WARNING: Working on Wall Street Kills

Published: Jun 03, 2015

 Finance       MBA       Salary & Benefits       Workplace Issues       
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In the wake of two recent deaths of young Wall Street bankers, it seems a good time to revisit the subject of punishing hours in investment banking.

In case you hadn’t heard, earlier this week news spread about a 22-year-old Goldman Sachs analyst who’d fallen to his death in what appears to have been suicide. Sarvshreshth Gupta—an analyst in Goldman’s telecommunications, media, and technology group who grew in India and received an undergraduate degree from Wharton—had complained to his father about being severely stressed out and having to put in 100-hour workweeks. He wanted to quit his job and told his father as much. After his father told him to hang in there, discouraging him from quitting, Gupta quit anyway. Then, according to his father, Gupta was swayed by Goldman to rejoin the firm and was supposedly given a reduced schedule and the help of counseling. But soon after Gupta rejoined, one day this past April at 2:40 a.m., while Gupta was at work (yes, at 2:40 a.m.), he called his father in India. Here’s his father about that call.

“He calls us and says, ‘It is too much. I have not slept for two days, have a client meeting tomorrow morning, have to complete a presentation, my V.P. is annoyed and I am working alone in my office,’ ” … “I got furious. ‘Take 15 days leave and come home,’ I said. He quipped, ‘They will not allow.’ I said, ‘Tell them to consider this as your resignation letter.’ ”

Four hours later, his son was found dead—in a parking lot several floors below the apartment where he lived in San Francisco.

Also, last month, a 29-year-old associate at the investment banking firm Moelis & Company apparently leaped to his death in Lower Manhattan. Like Gupta, Thomas Hughes had been complaining of being severely stressed out and working long hours. And after his death he was found to have drugs in his system and cocaine was found in his apartment. Hughes’ father, in the wake of his son’s death, has been quoted as saying:

“The only explanation is that I know he’s been working very hard and has been under a lot of pressure … I also know that sometimes when one is in that environment you can turn to alcohol or other types of drugs … at a time when he was under stress he probably resorted to illegal drugs, causing this incredibly poor judgment.”

At a glance, it’s perhaps easiest and most convenient to blame Goldman and Moelis as well as the young bankers themselves for these tragedies. After all, it was Goldman and Moelis that must have known their respective employees were working so hard and were having such a difficult time of it, and if they didn’t know, then they should’ve known. Also, it’s true that many young people work very long hours and have stressful jobs, both in banking and outside banking, but not every stressed out long-hour worker is pushed to the brink of suicide. So, the dispositions of these young men and/or other private situations (not known to the media) in their lives must have also played a part in their deaths.

However, looking more deeply into these stories, and connecting it to others, including the death of a Bank of America intern two summers ago, and several banker deaths in 2014, it’s possible that, although the aforementioned parties aren’t innocent, much of the blame lies with Wall Street in general, as well as with a culture pervasive throughout America of equating monetary success with self-worth and personal success.

To be sure, Goldman and Moelis are not alone when it comes to working Wall Street employees to the bone. In fact, there are several banks that are known to work their employees much harder than these two firms. And one of these, which is a so-called boutique investment bank, is involved in one of the more gruesome stories of overworking young bankers I’ve ever heard. It involves a first-year associate who was forced to pull an all-nighter on his first day on the job, and then forced to finish out the following workday without going home, working till 10 p.m. at that. Imagine, your first day on the job is a 37-hour workday.

This firm, which I won’t name (because there are others like it and so it’s not alone), year in and year out receives ungodly low scores in our annual Banking Survey when it comes to “hours” and “work/life balance.” At the same time, it scores ungodly high when it comes to prestige. The same goes for Goldman and a host of other banking firms. And prestige usually equals higher pay and much better and more on-the-job experience (the opportunity to work on bigger, more complex, and just plain more investment banking deals), and this better deal experience is rewarded with entry into more prestigious MBA schools and more prestigious hedge fund and private equity and tech jobs (see Google's latest high-ranking hire).

And since so many young people want to work for the most prestigious banking firms and stand out at these firms since it leads to further “career success,” the environment at these banks becomes very competitive, causing young bankers to work extremely hard, even at the expense of their own physical and mental health.

As for that competitive nature, using the above example about the first day all-nighter, if that kid walked out on his job and said, ‘Thanks but no thanks, I’m not doing this all-nighter thing,’ there would certainly be hundreds of others in line to—very happily—take his place. So what is he going to do? Quit so someone else can take his place? Or grin and bear it and hope that the job gets better and leads to bigger and better things?

Also, I will say that, having gone to the same school that Gupta did (albeit many moons earlier), I know how much pressure there is at Penn to get one of the so-called top investment banking jobs (and I assume the same goes for scores of other Wall Street “target” schools). There’s immense competition within the graduating classes and a crazy amount of importance placed upon getting one of these jobs—and if you don’t, you’re looked down upon. I know, because I didn’t, and instead “settled” for a job with a lesser-known investment bank, and received a fair amount of ribbing from so-called friends as a result.

In addition, it perhaps comes as no surprise that there’s a strong fraternity-like environment prevalent on Wall Street which perpetuates the hazing of long hours—the if I did it, then you have to do it, too mentality that keeps the ungodly long hours spinning around year after year. And, as I see it, the only way for this mentality to stop is for senior bankers en masse to band together to say, ‘Stop the insanity.’ But the thing is, they have little financial incentive to do so because their livelihood depends upon the number of deals they close, and the number of deals they close depends on the number of marketing pitches they can put together, and guess who stays at work night after night to put together all those marketing pitches?

Right now, I know there are many readers out there thinking, ‘Who the f(*% cares about a bunch of greedy bankers?’ And truth be told, although I was once upon a time a banker (and maybe even a bit greedy), a little part of me feels the same. However, a larger part of me knows how difficult it is to be a young person in his or her twenties, and how hard it is to wade through all the mixed messages that the world throws at you: find something you love to do; get a job that pays; find meaning in your work; make sure you can support yourself and don't go into debt; don’t work for any large, evil corporations; get the best and most experience you can early on in your career; etc.; etc.

It’s a fact, and maybe a surprising one, that some of the brightest (and most honest) people I know are those who’ve wanted, at some point in their careers, to get ahead in finance, and many have done so because they really loved finance, because they found the financial markets to be exciting and interesting and they wanted to be at the center of the world conversation (for better or worse, economics and money and thus the world's banks are at or very near the center of our universe). But just as many have done so because, unfortunately, at a very young age, they were taught that money = self-worth = success. And so, naturally, they found their way to the world’s most prestigious banking firms, because where else could they achieve more so-called $elf-worth and succe$$ than on Wall Street, which dangles in front of young, impressionable employees ungodly amounts of money?

Which is to say Wall Street isn’t the only guilty party. They’re but one cog in a culture that too often sends the message to young people that the more money they make, the better people they are.

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Read More:
Forget Goldman and McKinsey, Take a Gap Year Instead
Wall Street’s Return: Wonderful or Frightful?
Why Are Wall Street Women So Unsatisfied?