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KAO: McKinsey among worst internships, companies to endure

Column: Left on Red

A few weeks ago, I was checking LinkedIn, and I noticed that a friend from high school had accepted a job at McKinsey & Company, better known as McKinsey. 

McKinsey is a management consulting firm, famed for its expertise in advising corporations and governments. 

McKinsey, and similar, albeit lesser, firms like the Boston Consulting Group and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, command a bevy of well-credentialed applicants, recruiting heavily from Ivy League universities. Naturally, the pay is excellent, making a position at McKinsey a highly coveted one among college students. Money aside, the prestige of having the firm on one’s resume is an additional draw.

What exactly do consulting firms do? Ostensibly, their role is to advise their clients on “best practices” – how to best solve whatever problems their client may be facing. On its face, this seems fine. What could possibly be wrong with problem-solving?

But things are not so clear-cut. Management consulting is not just the mere giving of advice. No matter how neutral they may seem, technocratic interventions, as practiced by McKinsey and its ilk, are never neutral. And McKinsey has more often than not found itself on the wrong side of things.

The New York Times has done extensive reporting over the last year on McKinsey and its work for a range of dubious clients. McKinsey performed services for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – a uniquely reprehensible agency that is responsible for countless human rights abuses against immigrants – until it became too embarrassing to do so. 

It prepared a report for Saudi Arabia that helped identify critics of the regime who were active on Twitter. Those critics were subsequently arrested by the Saudi government or had their accounts shut down. 

McKinsey also has extensive business advising various Chinese state-owned enterprises, even going so far as to hold its annual corporate retreat in Kashgar, Xinjiang, a mere 4 miles away from the concentration camps China had set up for the Muslim Uighur population. 

McKinsey has also gotten itself mixed up in several sordid cases of bribery and corruption involving governments and multinational corporations, including Malaysia, South Africa and Ukraine. This is not new. Before it imploded from fraudulent bookkeeping in 2001, infamous energy firm Enron Corp. hired McKinsey to oversee its corporate practices. 

Besides working for authoritarian governments, McKinsey also may have incurred conflicts of interest, in which its own in-house hedge fund – yes, McKinsey operates its own hedge fund – was invested in companies that McKinsey’s consultants were advising at the same time. 

There was also the Galleon Group insider trading scandal in 2011, where former top McKinsey executives shared insider information with hedge fund owner Raj Rajaratnam while simultaneously offering their services to Rajaratnam. 

Though McKinsey as a whole was not directly implicated, it was still highly embarrassing for the firm, and the very existence of the scandal demonstrated a lax corporate culture that facilitated these crimes.  

It becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that for all its talk of “best practices,” McKinsey is really in the business of enabling the misdeeds of its clients. Far from serving as a check on clients’ behavior, McKinsey’s role is to place its stamp of approval on the activities of its clients. 

This license is, of course, bought with the high fees the firm commands. Small wonder why so many at the top of the meritocracy want to work for McKinsey. 

Notably, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Ind.) worked for McKinsey before he started his political career, and he would frequently tout his experience at the firm before realizing McKinsey was not a good look in the presidential primary. Unsurprisingly, Buttigieg has maintained a cordial posture toward big business, big tech and Wall Street. You can take the man out of McKinsey, but you cannot take McKinsey out of the man. 

Despite all of this unpleasantness, McKinsey remains a prime destination for college graduates. A berth at the firm is a marker of professional success, paving the way for future rewards. One phrase common in the discourse surrounding careers is “selling out” – sacrificing one’s integrity to take on a position that pays well. 

Working for McKinsey is exactly that. You are choosing to work as a servant of the ruling class, to aid and abet their wrongdoing. 

I had not spoken to my McKinsey-bound friend for a few years, and, paused at my laptop, I wondered if I should offer my congratulations in the comments below her LinkedIn post. Knowing what I know of her, I was surprised, but not shocked, that she had chosen to work there. But I scrolled away. 

We all make our choices. 

Samuel Kao is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in history. His column "Left on Red" runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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