The recent KPMG reputation crisis show how corporate cultures need to adapt to changes in society

Last week, it was reported that Sanjay Thakkar, one of KPMG’s most senior partners, has taken a leave of absence after new allegations about his workplace behaviour surfaced. This follows revelations by the Financial Times that two of KMPG’s most prominent female partners had resigned over how an investigation into alleged bullying by Mr Thakkar was handled.

According to press reports, an email sent by KPMG to all staff said that Mr Thakkar had decided to step down from his role “in the wider interest of the firm.” The email went on to say that new allegations about Mr Thakkar’s conduct were raised with its leadership team after the Financial Times piece about the two female partners resigning.

PR take

What do we make of the chain of events from a PR perspective? One reading is that it took a damaging article in the national media as the catalyst for other KPMG staff to feel empowered enough to come forward - and for KPMG to take definitive action. Delve further into this reading, and you could speculate on the kind of culture that may exist at KPMG and the tension between a firm’s desire to retain its high billers and an obligation to act on staff concerns. These kinds of perceptions about KPMG - right or wrong - are being reported in the media as a result of this incident, which is damaging to the firm’s reputation.

Of course, KPMG is just one in a long line of corporate cultures that is being tested and held-up for scrutiny by the media, and others, as wider societal changes cause us to look at what is, and isn’t, acceptable behaviour. The #MeToo movement has been a positive force for good in shining a much-needed spotlight on sexual harassment and bullying, and PR and social media have played a hugely important role in helping to bring this issue into the public domain.

Cultures must change

The clear message that comes out of the KPMG example and similar stories, is that corporate cultures which are formed over time, need to adapt to corresponding changes in society. This presents an opportunity for businesses of all sizes to take a positive stance on how they handle historic allegations of harassment and bullying in the wider context of reviewing their corporate cultures.

For example, if a company says that it values developing its people in a safe, supportive and collegiate environment, is this reflected in its workplace anti-harassment policies? Moreover, are those policies communicated widely internally, with the support of senior management, so that people feel safe coming forward with complaints? The internal comms team has a key role to play here, working alongside the HR and wider management team.

The good news

From an external PR perspective, companies can take a positive stance in communicating how they are adapting their cultures in response to #MeToo and other movements. Take Deloitte as a shining example of this. Last year, at the height of when #MeToo was in the news, Deloitte’s chief executive confirmed that the accounting giant had fired about 20 UK partners over the past four years for inappropriate behaviour including bullying and sexual harassment and that the firm would adopt a zero tolerance approach to such behaviour in the future.

#MeToo and other movements are causing us to say ‘no’ to behaviours that may have been tolerated just a few years ago, including in the workplace. Companies will continue to be judged on how they respond to these changes and their cultures will need to continue to adapt and evolve, for their reputations to be preserved.

Written by Gus Sellitto, managing director of PR firm Byfield Consultancy

PRmoment Awards 2020