Big Four manager expects staff to work 80 hours per week

19 January 2021 5 min. read
More news on

Professional services firms are into busy season, and a Manager at EY Hong Kong has set a controversial protocol for his staff: working till midnight on weekdays and a minimum of 13 hours on the weekend – among other steep expectations. A leaked email to his team has sparked outrage.

Reporting season comes twice a year, when listed companies have to prepare half-yearly and annual reports. For accountants and auditors, each reporting season follows a three-month flurry of audits, financial reports and compliance studies for several clients – which is why the industry labels it ‘peak season’ or ‘busy season’.

Meanwhile, for consultants, crunch times comes and go in line with project timelines. Those working in mergers & acquisitions face a pressure cooker during due diligence and before signing, IT consultants face peak season before go-lives, while consultants of all sorts tend to put in more hours in the run up to important deadlines for deliverables.

In a leaked email titled “Peak season working protocol and expectation,” a Manager at EY Hong Kong has laid out his demands. During the week, work starts at 9.30 am and ends after 11.30 pm, although this is a minimum expectation. “I think midnight is common in peak seasons – it counts on the discipline and responsibility of yourself.”

Big Four manager expects staff to work 80 hours per week

Some “respite” on Fridays – employees can get off at 7.30 pm to dine with family and friends – and then back to the grind on weekends. “For weekends, I expect at least one day we are spending the whole day (from 10 am to 7.30 pm) in office. The other day home office for half day (four to six hours),” he wrote.

He also added that working from home on the weekend is on trial basis, and he might call the team in on both days if output slips. This basic outline was backed up with other guidelines – at least one days notice if working from home is required, and reminders on punctuality.

The demands are problematic at several levels, not to mention illegal. Per the Employment Ordinance of Hong Kong, staff are entitled to at least one day of rest – 24 consecutive hours without work – per week. Only an emergency can forego this right, and even then employers have to make up for it with an extra rest day within 30 days. The email appears to disregard most of this.

Then there is the inhumane pressure of such a work environment – several studies suggest that working more than 60 at the very most is physically and mentally unhealthy. Lastly, the Manager's repeated calls to come into office daily pose a significant risk of Covid-19 infection.

Speaking to the Australian Financial Review (AFR), a spokeswoman of EY in Asia Pacific expressed her concern about the email, stating that a “thorough” internal investigation is underway, and positioning the instruction as a one-off rather than a company-wide occurrence.

“The expectations and sentiment expressed in the email do not accord with EY values. The wellbeing of our people is incredibly important. We have flexible work arrangements in place, as we put our trust in our people to manage both their work and personal commitments. Our leadership and talent teams are offering support and counseling to those involved in this matter.”

Indeed, EY’s overall reputation as an employer is positive. Just last year, the firm was named among the top 20 employers in Asia by Great Place to Work. In late 2019, Universum ranked EY 2nd in the World’s Most Attractive Employers list, based on a survey with nearly 250,000 students worldwide – with “culture and values” being among the top pluses at the firm.

Industry-wide issue

That being said, long hours and weekends are run of the mill in the consulting industry. Over 60 hours clocked is common in a consultant’s work-week during busy season, with professionals at top end strategy consultancies inching more towards 70 hours.

Professionals from fellow Big Four accounting and advisory firm PwC spoke to AFR, stressing that 70 plus hours and weekends was very much the “norm” and the expectation during peak season, branding the culture as “crazy” and “borderline slavery.” Making matters worse is that overtime is largely unpaid in the sector.

Many consultants operate on 40-hour contracts, and put in the extra time purely out of pressure and expectation – famously the culture at consulting firms. At the same time, many firms are actively working to improve the work-life balance, by winding down in off-peak season, for instance, or increasing the amount of paid, maternity and parental leave.

At any rate, the email in question marks an extreme in this spectrum. Other screenshots circulating in the media allegedly reveal the same EY Hong Kong Manager hounding his employees on Skype and WhatsApp, demanding that they remain online and available at all times.

Here is the full email of the Manager sent to staff:

All – I would like to make it clear again my expectation on this.

For weekdays, start work at 9:30 am and off after 11:30 pm (subject to urgency of tasks, I think midnight is common in peak seasons — it counts on the discipline and responsibility of yourself). On Friday it shall be fine to get off at 7:30pm to have dinner with family and friends.

For weekends, I expect at least one day we are spending the whole day (frorn 10am-7:30pm) in office. The other day home office for half day (e.g. 4-6 hours) (I will take it as a trial to see if stable output from each of you can be foreseen, otherwise will stick to working in office mode onwards).

If you have special reasons and need to work from home office, please at least consult me one day in advance (not informing me afterwards). I expect everyone to work in office as a team. And 9:30 am here means 9:30 am not 10 am or 10:30 am, 10 am here means 10 am not 11 am or 11:30 am.

Last, seniors, please proactively update and catch rne to discuss and go through your tasks on hand.

Thanks all for the hard work.