Last year, Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt died from a mistaken notion of what it takes to be the best in the high-stakes investment bank world. Of course there is no arguing that high-level corporate and financial services jobs require dedication, hard work and talent. However, that is not to say that Bank of America, or any business, would ever encourage such self-destructive behavior. Managers want interns with drive and intelligence, including intelligence enough to know their own limits. Even from a selfish perspective, business such as Bank of America would gain nothing from the kind of tarnished reputation that comes with perceived poor treatment of high-achieving employees.
A defense of the high-end professional service work ethic is incomplete without recognition of weaknesses. Lawyers, bankers and consultants up and down the chain experience the kind of pressure that interns and new employees face. This is a painful reality where clients pay large sums of money for virtually perfect competence and quick responses. Thus, work is pushed down the hierarchy as far as possible. This happens because senior employees or partners – who have “been through the grinder” more than anyone else – feel justified in unloading responsibilities so that they may finally get some rest without compromising their pay. Again, note that it is exactly this vision that motivates newer employees to put up with the never-ending burden in the first place.
Reforms are possible, though institutional barriers exist. On the optimistic side, financial and legal services are brimming over the top with intelligent people who would gladly have a more relaxed schedule if they could do so without sacrificing their careers. The trick is, supply and demand dynamics of the high-end, high-pay financial services trade necessitate precisely such a sacrifice. Minor work policy revisions can happen, though. It may not seem like much, but some business such as the Boston Consulting Group set aside specific days during which employees are assured they will not be called in.
In closing, please keep in mind that financial/legal services have the problem of too much work. Many other sectors don’t have enough and are always looking to trim their workforce. Those employees would love to come in more and justify their pay, but they can’t. By contrast, investment and financial services employees can easily justify their salaries. Believe it or not, the workaholic culture of elite professional financial services is a good problem to have.