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Should we really care whether bankers work their fingers to the bone?

Paddy Hirsch Jan 17, 2014

The public hand-wringing by banks about the hours their junior staffers have to work seems a little… disingenuous.

Let’s be real here: These banks don’t really care about those of their interns and first-year analysts that are working themselves to the point of collapse. They only care about getting the job done, whatever it takes.

In fact many bankers will tell you (off the record, of course) that they LIKE the fact that their bank is seen as a particularly grueling and brutal place to work. They went though it, the argument goes, so why shouldn’t the new lot go through it, too?

The memo sent out by Goldman Sachs at the end of October, encouraging junior bankers to take weekends off, was met by skepticism within the industry. The news the following month that the death of an intern at Bank of America could have been triggered by overwork appeared to push other banks to join Goldman. This PR flurry was ostensibly aimed at ensuring that the banks wouldn’t lose their best recruits to private equity, or some other arm of the finance industry that doesn’t have quite the same notoriety when it comes to working hours.

But as John Gapper points out, the fact that investment bankers are overworked isn’t news, and yet Goldman Sachs received 17,000 applications for the 330 jobs as analysts.

So, if senior bankers like the way things are, and ambitious junior bankers don’t seem too bothered, why should we care? 

One reason: as the FT’s John Gapper points out, it’s inefficient.

“Many junior bankers end up working in the evening because a partner who has been out pitching to potential clients all day returns to the bank late in the afternoon, and tells them to prepare a document immediately based on the sortie. Although they have been at their desks for hours, they start to work intensively only then.”

Bankers cost money, and if the banks are using them inefficiently, shareholders should get upset. 

Another reason, from The Guardian’s Helaine Olen: it’s sexist.

“… the world of employment has all too often remained wedded to a traditional model, where employees who want to make it to the top need to all but sacrifice their personal lives in their twenties and thirties to make it big in their forties. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this puts women at something of a disadvantage, since that’s also the prime age for women to have children. If they don’t do it then, it’s quite possible they never will.”

The process of changing working hours group-think on Wall Street — as well as in the medical and legal professions, by the way — will be a marathon, not a sprint. Several generations of bankers will have to pass through the lower-tiers of their businesses before any new approaches become institutionalized. As CNBC’s John Carney notes, that road will probably not be smooth, and you can expect some more senior bankers to undermine any attempt to change

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