☰ Menu eFinancialCareers

The Insider: When bankers behave badly

The City’s not for wimps, but neither should you tolerate being bullied, says Hugh Karseras, author and senior banker.

Does bullying go on in the City? In my experience, yes, but don’t expect to see trading floor managers hurling chairs at hapless underlings. Bullying in the City is often a lot more subtle, a lot harder to evidence and a lot more insidious.

It’s important to differentiate between someone who is normally a decent banker but who occasionally blows up in response to specific situations and someone who is persistently vindictive. Losing one’s temper is never good, but one needs to be realistic – everyone can boil over under the type of stress not infrequently experienced in the City. In my experience, when good bankers behave badly they generally recognise it, are big enough to apologise and everyone moves on without lingering ill-feeling.

Where there genuinely is a case of persistently abusive behaviour from a banker the good news is that most banks have formal HR procedures. The bad news is that pursuing a formal procedure will raise questions about you as a complainant – people will question your competence and infer weakness. I encountered a bullying situation recently, where this was exactly what happened. The competence of a junior banker who was bullied was immediately challenged. The bully’s defence of his own behaviour was that it was frustration in response to under-performance.

What are the options?

First, you can choose to do nothing but bide your time until able to change your team or department to minimise interaction with the bully.

Second, you can deal with the bully head on. The best way to do this is to remain calm and professional. Be factual, describe their negatively charged behaviour and ask the bully to articulate what is causing them to behave in this way and then what can be done about it.

Third, you can seek informal advice and help from respected colleagues and see if someone is able to deal with the problem behind the scenes.

Fourth, you can pursue official proceedings through HR. It is crucial to keep a log of specific examples of bullying behaviour including times and dates. Witnesses will help too. Pre-empt any impugning of one’s competence with hard evidence of strong performance, e.g. direct feedback from superiors. A compelling case against the bully is essential.

Finally, a word of warning: no matter how strong your case, these kinds of issues can be glossed over – particularly if the bully is a valued revenue contributor.

· Hugh Karseras works in a top-tier bank in the City and is author of ‘From New Recruit to High Flyer: No-nonsense Advice on How to Fast Track Your Career’, published by Kogan Page.

Comments (27)

  1. I was persistently bullied by two valued traders on the prop trading floor of a prominent US investment bank in London – a freshly minted MBA then i was only keen to retain my job in a prop group – but that started affecting my personal life – the stress was unmanageabe – finally left the bank and joined a hedge fund – my suggestion to those being bullied don’t take it – give it back

    At the new job i was once again targeted by another trader – but this time i gave it back to him and the dog never wagged its tail again

  2. Yup, bullies exist everywhere. Several years ago I worked for an energy and life sciences consultancy. I complained about a boss that was making my life a true misery (several others had left the team more subtly due to her), and received my marching orders about three weeks later!

    My advice is to act before it is too late – I could have probably acted 6-9 months earlier. Collect evidence, email trails, witness accounts etc. Be aware that witnesses don’t want to lose their jobs either though. Further to that, if you work for one of these firms, upsetting as it is at the time, your talent will be hugely sought after by better employers!

    I spoke to a lawyer friend later, who said that my pay off amounted to slightly more than I should have expected as compensation from the legal system, and I wouldn’t get any more. I also had to sign something saying I wouldn’t take it any further when I received the money. Beware!

  3. Sadly, Lehman Brothers in London seems to have a culture of bullying, at least in some departments. Managers know it goes on, but ignore it as they don’t want to rock the boat by which I mean give their superiors any evidence that they are not capable of running their departments. Weak managers like this should be let go.

    Bridget Isabella Stevens Reply
  4. Bullying exists because some allow it, and some tolerate it. It takes two, or three. My motto is that “you need to bend down for someone to ride on you”. Literally and actually.

    Some years ago i used to be a finance employee.The first time i got bullied, i tolerated it for the sake of job tension, and the “career perspective”. The second time responded with sarcasm and irony. No need to take things more seriously than i should. But when things were getting really worse, i decided that should react or keep on having a job dishonoured, or being a leech to my colleagues and my employer.

