Matthew Lynn

KPMG’s boss was right to tell staff to stop moaning

KPMG's boss was right to tell staff to stop moaning
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You have to navigate the tricky etiquette of what to wear for Zoom meetings. That little black box in the corner has to be rebooted from time to time when the wi-fi goes wonky. You have to make your own sandwiches instead of popping out to Pret. And there is a severe risk of hand strain if you don’t have the right kind of ergonomic equipment while perched on the laptop in the kitchen. 

There have, of course, been some challenges for the white collar classes as they make their way through lockdown. But, you know, all things considered, it is just possible that it hasn’t been that bad. The trouble is, it seems you can’t say that in public anymore – and if you do, like Bill Michael at KPMG, it will cost you your career.

The chairman of the UK arm of the accounting and consulting giant caused a stir this week. Addressing a virtual meeting, he told 500 of the firm’s staff that they should ‘stop moaning’ about the impact of the pandemic on their lives after they raised concerns about potential bonus and pay cuts. 

Warming to his theme, he suggested they should stop ‘playing the victim card’ when complaining about their lot. And, as if he wasn’t in a deep enough hole already, he then decided to keep on digging. For good measure, he said that ‘unconscious bias’ training was ‘complete and utter crap’. 

It was all far too much for the snowflakes that no doubt make up a good proportion of the staff. His comments were promptly leaked to the Financial Times. Michael survived the predictable social media storm for a couple of days, but this morning he threw in the towel, and resigned from his post, apologising profusely for any hurt he had caused.

Hold on though. Maybe Michael had a point? In the course of this epidemic there has been some genuine suffering. Hospital staff dealing with Covid-19 patients have had a very tough time, and have responded magnificently. Police officers and other emergency workers have had to cope with extraordinarily difficult challenges. Amazon’s delivery drivers have kept the world ticking over, and AstraZeneca’s and Pfizer’s scientists and logistics experts have delivered vaccines on scale at record time. Those are all real achievements. 

But accountants and management consultants? KPMG’s revenues have been broadly stable through one of the worst recessions in 300 years. KPMG did not furlough any of its 15,600 employees and any reductions in bonuses have been modest. 

True, everyone has had to work from home, and they have missed out on a few team bonding sessions. But it is not exactly the apocalypse. So bosses need to be able to tell their staff to grow up, stop complaining, knuckle down and get on with the job occasionally. It won’t do them any harm. 

KPMG’s delicate staff may not be able to live with that anymore. And yet, just perhaps, the world could use auditors who can deliver bad news from time to time, and consultants who can handle adversity and work out a way through it, rather than simply buckling at the first sign of a few headwinds. The firm might not have any place for a man who tells it like it is anymore – but a few of their clients might have appreciated it.

Written byMatthew Lynn

Matthew Lynn is a financial columnist and author of ‘Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis’ and ‘The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031’

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