KPMG boss steps aside amid probe into incendiary comments at a virtual meeting

The UK chairman of accounting giant KPMG has been ousted after ‘woke’ staff to who urged him to ‘check his privilege’ when he told a virtual meeting of 1,500 people to ‘stop moaning’ about the pandemic.  

Outspoken Australian Bill Michael, who earns a £1.7 million salary, reportedly told consultants asking him about pay, pension and bonus cuts to cease ‘playing the victim card’.

The 52-year-old also dismissed the concept of unconscious bias as ‘complete c**p’ and told staff he had been meeting clients for coffee despite lockdown rules, sources revealed. 

His warning to staff to ‘stop moaning’ came after KPMG’s annual results revealed that its hundreds of partners still earned an average of £572,000 each in 2020, despite the pandemic that is expected to see hundreds of thousands of Britons lose their jobs. 

But Mr Michael later apologised for his comments and claimed they did not reflect his beliefs. But KPMG said he would now step aside while the ‘big four’ firm investigates.

During the virtual meeting staff took to an anonymous messaging app to vent about Mr Michael’s comments.

One wrote: ‘There’s no such thing as unconscious bias?! Are you joking? Please do your research before just making such statements. Check your privilege.’ 

Unconscious bias is the theory that people hold stereotypes of others which lead to discrimination in the workplace, but it has also proved controversial with ministers dumping it for civil servants in England when the Government’s Equalities Office found there was ‘no evidence’ that the training improved workplace equality.

Probe: KPMG chairman Bill Michael is said to have told staff worried about potential pay, pension and bonus cuts to 'stop moaning' and stop 'playing the victim card'

Probe: KPMG chairman Bill Michael is said to have told staff worried about potential pay, pension and bonus cuts to 'stop moaning' and stop 'playing the victim card'

Probe: KPMG chairman Bill Michael is said to have told staff worried about potential pay, pension and bonus cuts to ‘stop moaning’ and stop ‘playing the victim card’

Volcanic anger of KPMG’s ‘woke’ workforce after boss tells them to ‘stop moaning’

Bill Michael’s comments to a KPMG town hall meeting on Monday.

Staff were also said to be angered after he dismissed the concept of unconscious bias – unintentional discrimination based on stereotypes – as ‘complete c**p’.

There was volcanic anger in the comments section of the app running the event.

One worker responded: ‘There’s no such thing as unconscious bias?! Are you joking? Please do your research before just making such statements. Check your privilege.’

Another said: ‘He literally said, “I know I’m breaking the law to meet with people during the pandemic’’.’ 

A third said: ‘People are struggling with serious mental health issues and having our leadership tell us to shut up and pull ourselves up by our boot straps is heartbreaking.’

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A KPMG spokesman said: ‘Following the meeting on February 8, the firm initiated an independent investigation into the alleged comments in accordance with its usual procedures.

‘Mr Michael has decided to step aside from his duties as chair while the investigation is under way.

‘We take this matter very seriously and will not comment further while the investigation is ongoing.’ 

The move comes after the Financial Times revealed details of what Mr Michael said to the 1,500 members of the finance team during the conference call. 

Another person said: ‘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.’

Mr Michael also angered some staff when he told them he had been meeting clients for coffee.

Who is Bill Michael? 

Bill Michael has been at KPMG for 30 years.

The 52-year-old Australian took the helm four years ago after working as the firm’s Global Head of Banking and Capital Markets.

His City expertise featured in the high-profile Treasury Select Committee into Banking Standards following the global financial crash.

He also represented KPMG as an advisory council member of the FICC Market Standards Board.  

He qualified as a chartered accountant in Australia before moving to the UK to work with clients such as JP Morgan, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, and Barclays. 

He has a young family and is a Manchester United fan. 

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One attendee said: ‘He literally said, ‘I know I’m breaking the law’ to meet up with people during the pandemic.’  

Another staff member said: ‘People are struggling with serious mental health issues and having our leadership tell us to shut up and pull ourselves up by our boot straps is heartbreaking.’

Mr Michael, who was admitted to hospital last spring after catching coronavirus, was speaking to staff who had raised concerns about potential salary, pension and bonus cuts. 

Some workers interpreted his message as motivational but many complained that it was insensitive.

‘If someone tells you to stop moaning in the middle of a recession and when people are dying… It’s incredibly insensitive,’ one worker told the Financial Times. 

KPMG last year announced an 11 per cent salary slash to the firm’s 582 partners to safeguard jobs.

Partners still pocketed an average of £572,000, down from £640,000 the previous year.

Mr Michael himself had his salary shaved down by 14 per cent to £1.7 million.

At the close of the meeting he apologised for some of his earlier comments and later sent a follow up email in which he further expressed regret.

‘I know that words matter and I regret the ones I chose to use. 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,’ Mr Michael wrote.

‘Covid has hugely impacted the way we all live and work — many of us very deeply.’

He has been in charge since 2017 and his tenure has been plagued by criticism, including of KPMG’s role as auditor of the liquidated government contractor Carillion and of a ‘toxic culture’ in the office.

KPMG is one of the Big Four accounting firms which includes Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The majority of KPMG’s 16,000 staff are working from home during lockdown. 

The firm reported a 2 per cent fall in revenue in the year to September 30 to £2.3billion.

The majority of KPMG's 16,000 people are working from home rather than the Canary Wharf office (pictured) during lockdown

The majority of KPMG's 16,000 people are working from home rather than the Canary Wharf office (pictured) during lockdown

The majority of KPMG’s 16,000 people are working from home rather than the Canary Wharf office (pictured) during lockdown

However, KPMG did not furlough any of its staff during the pandemic, and is even overhauling its offices at the cost of £44million and bolstering remote working technology.

It followed a similar trend among rivals. Deloitte announced a 17 per cent cut in average partner pay to £731,000 last September.

PwC said in December that its partner pay fell 10 per cent to £685,000. EY’s average partner pay slipped just 1.8pc to £667,000.

KPMG also added it has put in place ‘a range of support measures’ to help employees adjust to remote working, including new mental health resources, ‘flex’ hours and a company podcast to help colleagues stat connected.

 

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