Preyed on by the six-figure SEX PESTS: It’s the City’s new dirty secret – the despicable behaviour of high-flying executives in the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms, GUY ADAMS reveals the horror stories of women who say they’ve experienced it

  • Guy Adams investigated stories of sexual harassment in the workplace
  • A former Deloitte employee told of almost being raped by a partner of the firm
  • She says her experience was treated as a threat to the firm and pushed out 
  • At KPMG, seven partners have left the firm for a range of behavioural issues  
  • One employee says they were given a HR warning for reporting harassment 
  • Another revealed upper management show female employees pornography 

Cathy Engelbert, chief executive of the U.S. arm of accountancy giant Deloitte, received the sort of email last year that every #MeToo-era corporate boss dreads.

Written by a woman who’d worked in ‘client services’ at the firm’s Bermuda office, it accused the blue chip global organisation of covering up a serious sexual assault by one of its senior lieutenants.

The former employee claimed that Deloitte bosses did not help police on the sub-tropical island in investigating her allegation of attempted rape by one of the firm’s New-York based partners.

This story dates back to August 2015 when the accused, who regularly visited the Bermuda office, had invited several employees, including the email’s author, to after-work drinks.

Socialising had ended around 2am, whereupon she allegedly found herself being invited to the man’s hotel room on a pretext linked to the next day’s business agenda. However, contrary to expectations, when the woman arrived, no one else was there.

Guy Adams explored the culture of sexual harassment within the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms in the City (file image)

Then, according to testimony she later gave to police, the Deloitte partner began a sexual attack, reaching under her T-shirt to grope her before pulling her trousers open.

She pushed him away and told him to ‘f*** off!’ only for him to continue. ‘It seemed like he was grabbing all parts of my body,’ read her police statement. ‘It seemed like hitting. I then started hitting back.’

The man is said to have responded: ‘So you like it rough, do you?’

Eventually, the woman says she escaped, having sustained bruises and cuts to her arms and neck. A couple of months later, she reported the incident to Bermudan detectives, who decided to question the Deloitte partner when he returned to the country.

The man has not been back to the island — thus the Bermudan police were thwarted and unable to proceed with their investigation. As a result, the case is currently classified as being in ‘abeyance’.

As for the woman, her employment at Deloitte was terminated the following year.

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‘My experience was being treated as a threat to the firm and pushed out, while the partner was protected,’ she told the Australian Financial Review, which first reported her claims. ‘At the mention of police involvement, partners closed ranks to protect their own.’

Her email to Cathy Engelbert said: ‘In the wake of Harvey Weinstein [the Hollywood producer facing trial for sexual assault], I feel compelled to tell you my Deloitte #MeToo story . . . Deloitte betrayed me.’

In response, Engelbert replied briefly: ‘Thank you for bringing this to my attention.’

When the details became public, the company reacted by saying Press coverage included ‘inaccurate information’ and made ‘erroneous assumptions’.

A Deloitte spokesman added that an outside law firm hired to investigate the woman’s claims had found much of her evidence ‘contradicted by witnesses’. However, he admitted that the lawyers did not interview the alleged victim as the woman had declined to participate in any internal investigation.

Deloitte’s UK chief executive revealed the firm have fired many partners in recent years for sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour including bullying (file image) 

Whatever truth may (or may not) now emerge, this undignified allegation makes for instructive reading about a malign culture said to pervade among the so-called ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms (Deloitte, PwC, EY — formerly Ernst & Young — and KPMG) which, it was announced this week, are also now facing a radical overhaul of their sector after two government-backed reviews found failings in how the firms operate and how accounts are scrutinised in Britain.

The reviews were launched in response to public anger about the role of auditors in a number of scandals, including the collapse of BhS and Carillion.

That announcement came in the wake of an extraordinary revelation by David Sproul, Deloitte’s UK chief executive, this month that he had fired many partners in recent years for so-called ‘inappropriate behaviour,’ including bullying and sexual harassment.

