The high-achieving college students bound for Wall Street jobs have heard the stories of long nights and weekends spent at the office, a grueling schedule etched into big bank culture.
But this year, many of the fresh recruits will encounter a new, unfamiliar reality: mandatory time off.
The leading Wall Street banks are taking a close look at the work environment of their interns and junior bankers, known as analysts and associates, after the death of an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London last summer. In an internal memo on Friday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said analysts and associates should spend four weekend days away from the office each month, part of a broader effort to improve working conditions.
It remains to be seen whether this guideline and others being implemented at other firms will significantly alter the hard-charging culture of these highly coveted and intensely demanding jobs. But in any event, 2014 will probably be remembered as the year Wall Street tried to offer some relief to the grunts who work behind the scenes — tweaking spreadsheets and preparing presentations — to help the bank run.
In addition to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, several other large banks are thinking hard about the workload of their junior employees.
Morgan Stanley has formed a committee to look at broader issues around career development and training for those lowest on the totem pole, according to a person briefed on the matter who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. The Wall Street Journal reported the existence of the committee earlier.
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JPMorgan Chase plans to increase its number of junior bankers by 10 percent this year, a person briefed on the matter said. The plans, announced internally in December, also include providing analysts and associates with one "protected weekend" set aside for rest each month.
Goldman Sachs was the first of the major banks to alert its junior employees of plans to improve their working conditions. After forming a "junior banker task force" last year, Goldman said internally in October that analysts should be able to take weekends off whenever possible. The firm also said it would hire more analysts and introduce new technology to make the work process more efficient.
Making these changes may seem like a no-brainer to workers in other industries. But on Wall Street, where an intense work schedule can be a badge of pride, the moves are being met in some quarters with skepticism. An article published on Saturday that described the plans at Bank of America Merrill Lynch generated a lively discussion online.
One unidentified commenter said: "Many years ago, as a 29-year-old in finance, I had the pleasure of working 70 days in a row, including Thanksgiving morning and Thanksgiving evening (I had that one afternoon off). It was a particularly important project that ended up being an important building block in my career. No regrets."
"My income now is in the top 1/5th of 1 percent or so," the person continued, adding later: "Life has been great and I am thankful that I have been given the opportunity to work ridiculously hard to gain the flexibility I have in my life."
(Read more: BofA seeks to ensure work limits after intern death)
Another commenter, identified as Mark from London, struck a sarcastic tone: "I can imagine the reaction" from the vice president or managing director "who is working on the $1 billion deal when his analyst turns around and says, 'sorry but that presentation you want, it will have to wait till Monday as I haven't taken off my four weekend days this month…' Best of luck with that."
The comment points to a deeper question: Are banks' best efforts enough to alter this hallmark of Wall Street culture? Adam Zoia, the chief executive of Glocap, an executive search firm focused on the investment management industry, said in an interview on Friday that the "perfect analogy" for the culture of grueling work was "a fraternity rush."
"I suffered, therefore you newbies are going to suffer, too," Mr. Zoia said in summarizing that view.
To outsiders, that may seem strange. Chuck Wiatrowski of San Antonio responded to the commenter who claimed to have worked 70 days in a row.
"Your comment actually saddened me a bit," Mr. Wiatrowski said. "What was the real cost of your work? I wonder how well you really know your children or wife. Are your children really doing things that they want to do or are they just extensions of your goals?"
—By William Alden of The New York Times