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February 13, 2021

Millennials are flexing their power in the workplace. From women’s rights to demands for tougher action on climate change, younger staff are forcing the pace.

Last week the boss of KPMG stepped down amid protests from staff about his behaviour during an online meeting.

The accountancy firm’s UK chair, Bill Michael, who has headed the company since 2017, told staff to “stop moaning” during a virtual meeting about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. He also called unconscious bias, which many businesses have attempted to confront through changes to their training and recruitment practices, “complete and utter crap”.

Michael apologised for his comments, but KPMG employed the City law firm Linklaters to conduct an independent inquiry. Before it could report, the 52-year-old Australian quit the business.

There are plenty of bosses who consider their younger staff to be snowflakes, or somehow weak-willed when they talk about their wellbeing or mental health issues.

Michael said at another point in his presentation that too many staff saw themselves as victims, which he said wasn’t true unless they were sick. “Take control of your life and don’t sit there and moan about it,” he urged.

In recent years KPMG has signed up to become a living wage business, which means it not only pays its staff a higher level than the minimum wage, but also forces its suppliers and contractors to pay a living wage.

Bill Michael.
Bill Michael. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

It regularly appears in lists of the best firms to work for and boasts about its flexible working schemes. So it is possible that Michael was being held to a higher standard than many other bosses.

However, that is the modern corporate world, and that is as it should be.

Boardrooms are becoming aware of how their staff feel, and taking notice. They are also addressing the need to go further and think about the communities they operate in, and about a word that fell out of favour 15 years ago but is making a comeback – stakeholders.

Even from a cynical, profit-driven stance, happier employees tend to be more creative and work harder.

Some of the biggest US firms have struggled to make the transition. Google has regularly faced protests from its staff about boardroom policies that are considered antithetical to the purpose and vision of the firm.

In 2019 staff staged an unprecedented series of walkouts from offices across the world in protest at the company’s treatment of women.

Employees said that sexual misconduct allegations were being mishandled; they also wanted a directive that forced staff to accept the verdict of an internal arbitration system to be scrapped.

Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, said staff had the right to take the action. However, his sympathy didn’t stop hundreds of employees at the internet giant’s Silicon Valley HQ from becoming so fed up that they formed a union last month – the Alphabet Workers Union, which also represents other companies owned by Google’s parent group.

The B Corp movement, a trust that assesses a company’s intentions and how good it is at matching the rhetoric with deeds, draws most of its membership on both sides of the Atlantic from smaller businesses.

These are mainly start-ups that claim to have a purpose beyond making a profit, whether it be to reverse climate change or alleviate poverty in their local community. They are not charities, but the ultimate aim for many is to sell out to the employees, following a similar model to the John Lewis Partnership.

French yoghurt maker Danone and the Guardian owner GMG are among the companies to sign up. Unilever is following the same theme, testing out a four-day week as a way to support employees. These are firms that embrace shifting with the times. KPMG has shown it also wants to stay on course.