These very senior bosses — mostly white and middle-aged — have spent a lifetime working all hours to reach the summit of their profession. As partners, they have co-ownership of a business with £3.2 billion in annual revenues and earn, on average, salaries of £832,000.

Yet since 2015, 20 ruined their careers as a result of personal indiscretions that led to their sackings, Sproul told the Financial Times.

‘I’d like to say there weren’t any, but there are,’ he said, adding that he’d sent all his firm’s 17,000 UK staff (of which around 1,000 are partners) to ‘respect and inclusion’ training.

Many have needed this ‘re-education’ after displaying attitudes towards female co-workers that seem rooted in the Dark Ages, he added.

‘You can’t meet someone more junior to you in a bar on a Friday evening after work and assume she or he is attracted to you [and is seeking] a one-night stand. You just can’t do it. Some people definitely would have to have that explained to them. So we’ve been very clear on what is acceptable in our firm.’

The problem is not confined to Deloitte — far from it. Sproul’s remarks prompted the other members of the Big Four accountancy firms to reveal they, too, have taken similarly serious steps to sanction — and, in some cases, sack — predatory senior staff in the 12 months since the #MeToo campaign kicked off.

And, as we shall see, the sheer number of harassment complaints, and ugly lawsuits making their way into the public domain suggests an industry-wide problem only just starting to come to light.

A former PwC employee recently sued the firm for unfair dismissal after he was accused of assaulting a female colleague (file image)

Five of the 681 partners at EY have been fired for sexual indiscretions in the past four years. At KPMG, seven partners have left the UK firm in the past four years for a range of behavioural issues that include sexual indiscretions, while PwC has got rid of five partners in the past three years.

Among the latter group was an un-named man in his 60s, who recently sued PwC for unfair dismissal after being let go following an incident on a ski trip to Italy with 50 colleagues.

It emerged he’d been dressed as a lumberjack when he allegedly put his hand up the skirt of a young female colleague wearing an Elvis costume, before proceeding (again allegedly) to touch her bottom.

Other women at the ‘wild’ party were dressed as prostitutes and ‘deliberately over-flirting’ after drinking large quantities of wine and genepi (a liqueur similar to absinthe) from the bottle, a tribunal heard.

The man denied any assault, saying ‘racist’ bosses forced him out and that PwC’s investigation into the incident was ‘tainted by bias’.

The former partner’s claim against the firm was subsequently dismissed by the employment tribunal, and PwC says it is ‘committed to ensuring an inclusive, fair and diverse workplace’ and takes ‘very seriously’ situations in which people don’t meet expected standards of behaviour.

However, it might be argued this case offers a disturbing insight into the profession’s corporate culture.

For despite accountancy’s staid reputation, the Big Four encourage employees to socialise as hard as they work.

Each recruits hundreds of graduates a year (Deloitte takes on about 1,700), expecting them to devote many hours on the career treadmill for relatively scant reward compared to that of their senior partners.

By way of partial compensation, firms often offer access to exciting extra-curricular social activities.

A Deloitte employee in Germany claims leaderships, lawyers and HR cover up a large amount of sexual harassment cases (file image)

‘It’s well known accountancy can be dull, but the people are often quite fun, and alcohol, of course, numbs boredom, so there’s a huge happy-hour culture,’ one former trainee for one of the Big Four commented.

‘Often, you spend weeks on the road, staying in grim hotels in provincial towns miles from home, so you tend to go out for dinners and drinks with your team. There’s also occasional company jollies: trips to the football, Friday night drinks in the City, that sort of thing.’

Perhaps inevitably, office romances begin, he adds. ‘When it’s between people who are single and relatively junior, that’s fine. But in every firm there are also partners and senior managers who are notorious old perverts. That’s when it gets awkward, especially since most are married.

‘The women in my intake used to roll their eyes about the worst offenders. It’s a particular problem at this time of year, because of office Christmas parties.’

Aside from revelations about the number of Big Four partners who’ve been sacked, evidence of the scale of the problem can be seen on the website Glassdoor, which allows employees to write reviews of their office environment.

