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They’re telling junior bankers to work less, but will they listen?

Lizzie O'Leary Jan 17, 2014

They’re telling junior bankers to work less, but will they listen?

Lizzie O'Leary Jan 17, 2014

At 7 p.m. on a recent night on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, men and women in suits are streaming out of JP Morgan Chase, UBS, and other big banks nearby – while delivery guys on bikes drop off food.

Those dinners are going high upstairs, where the lights are on, to analysts and associates, the junior bankers on the lowest rung, who might work hundred-hour weeks, hoping they’ll pay off.

Three years ago, Saad Siddiqui used to be one of them. When he was 23, he worked at the bank RBS. After a couple months of training, he was assigned to Mergers & Acquisitions, one of the company’s most prestigious groups. They do big deals – and work long hours.

“There was a deal that came in on a Friday around 5 or 6 o’clock, and we had to make a bid for the company by Monday,” he recalls. “Which meant that we had to work basically around the clock till Monday. I left for a total of about three hours during that weekend.”

Siddiqui says that wasn’t always the norm. And that he learned a lot. And made money. But the grind was, well, grinding.

So he left for a job in tech. “I know a lot of analysts that go months without having a single weekend off. And after a while, you start losing your mind. And just need to get away from the office.”

Now the big banks are saying junior bankers have to get away from the office. They’re banning Saturday work, or saying one weekend a month is protected, or even bringing on more staff to spread out the load.

The concern began last summer when an intern in Bank of American’s London office died after an epileptic seizure. The coroner noted that his hard work may have been a trigger. The bank began reviewing its policies after his death.

Marketplace got a copy of an internal memo that went out last week. It says junior bankers must take four weekend days off each month. The memo also says the bank wants to support work-life balance.

But there’s something else going on here, too.

“Right now, Wall Street is not the only game in town for really talented people,” says Anthony Rose, a former CFO at Credit Suisse, and now a professor at Columbia Business School.

He says some of his students are going to venture capital firms, or to Silicon Valley to work in tech.

“Technology now is a big driver,” he says. “People are starting to ask the question of, ‘What else do I get out of it?’ And what they mean by that is, ‘Am I going to have to work 120 hours a week, or am I going to have a chance to spend time with my family or friends?”

There’s skepticism that these announcements will actually change the culture of Wall Street, where people come to make money.

“You have guys and girls coming out of school with huge debt and a focus on getting a job, when right now it’s the most competitive it’s ever been,” says Harry Youtan, whose company Phaidon recruits bankers for jobs.

“These guys, perhaps irrespective of the things implemented by the big banks – the Goldmans, the J.P.’s the Credit Suisse – they’re going to work,” he says. “They want to show their commitment, and they want to show their loyalty.”

And of course, there are older bankers to contend with, who came up in the old system and may not take to the new policies. What happens to protected weekends when a managing director drops a project on somebody’s desk at 5 p.m. on a Friday?

“That’ll probably be the first real test of crunch time,” says Columbia’s Rose. “Deal’s on the table, this guys going out to the Hamptons for the weekend. I think that will be the first real test of ‘How do you implement this?’”

If a big deal happens, that test may come earlier. After all, the start of the week on Wall Street goes by the nickname “Merger Monday.”

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