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After Deloitte and KPMG, will employee welfare improve?

Accountancy Today takes a closer look at the Deloitte and KPMG management accusations and examines how professional accountancy firms can better look after the wellbeing of staff to manage a stronger work/life balance

In the past year it has become all the more important for employers to look after the wellbeing of their staff whilst the world endures a global pandemic.

According to the CIPD ‘Health and Wellbeing At Work Report’ which surveyed over 1,000 professionals, nearly two-fifths (37%) of respondents said they experienced a stress-related absence over the last year, with a further three-fifths (60%) reporting an increase in common mental health conditions.

The report explains that “far too few employers think their efforts are effective”, which is partly due to the fact they negate addressing the deeper organisational factors that are having an “adverse impact on people’s health”.

For example, heavy workloads and “management style” were amongst the top two causes of stress at work, says the report. Additionally a huge proportion of respondents (86%) cite the inability to “switch off out of work hours” as the main negative impact of technology on employee well-being.

Accountancy firms are no exception to the impact they have on employee wellbeing, especially in larger companies which have a larger HR operation. For an employee, having a safe space and someone to talk to about the troubles of the workplace is of paramount importance. But what happens if instead of resolving the problems with employers, they are actually instigated by upper management?

Issues from the top

Two of UK’s ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms, KPMG and Deloitte, have recently been accused of misconduct for their behaviour towards staff with two senior figures stepping down from their respective roles.

KPMG employs over 14,000 people in 22 offices across the country and helps hundreds of businesses with its tax, audit and advisory services. Last month, the firm’s UK chairman Bill Michael, stepped down from his role following an investigation into controversial comments he made during a virtual meeting with staff. Although the chairman apologised for telling consultants to “stop moaning” during a discussion about the impact of the pandemic on their working lives, his actions ultimately resulted in his resignation.

A KPMG UK spokesperson said at the time: “Following the meeting on 8 February, 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 underway. We take this matter very seriously and will not comment further while the investigation is ongoing.”

Deloitte has also experienced an upper management accusation of workplace behavioural issues. Dimple Agarwal, deputy chief executive and head of people and purpose, was also forced to step down from her role following claims of bullying.

The Telegraph broke the news that the group was investigating ongoing claims that Agarwal would orchestrate “extremely early” morning meetings and had an “aggressive” communication style. The firm claims to have a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying and harassment of any kind and ostensibly encourages people to speak up and raise concerns “without fear of career penalty or other reprisal”.

Confirming Agarwal’s departure, Richard Houston, UK CEO for Deloitte, said at the time: “After two years on the executive and making a significant contribution to the firm’s People & Purpose agenda, Dimple will be stepping down from her leadership roles.

“We’re grateful for what she’s achieved during her tenure.”

Although both Michael and Agarwal were dealt with internally, how can other companies learn from the mistakes of these top firms who are supposed to set the standards and improve staff wellbeing?

Tips to improve staff wellbeing

Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, a consultant psychiatrist and clinical lead at The Soke, a private clinic integrating mental healthcare, wellbeing, support and performance coaching, takes a psychological approach to the issue and reiterates that employers should “not underestimate the range of challenges their employees face”.

He says one of the major challenges for employers will be managing different segments of the workforce and their “disparate needs”. Appraisal discussions, far from being a “tick box exercise”, provide a great opportunity to expand some of these concerns and think about how employees can best be supported, he adds.

Obuaya also suggests attention should be paid to how the process of being furloughed may have “affected the self-esteem of some employees”. He concludes that it will be important for all employees, but particularly for those working from home, to have space to “explore areas of psychological challenge in their daily work”.

Speaking from an accounting firm’s perspective, Sara Whitton, a client services director at cloud-based My Management Accountant (MMA), operates a 14-strong team and shares what tips her company uses to improve wellbeing. The firm has been working remotely since March 2020 and recently decided to make the switch permanently.

The group predominantly communicates via online video platforms, and Whitton says that it can be difficult for some people to talk about their issues, even on a one-to-one basis. She says it’s important that staff know that employers are here to support them if they do have a problem. One way of combatting this, Whitton says, is by promoting time out during the working day to take some exercise and fresh air during daylight hours.

Carmel Moore, a former EY tax partner who was a member of the executive coaching team left the firm in April 2017 to concentrate full-time on her mission to “ease the burden” of the working world, and is now a director of the One Moment Company. She shares, from her own experience, that “there is no time for feelings, in the Big Four world of success metrics, it has traditionally not been okay to not be okay, there is no time code for it. The suffering happens in silence”.

Despite the help available, professional staff often “don’t prioritise” accessing the resources to support wellbeing, she continues. As an organisational consultant and leadership coach, Moore believes that we are at a “stark juncture”. In her professional opinion, Moore explains that the key to staff wellbeing is leadership.

She reiterates: “The ‘Big Four’ leadership need to start listening and take stock of how priorities have changed this past year, not only for their people but for their clients, and learn to host courageous conversations to hear who is hurting and who needs help. And in the world of professional services, the very definition of success may need a rewrite to include a more balanced and open way of working.”

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