The notorious culture of long workdays and routine all-nighters endured by banking interns is back in the spotlight following the tragic death of a 21-year-old Merrill Lynch’s intern. Human resources groups, labor advocates and employment attorneys are now demanding changes to the rules and work practices that characterize internships.
Moritz Erhardt collapsed at home after reportedly working all night for three consecutive days at Bank of America/ Merrill Lynch’s investment banking division in London. While the cause of death is still under investigation, some reports have surfaced that the young intern suffered from epilepsy. And given the intense demands placed on this young worker, many expect that the family could file a wrongful death lawsuit against Bank of America/ Merrill Lynch.
Immediately following Erhardt’s death, workers’ organizations have redoubled their critique of employers who drive young interns to work inhuman hours. Moreover, recruitment firms that specialize in intern positions have demanded the creation of an independent governing body that would monitor and support young people working in the finance industry
Felix Mitchell, co-founder and director of Instant Impact, a London-based intern recruitment agency, is at the forefront of this movement. “Internships should not be an initiation process of low pay, tortuous hours and tasks designed to push the young person to their limits, even of health. They should not be exploited because they’re the intern,” he said.
“What it shows is that young people need a bit more support,” Katerina Rudiger, head of skills and policy campaigns at CIPD, stated in an interview with CNBC. She noted that young people are often desperate to get their foot in the door and will work exceptionally hard, often for no pay, to land a job in our tough economic climate.
John McIvor, head of international communications at Bank of America/ Merrill Lynch, said the company was unable to confirm the circumstances connected to Erhardt’s death or his working hours, but insisted that he was shocked and saddened by the loss. “The whole point about internships is to give students a positive experience and to get to know our firm, and us to know them well, so we can work out who would be the best fit to join the company full time after they graduate,” McIvor said.
A former employee at BoAML, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that interns are in fierce competition with each other to impress their bosses and hopefully land a permanent job once they graduate. The culture of grueling work schedules is simply part of the gig. Former interns report working as many as a hundred hours a week at various bank, especially those in the U.S., until they are given enough “slack” to cut back to 80-90 hour work weeks in their second year.
Yet Richard Payne, a professor of finance at Cass Business School, is skeptical that anything will change soon, since so many aspiring bankers are drawn to the prospect of a prestigious, high-paying career and the “glittering rewards” that can result from working long hours. “Interns are in a culture where time spent at your desk is often, probably wrongly, equated with productivity and dedication,” Payne said. “Combining these, leads to an intern wanting to stay that little bit later than his or her fellow interns, and this competition to stay late may be exploited by an employer.”