In the past couple of years, consulting firm McKinsey & Company has come under growing scrutiny, with government regulators and public watchdogs raising alarms about alleged unethical business practices and conflicts of interest. A new book by New York Times reporters Michael Forsythe and Walt Bogdanich shines additional light on the firm and its global influence.
While McKinsey presents a strong public face of making positive change around the world, the new book, “When McKinsey Comes to Town,” lays out a case that the firm has a history of engaging in unethical business, from helping pharma companies boost opioid sales in the midst of an addiction epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, to working directly with oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The firm is tight-lipped about its consulting work and its clients, but Bogdanich and Forsythe managed to interview more than 100 current and former employees and obtained hundreds of internal documents. The two authors went in depth on the company’s practice of representing competitors within the same industry and the potential crossover of consultants, despite the internal firewalling in place to protect client information.
McKinsey’s more than 50-year history of working with the tobacco industry was also a subject of the authors’ focus, and the book lays out the company’s efforts to market for the tobacco industry as early as 1956 and as recently as 2016, decades after public health experts and courts had exposed tobacco as the most lethal consumer product in American history. The book also covers the firm’s business relationship with the e-cigarette company Juul while it was working for the FDA department that regulates vaping and nicotine.
Climate change was also a topic of focus, as McKinsey is publicly a very green company that has worked internally to become carbon neutral and externally to bring climate and sustainability consulting services to top businesses around the world. While the firm was publicly vocal about the dangers of climate change and the urgency needed to address it, it was simultaneously working with some of the world’s biggest polluters.
Despite McKinsey’s repeated brushes with scandal, the authors assert that little is likely to change, given the firm’s financial commitment to its partners and the sheer size of its workforce, as well as the decentralized nature of its business, with partners spread all over the world acting independently of one another. Still, Bogdanich and Forsythe make a compelling case that McKinsey is a company with practices in need of additional visibility, and their new book attempts to shine more light on the sometimes controversial firm.