    I chose the first. I admit it was not easy. But i did not permit anyone to threat me or terrorize me. I quit once i had payback the terror and the humiliation. Without having secured another job first. Job seeking i found closed doors, its a small place eventually and i was not just another “sheep in the flock” despite my credentials. I was the one who won’t surrender. Eventually, I started my own work. Now i earn multiples of what i would if i had made a different choice then. Thanks to a bully superior. And most important i remained dignified. I just feel only mercy for those could not follow me.

  5. “The bully’s defence of his own behaviour was that it was frustration in response to under-performance.” If this were the case, it would have been a snap to put it on record and send it to the people responsible for the firing decision. Why risk being reprimanded for bullying instead?

    I suspect that most bullies have no case and want their victim to give up the fight and quit. That way, it costs nothing to the company. All the cost is borne by the victim, who has to fight for his career. If the victim does not react fast enough, he will have trouble finding other work in the same field or even in the same profession. Word spreads fast among modern slave traders. They have so many other suckers waiting to take anyone’s place. Why risk alienating bullies who can get away with murder?

    Jean-Victor Côté Reply
  6. I agree with the posters who talk about standing up to the bullies. I recorded one of our firm’s big swinging dicks having a go at me for no reason. I threatened to sue the firm after sending a copy to HR. I was awarded a great deal of money to settle the matter. I only accepted the money after my boss was fired.

    Earning more than a junior colleague doesn’t give these guys the right to abuse us. If they want war let’s give them hell.

  7. I experienced bullying some years ago. It was very subtle and very difficult to prove. Examples would be having your suggestions totally ignored at small group meetings as if you were not even in the room. I also had to deal with an overzealous supervisor nit picking at everything I did. When you raised your concerns it only became worst. Your appraisals were their best way for them to get you.

    When I finally had enough I started to confront the bully. The one thing a bully hates is to for everything to be brought out in the open in front of others. Their strength is to grind you into the dust subtly in the hope that they will just wear you down. I fought back. My view on these things is if a bully can make my day a misery filled with tears then I should be able to do the same to them. There were subtle ways of undermining the bully’s authority and putting the pressure back on them. If they want to say you were incompetent, then why not live up to that for a short while when a project that they are in charge of is due. Watch them squirm as they know you can mess things up an make them look bad.

    Be mindful that this is a high risk approach that could backfire. Have your CV ready as you may have to jump ship at short notice. At least you will leave with the satisfaction that the bully got some back!

    In my particular case I used the union and managed to get a payoff. That really annoyed the bully.

  8. At my bank the culture of bullying is the name of the game, that is competing head-2-head with bitching.

    Some 20% of employees show routinely this kind of behaviour but several are notorious and are well-known within the bank: a Basque Spanish banker in his early 40s and a French lady of the same age. I would class them as mentally unfit and a social threat which they are well known to be. Bosses from hell, they slowly kill those around. However the HR, even the President of the bank, take a view that sending them to some management course for 2 days once in a blue moon can change their conduct. It never does.

    People left in droves, there were huge scandals and complaints – to no avail. But then international organisations have immunity that they shouldn’t have, it keeps them well protected from being taken to court, etc. Three suicides in a short history of this happy place didn’t help to change anything. The City can be one of the most primitive places with unstable people managing others, – nowhere else in the civilized world such extreme abuse is possible.

    The comandments: P.1 the boss is always right. P.2 if the boss is wrong, please refer to P.1

  9. Although the majority of comments here are worthwhile and highlight a clearly well-established and dangerous culture of bullying in the City, it is worth noting some of the more humorous aspects involved.

    It was extremely hard to stop myself from laughing when a female boss was heard screaming “Do I have to be your mother?” to an unfortunate soul. I had also never heard the word “Stupified” before the same individual screamed it at the top of her voice for no apparent reasons. Classic.

    If you are reading this; be aware that your whole team (what’s left of it) laugh about this behind your back all the time.

    For all those bullies who take their hierarchical advantage all too seriously, those that are bullied will do well to laugh this off. Of course, this will only work up to a point. Then resign.

