McKinsey draws ire for 'ban' of Moscow staff political participation

02 February 2021 4 min. read

McKinsey & Company’s Moscow Managing Partner has drawn consternation from his own staff, after issuing a dictate seemingly banning them from political expression. After the strategy consultancy’s Russia-based staff criticised the email, which said attending anti-government protests and all posts on social media of a “political flavour” were off-limits to employees, Vitaly Klintsov issued a clarification stating his message had “incorrectly reflected” the firm’s policy.

As one of the world’s leading strategy consultancies, McKinsey & Company takes on contracts from a number of the world’s largest companies, and the governments of the planet’s largest economies. While this brings with it a great deal of prestige, however, it also brings with it a hefty amount of baggage – as the company it keeps via its client base leads critics to assume that the firm is happy to put profit before people on a regular basis.

In recent years, McKinsey has come under increasing pressure for its long-standing relationships with a number of authoritarian states. Human rights activists have taken issue with the consultancy over close ties with states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China in particular – while Russia now also seems set to become a point of key interest in this regard.

McKinsey draws ire for 'ban' of Moscow staff political participation

Earlier in January, Moscow Managing Partner Vitaly Klintsov issued an email edict to McKinsey staff in the office, purportedly banning them from participating in rallies supporting jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny – protests which the government had refused to sanction as legal. As reported by The Moscow Times, the email also stated that posts on social media “featuring your political views or your attitude to any action with a political flavour” were banned by McKinsey.

Klintsov’s initial email drew a sharp response from both current and former members of McKinsey’s staff, and led him to issue a hasty clarification soon after. In that mail, he responded to the fact “some of you have raised concerns about my email to the office yesterday” by admitting that the firm’s policy was “incorrectly reflected in that email.”

He went on to state that “McKinsey supports its employees' rights to participate legally and in a personal capacity in civic and political activities across the countries we operate. The recognition of these rights is unqualified.”

For many detractors, however, the apparent change of course was too little, too late. McKinsey boasts a long-standing relationship with a number of Kremlin-linked companies, some of which are under Western government sanctions. In 2018, for example, McKinsey was hired by VEB Bank – a bank that is fully owned by the Russian state – while it has also consulted for Russian oil company Russneft.

Due to these links, even after Klintsov’s retraction it was not long before the story was met with criticism by from prominent human rights activists and journalists – as well as a US Senator, who declared that the email “raises serious questions about McKinsey’s core values and corporate culture.”

US Republican Senator for Florida Marco Rubio, who said in a statement on his website, “It strains credulity to believe the Managing Partner of Russia and CIS incorrectly characterised how McKinsey policy sought to interact with the Putin regime in his original email… It is no secret that McKinsey maintains close business ties to Russian government agencies and Kremlin-linked companies.”

Protests across Russia

As to the protests which Klintsov’s initial email pertained to, thousands of people in Moscow and across Russia took to the streets in the last weekend of January. It was the second weekend in a row to support opposition leader Navalny, who has been held by Russian authorities since just after the turn of 2021. The long-time Russian dissident had spent the previous several months in Germany, where he was recovering from being poisoned with nerve-agent Novichok – which he accused the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin of using to try to kill him – an allegation the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

While opinion polls suggest Putin remains as popular as ever – holding steady at a 65% approval rating – the discontent surrounding his alleged abuse of opposition figures shows no signs of dying down. On January 31st, in a bid to quell the growing unrest, protestors were met with the harshest show of force Russia has seen in recent years.

More than 5,000 people were detained in at least 85 cities as of late Sunday, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info – a record since 2011. In Moscow alone this saw over 1,600 people were arrested, including Navalny's wife Yulia, though she was later released.