‘Alcohol-fuelled bender’: Senator O’Neill slams EY’s governance, culture

Senator Deborah O'Neill has excoriated the culture and governance at financial advisory firm EY at a parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday night, accusing the firm's partners of gross worker exploitation, humiliation and inappropriate behaviour towards employees.

The Labor Senator used parliamentary privilege to lambast the global financial services company by airing allegations of illicit drug-taking and alcohol abuse at the workplace as well as sexual harassment, assault and fraud over a number of years.

"I have been informed of claims of partners being under the influence of alcohol, behaving inappropriately and sometimes undermining, humiliating and ostracising officers in the presence of other employees while off premises, as well as officers coming to work under the influence of illicit drugs in a desperate attempt to fiercely compete for that sales credit," she said.

Senator Deborah O’Neill has used parliamentary privilege to excoriate EY’s culture and governance. Credit:Elesa Kurtz

"This says a lot about the cultural tone set at the top by partners at EY and the relationship between power and alcohol in fuelling inappropriate workplace behaviour."

The senator described a sales-focused culture that values long hours and a "sophisticated form of wage theft" in a small number of cases where partners had stripped employees of chargeable hours to maintain engagement margins.

"It is done so as to protect the performance measures of the engagement manager or partner at the expense of the officers concerned," Senator O'Neill said.

The Labor senator took aim at EY's professionalism standards, pointing to an incident in a Victorian country club in 2014 where members of the Melbourne financial services assurance team allegedly were involved in an "alcohol-fuelled bender" resulting in the destruction of $15,000 worth in property and a lifetime ban imposed on EY by that venue.

"This again makes a mockery of the consulting business," she said.

Senator O'Neill said she had been contacted by EY employees after the internal channels for lodging complaints went nowhere. She said this reflected an industry-wide problem where confidentiality was not respected during internal investigations of complaints that often left employees "victimised" by the process.

"Partners are indifferent to confidentiality, because they have plausible deniability. The complainant typically ends up either resigning or being paid out through a redundancy, which is convenient for the partnership but often paralysing for the person who receives that payout," she said.

"This covert and damning management behaviour is enabled by a partnership model where solidarity is the currency that all too often trumps ethical action and procedural fairness," Senator O'Neill said, adding that whistleblowers have turned to parliament in "sheer desperation" to shine light on these issues.

Senator O'Neill said EY's senior partner Scott Ward had engaged in a "clear conflict of interest" and "breach of professional standards" by leading NAB's risk management audit at the same time his technology risk team performed the controls assurance review for NAB's external audit. Her other claims against EY weren't directed at Mr Ward personally.

Earlier in February, the parliamentary investigation into the auditing industry was extended by the government after Senator O'Neill aired concerns under privilege that EY was reviewing its own consultancy work it carried out for the big four banks.

EY has been contacted for comment.

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