  10. I was bullied by a couple of traders in Morgan Stanley, London – was helpless initially as i had just joined after MBA and was newly married – with a huge loan to repay i stay put for a year – looking back if i had collected evidence (audio recordings) i’d have had a very good chance to sue the bank – the comments were racist (am asian), lewd (aimed at my wife in a social gathering) and the abuse was personalised – too bad i missed the opportunity to gather evidence

    My 2 cents – be systematic in collecting the evidence – once u have get legal advice – sue the ba$$$$$s – name them and shame them

  11. I was very interested to read the above comment on Lehman’s. I notice that some of the worst bullies there are females(possibly protected by some kind of ‘political correctness’). I am reminded of the words to ‘The Smith’s’ song ‘That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore’:

    ‘Kick them when they fall down
    Kick them when they fall down
    You kick them when they fall down
    Kick them when they fall down
    You kick them when they fall down
    Kick them when they fall down
    You kick them when they fall down
    Kick them when they fall down.’

    Slightly repetitive but sums up the behaviour of some of the female members of staff and which management is probably aware of, but in the interests of ‘diversity’ ignores.

  12. Bullying should be encouraged to keep weak people out.No place for wimps.

  13. farley hill, you can’t even spell your own name properly, never mind to give your advice here! people like you shouldn’t be allowed even close to the City’s gates. it is no place for wimps for sure, but neither it is the place for criminals and that is the point that you have missed here!

  14. There is no much you can do if the bully is a superior. You will be branded as useless with a performance problem and no fit to do the job. The bank will not support the junior person, especially if he is a new employee. The only thing you can do is to get another job as soon as you can. All statements of inclusiveness, value charters etc, don’t really count. Unless of course you are not a typical little guy, and you have other type of gearing… On the positive side, “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.

  15. For junior analysts (IBD) reading this don’t get your hopes up! (sorry but it’s the truth)

    All banks have bullies so even if you jump ship after experiencing bullying you will still not escape the torture. You just have to live with it until you have enough experience to move into a different industry or a shop you know isn’t full of morons (some PE shops, industry, SOME consulting firms – not all)

    Bullying is part of the investment banking game (at least in IBD). It’s the price to play. Although it is wrong and I completely agree with all posters above – but c’est la vie!

  16. I think there is only one good form of revenge for bullying – get a new job with better people, work hard, build a great reputation, take the bullies money and then start trashing their reputation in a subtle but completely effective manner.

    Tackling the problem is a waste of time – you will never win that battle. The one thing that scares a trader is taking his secrets and spreading them around the market. Destroy his edge, and you will destroy him.

    Oh – and be brutal in defending your turf!

  17. Bullying is not unique to the City. It is part of British culture. Bullies are found in factories and offices all over Britain. Such poor man-management is one of several core reasons why most UK firms have badly underperformed globally for the past century or so.

    MBA & CFA Grad Reply
  18. Surely the banking sector has not underperformed. To the contrary they are making bucket loads of money. Would less bullying allow them to make even more profits?

  19. I am soon to start as a junior at a big investment bank, and these comments have me scared!

    I was wondering, in the business environment, what would be the consequences if someone responded to bullying by physical action (I’ve been boxing for a long time…)?

  20. They will definitely stop bullying you after a punch to the face. However, they will also stop your bonus. If they too are great at boxing then you lose the bonus and your face.

    Do not be scared about joining an investment bank. You will learn to live with it and if you do your job well and are very lucky no one will shout at you. The only way to survive this, highly stressful, industry is to be thick skinned. If someone says something just let it slide.

  21. Bravo! So nice to see a lively discussion with so many bright comments, almost each with a different new perspective.

    I had 4 jobs in the City and only 1 came with very nasty bullying when I was already in my early 30s. What concerns me – seriously mean people, who are badly damaged and unpredictable.

    So to all those young lot joining the industry: it is not a necessary evil, just avoid the nutcases, they normally have a reputation and other people tend to warn you in good time. No matter how great you are, nothing will make them happy, sometimes it will make things much worse with this types: as they are seriously inferior, don’t tolerate excellence being deeply envious at heart and hugely insecure. And true, true and true, you can never win, just leave.

