The City must not over-react to the shock death of an intern

 
David Hellier
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THERE are still lots of unanswered questions following the sudden and tragic death of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 21-year-old intern Moritz Erhardt. Whether he was an epileptic – and whether he had declared that to the bank – is crucial to understanding what happened to cut an ambitious young man down in such cruel circumstances.

One thing is crystal clear, however. The brilliant student’s relationship with the bank can not be compared in any way with slavery, as one newspaper did yesterday.

One definition of slavery is this: “All work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself (or herself) voluntarily.”

Interns vie against huge numbers of competitors to gain admission to the big banks’ summer programmes. They do so voluntarily and with enormous amounts of enthusiasm, for they see internships not just as well-paid (nearly £3,000 a month) but as an entry point from which to apply for full-time posts.

So, to speak of interns being treated like slaves is just sheer nonsense. It’s also insulting to those around the world whose lives are still blighted by the modern-day slave masters, be they pimps or drug barons or anybody else.

It is clear, though, that for some the long hours culture of the City can come as something of a shock and for others, especially those with existing medical conditions, it can be damaging to one’s health or even fatal.

Such issues are not exclusive to banks, of course; they are very real issues for the legal and medical professions, to name but two.

Since Erhardt’s death became public earlier this week, the internet message boards have been buzzing with comments from various interns who claim to have felt pressure to work longer and longer hours, and believe they must be seen to still be in the office even if they have nothing to do.

Then there’s the Magic Roundabout. I had always associated the phrase with the age-old children’s show of the same name, featuring the likes of Zebedee and Florence. But I have learnt the Magic Roundabout these days is a phrase more commonly used to describe the process of a company taxi taking a bank worker home in the early morning, then waiting for that person to take a shower before turning back to head back to the office, clean but hardly refreshed.

The long hours culture can become as addictive as it is competitive. Bankers often say that they like being called and even called back from their holiday because it makes them feel wanted.

It would be wrong, however, to come to a knee-jerk response to this episode and to insist on new rules to ensure interns leave for home at midnight, to take an arbitrary example.

For one thing, that would deprive the interns of very valuable experience and leave them without a proper understanding of what a full-time post might involve.

Banks need to deliver on time in a highly competitive marketplace; they need employees who will work hard and aggressively for them; and in the past few years they have worked hard on diversity programmes to ensure they have as wide an intake as possible.

Erhardt’s shocking death will remind all City employers of the risks associated with the long hours culture and both interns and the banks themselves will do well to learn some lessons from this tragic event, not least whether certain individuals need more rest than others.

As rumours about the circumstances of the death continue, our thoughts are with the parents, relatives and friends of Moritz Erhardt. This must be the most difficult of times.

david.hellier@cityam.com
Follow me on Twitter: @hellierd