PwC fires racist staff and fines partners for not intervening

20 October 2021 3 min. read
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Two of PwC Australia’s senior human resources specialists have been asked to leave the firm, following an internal investigation into alleged incidents of racism. The behaviour in question occurred during a staff event, and a “number of partners” who also attended but failed to intervene have also been penalised.

Tom Seymour, PwC’s CEO in Australia, stated, “The behaviour at a recent trivia event was unacceptable and should not have occurred. This event, and the response across our PwC communities and the community more broadly, has sparked the need for deep reflections for us as a firm… I am genuinely apologetic for the incident.”

As reported previously, accusations of anti-Asian racism had been levelled at two human resources leaders, after a company event in September. One executive, who was a senior manager of diversity and inclusion with PwC, was said to have mocked Chinese accents, while the other is reported to have dressed up as a “bat from Wuhan.”

PwC fires racist staff and fines partners for not intervening

During the Covid-19 crisis, there has been a surge in racism directed at Australia’s Chinese community. Earlier in 2021, the Lowy Institute released the findings of a landmark survey, which that found nearly one in five Chinese Australians had experienced physical racist assaults during the pandemic.

Following PwC’s probe into the incident, and the firm’s asking of the two senior employees to leave the firm, Seymour added that he wanted to “apologise to the members of the Chinese Australian community and those in our community from a diverse cultural background.”

While he was unwilling to disclose further information on the staff in question, citing legal concerns and the need to protect staff privacy, he did confirm that PwC is now undertaking a program of work, focused on inclusion of its staff from a “diverse cultural background.”

The review will be led by a group of PwC partners, including Michelle Kam, and will also involve the consulting firm calling in external experts for advice. At the same time, there have been penalties for both partners and staff who were privy to the alleged incident. PwC’s people and ethical conduct panel recommended a number of points to be implemented, including financial penalties for partners, and people leaving their roles.

According to the Australian Financial Review, consensus among past and present staff members, was that the firm’s response was “reasonable,” and sent a strong message that the conduct of the executives at the event was unacceptable. Speaking anonymously to the AFR, the sources added that the culture review was a “step in the right direction” to help identify widespread discrimination at the firm.

However, considering the fact the senior staff in question worked in the human resources wing of the firm – and one particularly was a diversity and inclusion manager – the firm’s addressing of the issue by delivering its own new program to for diversity and inclusion might raise some eyebrows. One way or the other, the sources added that it would take time to see whether the moves made a difference.

At the same time, they were reportedly displeased that more detail on the penalties imposed on partners was not shared – and that there was only limited information provided about the consequences for the HR executives responsible.