I spend a lot of time seeking out good news about the bad news. I do consulting and teach courses at the intersection of business and big issues facing society, so the bad news is easy to come by –but I’m always looking for signs of genuine progress. Understanding, refining, and replicating the good-news stories will, I believe, prove essential to getting us out of the various pickles we’re in, from the climate emergency and other global environmental crises to economic inequality and creeping authoritarianism.
That said, when a firm does something detestable, we can productively point it out and use the instance as a teachable moment. And when the firm has a history of such behavior, we have an obligation to do so.
Enter McKinsey and the recent revelations by ProPublica and the New York Times on the firm’s work to find “detention savings opportunities” for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). LinkedIn carried my post (below) in a curated thread titled Consulting Giant Under Fire.
Here’s what I wrote on LinkedIn:
This case is shocking on multiple levels. First, it is astonishing that McKinsey’s leadership thought this work was ethical. Please read the details of how the “detention savings opportunities” risked the safety and wellbeing of detainees.
Second, it is stunning that no senior decision-maker at McKinsey (with the power to pass on the work) had enough foresight to understand the potential PR disaster for the firm. I’m not talking about conscience; I’m merely suggesting barely-enlightened self-interest. The failure to understand the humanitarian optics of this role suggests a lack of awareness of the issues at hand.
Third, it is equally telling that, as the work unfolded, the firm’s zeal to find “efficiencies” had no guardrails. In other words, senior McKinsey managers directing the work somehow never understood, or bothered to understand, the increasingly amoral recommendations the lower-level employees were generating. In addition to the obvious failure of conscience, it’s also a failure of governance inside the firm. Setting aside the morality of it all, that is damning in simple business terms.
Finally, I have to believe that McKinsey’s talent recruitment efforts will suffer.
Am I being unfair?https://www.linkedin.com/posts/joshuaskov_how-mckinsey-helped-the-trump-administration-activity-6608191136806899712–Al1
Colleagues have helpfully shared these additional resources:
- Duff MacDonald’s book on (exposé of) McKinsey, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey & Its Secret Influence on American Business (thanks to Ryan Cabinte)
- Sheelah Kolhatkar’s 2018 exposé in the New Yorker, “McKinsey’s Work for Saudi Arabia Highlights its History of Unsavory Entanglements” (thanks to Josh Kuss)