At Deloitte, for example, a ‘senior project manager’ from London who’d been at the firm for more than three years complained a few days ago of a culture of ‘harassment and mobbing’ from partners and senior management.

Last November, a female employee wrote that she had reported ‘serious sexual harassment by a partner’, but senior leadership did nothing. ‘They protected him, instead of helping me.’

In May, an employee in Germany spoke of ‘a high amount of sexual harassment cases that are covered up by leaderships, lawyers and HR [Human Resources]’.

An executive from the New York office also described ‘a pervasive problem with misogyny, sexual harassment and adultery’. Another woman in the same office reported: ‘HR did not follow through with a harassment complaint. It was pushed under a rug.’

On another internet employment forum, Blind, a message board discussing ‘sexual harassment at Deloitte’ generated almost 80 comments this summer.

A KPMG employee says she was kicked off a project without warning just two weeks after turning down sexual advances from her manager (file image)

One Deloitte partner wrote that she had been the victim of ‘a number of sexual harassments’ by three other partners. ‘They dragged their feet in investigating, and after giving them a few months I decided to send my resignation to the chairman of the board.’

Despite these numerous allegations, Deloitte is regarded by some informed observers as one of the more progressive of the Big Four.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a charity promoting women’s rights and equality, argues that the fact so many of Deloitte partners have been fired for harassment suggests the firm is taking a tougher line on the issue than rivals who have sacked fewer.

‘We welcome the fact that they are taking this action and want other employers to take this equally seriously,’ she says.

What’s more, insiders stress, any organisation of such a size will inevitably contain the odd bad apple. And it’s certainly not the only one of the Big Four to be subject to unpleasant allegations.

An employee of KPMG told Glassdoor that the firm was a ‘boy’s club’ where ‘sexual harassment is rife’.

Another said: ‘After seven years at KPMG, I reported someone in senior management who had been harassing female employees and provided concrete evidence. Instead of addressing the issue, I received an HR warning and poor performance review.’

A colleague also alleged she and other female KPMG employees had experienced ‘being subject to inappropriate sexual jokes, upper management watching pornography on their computers during work and showing it to female employees’ and ‘being winked at by upper management during meetings.’

In January, another KPMG employee wrote extensively about ‘a rampant and unchecked culture of sexual harassment’, telling how her manager invited her to a hotel room for a mid-year review.

Once there, she said he refused to talk about work but tried to kiss her. ‘I was shocked. Then two weeks later, he kicks me off my project with no warning.’

Separately, one of the firm’s partners in Australia left amid allegations of sexual harassment.

EY employee Karen Ward claims she was was expected to accompany senior colleagues to topless bars and that that they routinely made comments about her breasts (file image)

A spokesman for KPMG says the company has ‘robust procedures’ in place around sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, EY is facing similar issues. They include a partner who was sacked in March for breaching rules on workplace relationships.

There was another incident in May when its U.S. offshoot reached a confidential settlement with former partner Jessica Casucci.

She had alleged a fellow partner assaulted her during a company party at a restaurant at Disney World in Florida. Her lawsuit claimed he ‘wrapped his arms around her lower body and lifted her up over his shoulder [then] groped and squeezed her rear end with both hands’.

When he put her down, ‘he pulled her into his body and grabbed and aggressively squeezed her breasts’, saying he wanted to have sex with her and that it would be ‘the best night of her life’.

The affair led to the alleged attacker being sacked.

Elsewhere, EY employee Karen Ward filed a discrimination lawsuit against its U.S. operation in September, alleging a culture of lewd behaviour towards women.

It claimed she was expected to accompany senior colleagues to nightclubs and topless bars, comments were routinely made about her breasts and she would be texted at 2am during work trips asking to meet for drinks.

EY has called the claims ‘baseless and unfounded’, and the dispute remains ongoing.

A spokesman said: ‘Ensuring our people feel safe, included and valued is part of our culture and this is a responsibility we are committed to uphold’

Yet, however the EY case is resolved, no one in the City believes it will be the last of its kind involving allegations of shocking treatment of women staff at blue chip accountancy giants.

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