This week Bill Michael, the UK boss at KPMG, lost his job. He stood down after his comments on a video conference with staff caused a stir. Australian Bill 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; and he suggested they should stop “playing the victim card”. For some reason he then went on to describe “unconscious bias training” as “complete and utter crap”.
So, given his largely Gen Y and Gen Z audience what should Bill have done?
Well, Bill is known for saying it like it is – which is a very valuable characterise in business (the alternative is being in denial or failing to focus on key issues). His point was that these employees had not been furloughed… and that many industries and people have had a much tougher time. But maybe it was his tone – he needed to use more empathy (as both Gen Y and Gen Z staff expect to have “a voice” and to be considered) and to acknowledge that some employees would be disappointed to not to have been able to make their growth targets (for which you can read “bonusses”) through no fault of their own. He also needed to let them know that he was aware that some of his staff may feel that that so many things are outside of their control; and may be starting to experience depression and or anxiety.
A more mindful approach would have been to recognise the issues on the minds of his staff… even those issues that don’t seem merited… and maybe to think about why staff may have those views… and to acknowledge their emotions while helping them to focus more positively on the future. Maybe something like this:
“I know that many of you will be frustrated and disappointed that the pandemic has prevented us from hitting our growth targets – those opportunities were taken from us… they weren’t there for us – but as a company we are in a great place and we will be able to make progress as the world opens up. And while this pandemic has shown us that there are things we cannot control – it is important that, right now, we focus on the things that we can impact… so that we are ready for the challenges ahead.”
“Let’s recognise that the company has been able to keep everyone working – so none of us has faced the financial worries that staff in other sectors have had to deal with. Yet, I am sure there will be those of you, or maybe within your families, who have found the last year challenging from a mental health point of view. If this is you then reach out for the resources, we have available and try to avoid ruminating about the past or feeling anxious about the future… simply focus on the tasks before us today.”
So it’s is not about arguing about the logic or the validity of staff concerns – its acknowledging that the past has gone and about refocussing everyone on the way forward.
By the way, it is always useful to be aware of our unconscious biases (otherwise we may miss things or make poor decisions… repeatedly) – maybe Bill needed to be aware of his own biases when addressing the emotions and needs of his staff.
This whole episode seems to be about tone and culture – right at the top of KPMG.
A piece on this story form Bloomberg (here), make the point that the culture of listed companies are cutinised by shareholders – but the big audit companies like KPMG are not listed. Their own governance code says such firms should promote an appropriate culture principally through “the right tone from the top.” They should maintain “a culture of openness which encourages people to consult and share problems.” There’s that tone world together with a need to encourage openness and sharing.
Bloomberg suggests that: “The Big Four audit firms talk a lot about the strength of their audit culture. They could go further to evidence this, say by annually disclosing the results of staff surveys, including questions about the strength of the leadership and the commitment to diversity and inclusion, and outlining in general terms usage of speak-up hotlines. Call it a culture audit.”