‘Unconscious bias is crap’: KPMG staff share shock at UK chair’s comments
New details have emerged of controversial comments by the UK chair of KPMG, who has stepped aside while the accounting firm investigates what he said to staff during a virtual meeting.
A video of the Zoom meeting was published on Thursday in which Bill Michael describes the concept of unconscious bias as being “complete and utter crap for years”.
In the video, obtained by Mail Online, the 52-year-old Australian, who was paid £1.7m in 2020, said: “There is no such thing as unconscious bias, I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.”
Michael added: “So unless you care, you actually won’t change. And I think there is a lot more care, more generally, to change, and we are in a very lucky sector.”
Michael’s comments emerged on Tuesday after employees complained that he had told them to “stop moaning” about the impact of the pandemic on their lives and to stop “playing the victim card”.
Members of the firm’s 1,500-strong financial services consulting team who took part in the meeting shared their shock at his comments. The Guardian has seen screenshots of some of these comments.
Several employees expressed “disappointment” at Michael’s words as they commented anonymously on the session in an app used to run the event.
One worker wrote: “There’s no such thing as unconscious bias?! Are you joking? Please do your research before just making such statements. Check your privilege.”
Michael, who was hospitalised with Covid-19 in March last year, rejoined the call and apologised to staff who had criticised his choice of words, later emailing an apology to the full team.
It is also understood that Michael told a staff session that he was still meeting clients for coffee, despite Covid lockdown restrictions.
KPMG has launched an independent investigation into Michael’s comments, which is being conducted by City law firm Linklaters. While the investigation takes place, Michael has been temporarily replaced by two female partners. Bina Mehta has stepped into the role of chair, while Mary O’Connor has taken on the role of senior partner. It is the first time that either role has been occupied by a woman in the 150-year history of the firm.
KPMG, as well as the other big four accountancy firms, PwC, EY and Deloitte, all hold unconscious bias training sessions for their staff. The training is designed to make employees aware of patterns of discrimination and prejudice, and is mandatory for workers at many large organisations as a way of trying to combat prejudice on the grounds of race, sex, sexuality or disability.
A KPMG UK spokesperson stated the company’s commitment to unconscious bias training, as well as to a range of training programmes to discuss bias and micro-aggressions. “We are fully committed to ensuring that KPMG’s working environment is inclusive and a place where all our people can reach their full potential, regardless of their identity, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or socio-economic background,” KPMG said.
Dr Maja Korica, an associate professor of organisation and management at Warwick business school, said Michael’s behaviour was “incredibly disappointing” and “indicates a lack of connection and perspective … Wisdom in leadership means knowing this for a fact and putting in place structures to ensure your disconnect doesn’t work against you or against the organisation,” she said.
Raph Mokades, the managing director of the diversity recruitment specialist Rare, which provides companies with training software, said Michael’s comments suggested unconscious bias training alone was not enough to improve workplace diversity.
“Unconscious bias training alone is never going to work, you need clear statements from leadership,” Mokades said. “Leadership has a clear role to play in setting the tone, talking specifically about race, racism what is unacceptable and what the penalties for unacceptable behaviour are and ensuring that senior leadership are all on top of the data in their own areas”.
What was said
Bill Michael, KPMG UK chair:
“Now is the time to say: do you care enough? Right, I don’t think this point of, what do you call it, unconscious bias? I think unconscious bias is complete crap, complete and utter crap for years, it really is. There is no such thing as unconscious bias, I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.
“So unless you care, you actually won’t change. And I think there is a lot more care, more generally, to change, and we are in a very lucky sector.
“Take as much influence of your own diary, of your own life, whatever. Because I have spoken to a lot of partners and people at all sorts of levels, where it almost feels like this is being done to them. Well you can’t play the role of victim unless you’re sick, and I hope you’re not sick, and you’re not ill, take control of your life and don’t sit there and moan about it, quite frankly.”
Anonymous staff comments:
“There’s no such thing as unconscious bias?! Are you joking? Please do your research before just making such statements. Check your privilege.”
“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 wreckless [sic].”
“Quite disappointed by Bill Michael.”
“This isn’t the first, second, or third time that Bill Michael has made such insensitive, throwaway comments. Our UK chairman is telling us who he is … Believe him.”