When your CEO makes you want to cry

In our media training and presentation training, we counsel spokespeople to take care with their language. I imagine that there have been some challenging conversations at KPMG following the Financial Times headline yesterday that: “KPMG UK chairman told staff to ‘stop moaning’ about work conditions”. Today, every newspaper rehashes the story and reports how Bill Michael has stepped aside from his duties while the firm investigates his comments.

There will always be slips of the tongue and it’s fashionable to be told that someone ‘misspoke’ (a.k.a. backtracking on what they said once they realised how stupid it was). Maybe sometimes tough things need to be said regardless. But why do bosses say these things?

Many bosses, judged first and foremost by shareholders or owners on the level of profit, delivery of strategy and productivity, instinctively look first at numbers rather than people (it’s why you’ll find the cost of employees on the debit side of a balance sheet, not the asset side).

It’s why corporate titan Sir Nigel Rudd, then Chairman of Boots, was criticised in 2005 when having agreed a merger with Alliance UniChem he said ‘‘We will see around 1,000 [job losses] emanating from this particular transaction… not a significant number”. Unless you are one of the 1,000 people who will lose their jobs in a ‘transaction’ or the millions of people who believe that business doesn’t care about people.

It only took the word of two employees attending the virtual town hall meeting at which Bill Michael was speaking to generate the original story. That in the midst of the pandemic and people’s mental health being under extraordinary strain, a boss effectively seems to be saying ‘just be glad you’ve got a job and get on with it’.

A different employee was quoted half way down the article with a different opinion of what was said: “He was trying to stress that if we are struggling we need to do something to reach out to people, which is how a number of us interpreted his meaning”. But that was never going to be the headline. Remember – journalists look for trouble (a.k.a. ‘what’s out of the norm’).

Michael sent a solid apology email to his staff: “I know that words matter and I regret the ones I chose to use today … I am very sorry for what I said and the way that I said it.” But the reputation damage has been done – to him and the firm.

Would you have read all 14 paragraphs of the original story? Probably not. In which case you would have missed paragraphs 8, 9 and 10 presenting Michael’s apology followed by three further paragraphs listing all the positive initiatives that KPMG has undertaken to promote employee welfare during the pandemic and protect jobs (including reducing Partner’s pay to protect graduate recruitment numbers). But as the story wouldn’t go away, the follow up news reports instead put the boot in by reminding people of KPMG’s role in the collapse of Carillion.

Taking care with language is not just about getting rid of jargon – the weed in the garden of language. It is about using meaningful analogies, examples and phrases that resonate with the audience and facilitate effective and persuasive communication. And it is about avoiding words or approving of behaviours that may have been uncontroversial 20 years ago but are now unacceptable (and maybe, illegal).

You should especially avoid throwing around words and concepts that while familiar and acceptable to you, may not be to your audience. At best they need to mentally process what you mean (so they’re not listening to the rest of what you’re saying) or at worst find them incomprehensible or objectionable (and stop listening). You need to communicate in terms the audience will not just understand but engage with and empathise with emotionally.

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