This article was co-published with The New York Times.
It’s not easy being McKinsey & Company these days.
For most of its 90-odd-year existence, the prestigious management consultancy prided itself on remaining above the fray. McKinsey consultants plied the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies, counseling chief executives with discretion and quietly building a business that, with $10 billion in annual revenues, is now bigger than many of the entities it serves. The substance of the company’s work, and even the identities of its clients, lie concealed under an institutional code of silence. That reticence, enforced by a nondisclosure agreement, bedeviled Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign until last Monday, when McKinsey granted him a rare dispensation to reveal the names of his former clients.
On the occasions when McKinsey’s work has been scrutinized of late, it hasn’t reflected well on the firm. Reporting by The New York Times, ProPublica and others over the past 18 months has raised serious questions about how it does business at home and abroad: corruption allegations against companies McKinsey partnered with in South Africa and Mongolia; a federal criminal investigation into the firm’s bankruptcy practice in the United States; attempts to deny that it helped put into effect controversial Trump administration immigration policies; and evidence that McKinsey cherry-picked nonviolent inmates for a pilot project and made it seem that an attempt to curb violence at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was working (it wasn’t). McKinsey has denied wrongdoing in each of these instances.
These and other examples of McKinsey’s recent conduct reveal a common dynamic. An examination of these episodes, including thousands of pages of documents and interviews with dozens of current and former McKinsey consultants and clients from multiple projects, suggests McKinsey behaves as if it believes the rules should bend to its way of doing things, not the other way around.
McKinsey’s self-regard has long been uncommonly high. In the firm’s 2010 internal history, a copy of which ProPublica obtained, partners compare the firm to the Marine Corps, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuits: “analytically rigorous, deeply principled seekers of knowledge and truth,” the history’s authors write. One McKinsey partner went a step further, declaring without a hint of irony that the firm’s trait of shared values is more than “even the Catholic Church can promise.”
This attitude works for the firm in corporate consulting, an unregulated field where McKinsey’s reputation leaves it largely free to do things its own way and where its insistence on not being publicly credited has also shielded it from blame for its failures. But as McKinsey has expanded its consulting empire in recent years, it has taken on a growing book of work for government entities, as well as for corporate clients in areas subject to government oversight, such as advising bankrupt companies on restructuring.
In that field, consulting firms confront a web of contracting, disclosure and ethics rules that are designed to dictate and limit their behavior. These rules exist to prevent governments from wasting taxpayer money on underqualified or overpriced contractors and to protect government integrity and avoid conflicts of interests. In recent years, as McKinsey has burrowed deeper into this world, interviews and records show, it has developed a habit of disregarding inconvenient rules and norms to secure, retain and profit from government work.
Consider McKinsey’s imbroglios in South Africa and Mongolia. The firm did not follow the due diligence protocols commonly deployed to avoid running afoul of anti-corruption laws. The result: Its consultants found themselves working alongside dubious local companies that got them entangled in corruption investigations. Only after McKinsey became embroiled in the South Africa corruption scandal did the firm decide it needed to put more stringent safeguards in place.
In the United States, a damning but largely overlooked report issued in July by the Office of Inspector General for the General Services Administration, the hub for federal contracting, depicted McKinsey as ignoring rules and refusing to take no for an answer. The report examined McKinsey’s attempts to renew a major long-running contract in 2016. The firm was asked to provide additional pricing information to satisfy federal contracting rules. Rather than comply, McKinsey went over the contracting officer’s head, lodging complaints with top GSA officials, who refused to exempt the firm from the rules.
Eventually, the firm found a friendly GSA manager who was willing to not only award the contract, but also manipulated the GSA’s pricing tools to increase the value of the contract by tens of millions of dollars. The report concluded the manager “violated requirements governing ethical conduct.”
The pattern repeated itself when McKinsey failed in multiple attempts to win a separate contract around the same time. Stymied, according to the report, McKinsey browbeat the contracting officer, threatening to resubmit the proposal until it got its way. The GSA manager again intervened — for reasons left unexplained by the report — and McKinsey got its contract.
The report’s assessment of McKinsey’s behavior was withering, and it revealed that the firm subsequently used the same friendly manager to help secure contracts at three other federal agencies in 2017 and 2018. “Multiple contracting officers,” the inspector general wrote, told investigators that McKinsey’s requests were “inappropriate” and “a conflict of interest.”
The report recommended that the GSA cancel the contracts, which as of earlier this year had earned McKinsey nearly $1 billion over a 13-year span. In a response to the report, the GSA stated that it would ask McKinsey to renegotiate the contracts to lower the price. “If McKinsey declines” or “renegotiations do not yield a result in the government’s best interest,” the agency wrote, it would cancel them. Neither has happened to date, according to federal contracting records. A McKinsey spokesman said: “We have reviewed the report and the relevant facts, and have found no evidence of any improper conduct by our firm. We are in negotiations with GSA and look forward to completing them soon.” A GSA spokesperson said it is negotiating for “better pricing” and will not award McKinsey any further work under the contracts until those negotiations are concluded.
McKinsey has also taken steps to evade public accountability. As ProPublica reported, a senior partner leading McKinsey’s work at Rikers asked top corrections officials and members of the consulting team to restrict their communications to Wickr, an encrypted messaging app that deletes messages automatically after a few hours or days. That insulated some of McKinsey’s work from government oversight and public records requests. (“Our policies require colleagues to adhere to all relevant laws and regulations,” a McKinsey spokesman said. He neither confirmed nor denied the use of Wickr.)
Speaking more broadly, the McKinsey spokesman said: “We hear the calls for change. We are working hard to address the issues that have been raised.”
McKinsey has so far escaped serious repercussions for its reluctance to follow inconvenient rules. That could change next year.
Consultancies such as McKinsey, which advise companies restructuring under bankruptcy protection, are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest. For the past few years, McKinsey has been locked in a complicated set of court disputes with Jay Alix, the founder of a competing advisory firm, and with the Justice Department’s bankruptcy watchdog over whether McKinsey failed to follow bankruptcy disclosure rules, a subject The Times has covered in depth.
McKinsey has, since then, disclosed a number of new potential conflicts in old bankruptcy cases and paid $32.5 million to creditors and the United States trustee to settle claims over insufficient disclosures. The trustee has said that “McKinsey failed to satisfy its obligations under bankruptcy law and demonstrated a lack of candor.” The firm denies wrongdoing and says it settled “in order to move forward and focus on serving its clients.”
Subsequently, McKinsey has moved, in effect, to rewrite the rules. It drafted a protocol ostensibly meant to clarify what advisers like itself need to disclose. Critics pointed out that McKinsey’s protocol allows such firms to avoid disclosing relationships they deem indirect or “de minimis.”
There remains more to come. Apart from the criminal investigation, a judge in Houston has scheduled a trial in February to decide the merits of Alix’s allegations. The judge, David R. Jones, has described the trial in apocalyptic tones. It will be, Jones has said, “the ultimate career ender for somebody.” For McKinsey, a trial would mean being called on to defend its work in public — with real accountability and real consequences for its actions. The firm might even benefit in the long run from the sunlight.