stop moaning. So what?

My son gets up at 5.45 am every morning to collect peoples recycling and waste. Its freezing cold and very, very hard work. He gets abused at least half a dozen times a day by members of the public. All this for £10 an hour and a bonus of a tin of biscuits at Christmas from his more appreciative customers.

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Replying to martinhayward:
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By Donny7
12th Feb 2021 11:54

We are going through a terrible pandemic though, and many have suffered and are still suffering. People have the right to moan and complain, you can't blame them for that.

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By martinhayward
12th Feb 2021 12:06

People in our profession have had it very easy in this pandemic compared to in other sectors. Very few redundancies, an increase workload for some admittedly as we try to help our clients but we should thank our lucky stars we haven't been affected like those in retail, hospitality, travel etc let alone those on the frontline who have actually been dying Its pathetic to react to a bit of criticism like this.

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Replying to Donny7:
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By martinhayward
12th Feb 2021 12:06

People in our profession have had it very easy in this pandemic compared to in other sectors. Very few redundancies, an increase workload for some admittedly as we try to help our clients but we should thank our lucky stars we haven't been affected like those in retail, hospitality, travel etc let alone those on the frontline who have actually been dying Its pathetic to react to a bit of criticism like this.

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Replying to Donny7:
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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 12:17

'Moaning' and 'complaining' are when people talk about problems but have no suggestions for solutions other than thinking that someone else needs to do something. We don't know if that is what happened here because we didn't get enough facts from the article.

Perhaps the complaints were reasonable and there were suggestions that were quite sensible and should have been welcomed. Or perhaps this was just tiresome moaning by people who are a lot less affected than many others in our society and really should recognize that their problems are rather small. We don't know in this case.

Negative carping isn't illegal, so in that sense people do have a 'right' to do it, but it's not really a helpful or supportive thing to do at work.

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By Justin Bryant
12th Feb 2021 11:22

I note he's actually now been forced to quit over this. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56038215

Witch-hunt like almost - witch (pun intended) is more worrying than his indiscretion in my view. After all, aren't auditors supposed to be encouraged to speak plainly about things of concern to them without fear of repercussion etc.?

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By tedbuck
12th Feb 2021 11:46

Absolutely pathetic - I am surprised that the staff didn't sit there sobbing their hearts out - what on earth do they expect? OMG they got told off for being moaners - oh dear perhaps they should run home to mummy and cry on her shoulder.
I imagine they get paid decent salaries - are they too pathetic to actually earn them?
And yes - I worked for KPMG many years ago - and I left, but it was from boredom not the work culture.
I feel sorry for the future of our profession if this epitomises the sort of people in it. On this basis they will be pulling down Moorgate Place because it is unfair to someone or other.
Absolutely pathetic - they should sack the lot of them.

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By tedbuck
12th Feb 2021 11:59

Actually I have been a bit one sided in my above comment - what about the total lack of support from his gutless partners - I should think he is well out of it. And if you were a client what would you think of a firm where the partners cringe to the staff and scapegoat the senior partner. Would you employ them? I certainly wouldn't. Should be a few clients looking for a new accountant/auditor.

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By martinhayward
12th Feb 2021 12:09

I am afraid that most big firms are run by gutless boards themselves - always trying to please what they mistakenly perceive as being the mainline view- so they would have reacted in exactly the same way

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paddle steamer
By DJKL
15th Feb 2021 12:39

Don't know about that, if I am FD of a listed company and have just found a firm that will bend to pressure then maybe that is exactly the firm I want as my auditors.

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By Donny7
15th Feb 2021 16:28

?

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By Mr J Andrews
12th Feb 2021 12:24

Just shows the guy's pathetic weakness . All very well using bully boy tactics and getting the money in - in the ''good'' times ; but come a crisis , absolutely clueless. Mouth now , apologise later if the mouth doesn't work ; know the type ?
So KPMG are conducting an ''independent investigation'' . But independent of whom ? If Michael has blatantly bastardised the lockdown rules , KPMG are not qualified to pass judgement here. And what an [***] example to staff . This is a police matter.
KPMG will neither say whether this so called fast-talking Australian will be paid or not during this ''investigation''. Do I detect a kangaroo court ?

