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How Wall Street should change its intern culture

(istockphoto) (istockphoto)

On Friday, Bank of America said it would be reviewing the working conditions of its junior employees after an investment banking intern at its London offices died recently. Unconfirmed reports said the 21-year-old intern had allegedly worked several all-nighters in a row, raising questions about how the extreme hours in finance--where 80- to 100-hour work weeks are not uncommon, especially for young bankers--affect employees' health. A spokesman for the bank, Reuters reported, said the review would examine "all aspects our working practices, with a particular focus on our junior populations."

It's commendable that the bank says it's going to conduct this review. A cause of death has not yet been confirmed, and blood tests won't be available for several weeks. Still, unless the "working practices" it reexamines include the high levels of compensation in the industry, the potential for extreme work hours is likely to remain.

Most professionals don't, after all, choose jobs where they routinely work 15 or even 20 hours a day unless there's a big prize at the end for doing so. (Such hours are a different story, of course, for low-wage workers who must work two or even three jobs to pay the bills.) Medical residents, lawyers and start-up employees often see financial rewards--in addition to other less tangible ones--in exchange for the long hours they work, but nowhere are these rewards greater than in the banking industry.

There are certainly many factors to blame besides high pay. Tradition is one: Senior bankers who survived the intense workload expect those who come after them to go through the same brutal rite of passage. Status is another: As New York magazine's Kevin Roose writes, it confers on bankers a special status that allows them to feel better than their peers who work more "normal" jobs.

Even clients share some of the blame. Companies that expect overnight changes to complicated Excel models from their investment bankers also play a role in this system. Add cutthroat competition in an era of fewer finance jobs, perks such as expense-account dinners and car services that reward long hours, and the competitive milieu of twenty-something males (mostly) who try to one-up each other on the job, and there are plenty of reasons the extreme work environment prevails.

Who knows what kind of changes the bank's review will bring. It could hire more interns and junior employees to help divide up the work. It could set limits on the number of hours young employees will work and train senior staffers to shift their expectations. Or it could push back on clients with more reasonable deadlines (surely the least likely of the changes).

But as long as investment banking jobs dangle the lure of vast riches, people are going to work hard--and in some cases, too hard--to reach them.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Wall Street's record-breaking pay stubs: Pay for performance? Really?

How to manage an intern

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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