    All communication happens on the subconscious level, in my career this was the only time when I didn’t think that my boss was clever, accomplished or respectable, he was a lizard. Undoubtedly he could sense somehow that I felt superior to him and treated me accordingly.

    One other temperamental boss I had would do it once in a while, but then he would compensate it in many ways + he was great at his job, so no hard feeling

  22. There should be much stronger legal case against unprofessional behavior, that is the only way. I am sure we are moving in that direction. For the moment it is still a very wild jungle out there, so even if you have evidence, it is not worse the trouble or money in the long run.

  23. We should ask ourselves the following question: What for all this effort and pain? Money? Let’s be serious… money alone cannot justify it! I used play chess professionally some years ago and this is my 2 pence worth piece of advice: when the game of chess finishes, all the pieces return back to the SAME box. Considering this, maybe some of us should put our talent down the entrepreneur road or choose different battlefields more carefully. I would suggest to abandon the bullies and the companies that allow their behaviour to rot together their miseries.

    the winner and the sinner Reply
  24. I agree with “the winner and the sinner”. After many many late nights working for stooges at CS IBD, I realised that they were silly talentless risk averse old men who were too afraid to take a risk in life and test themselves – what is IBD? selling advice and services. managing processes. no capital at risk. hardly rocket science.

    they hire the best and brighest, get you young and full of energy, and hope that they can exploit you enought whilst you are trying to work out the new environment you have stepped into – best using your youthful energy whilst you have it on new endeavours – start a business; work for a private investor; take some chances in life.

    When I heard one senior woman (recently divorced) describe IBD as “wasting the best years of your youth”, that put it into perspective for me. I am running my own investment fund, still work hard, but I keep the upside and dont have to deal with insecure jerks with social disorders. Don’t let your own naivete and ignorance perpetuate the abuse – if you go in with open eyes and know the score, fine – its a free country. But dont let yourself be used, abused and discarded like so many others – inform yourself, then make choices.

    Life is for the Living Reply
  25. After 7 years with a Big 4 Bank, I was ranked 5th out of 2,300 in my field. As one of the organisations top performers I didnt stand for stupidity.

    One year my bonuses were witheld whereas my white counterparts were given more favourable treatment. I instigated the grievance process after informal attempts for concilication failed. During the next 12 months I was invesitgated, bullied and harassed then suspended on trumped up charges.

    The Grievance process lasted 16 months and was an utter whitewash. I applied for Employment Tribunal. En route to Tribunal, I was eventually reinstated with all charges dropped.

    The Tribunal was a farce. The Bank made it as messy as possible with my witnesses being bullied and threatened with their jobs. Other witnesses pulled out after being being victimised. Evidence was destroyed, withheld and in some instances fabricated.

    My case was proved beyond any doubt but the Tribunal unsurprisingly and in a show of complete obedience to the hidden hand found in favour of the Bank. Not a single issue was upheld. This continued through the Appeals Tribunal and to the Court of Appeal.

    Better to fight and lose then to not fight but it has a cost.

    Bent but not broken Reply
  26. There is no way to ‘fight back’ if the bully is your boss. After leaving a couple of jobs in the past because I refused to put up with bullying, I experienced the worst ever case – and didn’t see it coming until it was too late. How naive can one be after 25 years in the City ?

    In short I was accused of under performance and when I tried to defend myself I was threatened and fired. I decided to stand up for myself and although I got a pay off, it was not enough to compensate for not being able to get back into a decent job subsequently.

    You are right – the City is a small place and not all of us can afford to retire at 45 ! I wish I had realised what a mess I was making of my life when I let myself in for this career ! This site is a breath of fresh air as I realise it is not only me who has experienced this.

    Can anyone suggest what to do next ?

    And please let’s not see lots of comments of the ‘only losers don’t survive’ type – sometimes it is simply not possible to defend yourself – this is what power is all about and if you need to earn a living you will always be vulnerable.

  27. Unfortunately people seeking solutions through HR will stand a good chance of exacerbating their problem as HR have a habit of targetting the bullying target and not the bully.

    Well known fact. Ask anyone who has tried it.

The comment is under moderation. It will appear shortly.


Screen Name


Consult our community guidelines here