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Replying to Mr J Andrews:
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By farrcorfe
13th Feb 2021 15:17

Bill Michael is just exercising his right to free speech and saying that people should buckle down to the job in 'these difficult times' (God, how we hate that expression) rather than just do enough to keep their nose clean - stop moaning and earn your pay! If people don't agree with free speech they themselves should just shut up

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By Charlie Brown
12th Feb 2021 12:52

Should the snowflakes stop moaning about nothing, or has an out of touch and out of date leader exposed himself and been replaced as a result?

There's always people worse off in society, but from experience the big firms can be very stressful, toxic and unpleasant places to work. I wouldn't recommend them to anyone.

Good on the KPMG staff for knowing their self worth and standing up for themselves in this instance.

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Replying to Charlie Brown:
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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 13:28

The Daily Mail has some clips of the remarks themselves from the video call and a couple of important details can be seen. (1) The remark about moaning is in response to conversations with partners, not ordinary staff, and related to their diaries. In my mind this means we are talking about very well paid people who can do their work perfectly well from the comfort of their large homes. (2) The remarks about unconscious bias not existing were in the context of trying to say that removing bias needs something more effective than unconscious bias training. He seems to want to get people to really want to change (towards less unfair bias).

I'm afraid it looks very much as if some retellings of this story in news publications have clipped particular remarks out of their context, which makes them seem much worse than they would have at the time.

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Replying to matthewleitch:
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By Charlie Brown
12th Feb 2021 15:30

It's a fair point that it's hard to judge without actually being there.

I've read the Daily Mail report and it suggests he is talking to highly paid staff which does put it into a slightly different context if that is true. It also says it's a virtual town hall meeting attended by 1,500 employees, so I'd be surprised if it wasn't attended by people of differing grades and pay.

I appreciate most people won't shed any years for well paid managers, auditors and accountants, but the majority of staff in the firm are not highly paid. They are admin staff, back office staff, and junior staff getting paid a normal wage like everyone else and trying to get by.

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By tolloller
12th Feb 2021 13:58

These are difficult times. When many companies have closed due to the pandemic these employees should be thankful they have a job. They will easily get work when the present pandemic is over. if they don't wish to stay at KPMG. If they don't like the heat of the oven get out of the kitchen.

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Replying to tolloller:
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By Charlie Brown
12th Feb 2021 14:24

I'm sure they are thankful that they're not worse off than others. However, do you honestly believe that staff should be completely submissive to their bosses with no right to discuss the issues affecting them? It seems a bit unreasonable.

This man has lost the respect of the people he is there to lead, making himself redundant.

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Replying to Charlie Brown:
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By matthewleitch
12th Feb 2021 15:05

Can I just remind you that the quotes we have seen in articles seem to have been taken out of context rather. Having now seen at least some brief clips of the original video I noticed that it was partners complaining about their diaries that Mr Michael was responding to and his full response distinguished between people who are sick (with the virus presumably) and others. We don't get enough detail to really understand this but it is clear that some quotes at least have been damagingly taken out of their context.

Maybe there were other parts of the conversation where he returned to the subject of moaning, but the Daily Mail did not have them included in its selection. The BBC's slightly longer quotes also suggest that some context stripping trickery has been used.

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By farrcorfe
13th Feb 2021 13:16

Time to retire has summarised the situation perfectly. We all know that the big audit firms are dreadful employers but they are a good stepping stone to get into industry. Some of the earlier comments have more than a whiff of 'fremdschamen' about them particularly on the racial/gender bias endemic in the realpolitik of commercial life - basically a case of 'put up or shut up'

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Red Leader
By Red Leader
15th Feb 2021 11:09

When I worked in one of the big firms, there was a senior manager who was angling for partnership. Everyone at my level regarded him as an absolute c**t. He didn't get promoted in the end, so make of that what you will. Maybe he wasn't enough of a c**t!

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Replying to Red Leader:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
15th Feb 2021 12:45

I think the secret is to be sufficiently c**ty at the right times and with the right audience, effectively selective c**tyism.

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