Never let it be said that you have to be dull to be an investment banker. Despite endless hours spent in front of spreadsheets and, until recently, a lack of opportunities to kick back at the weekend, investment bankers must be able to share a joke in order to succeed in their career.
However, junior investment bankers must only demonstrate a sense of humour based around a strict code of behaviour, according to a study released last year by Valerie Boussard, a professor of sociology at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. She interviewed 100 advisors and investment bankers over the course of 18 months and found that, generally speaking, a tendency for self-mockery and understanding humour that “sticks to the ethos of the bourgeois” are important for a career in the financial sector.
Moreover, mastering the art of humour is essential to both fitting in and progressing within the organisation, particularly for juniors. “In this highly competitive business environment, where one is constantly evaluated, only those who learn the codes of humour can move up the hierarchy,” wrote Boussard.
In short, you can’t simply act the clown – you need to follow the rules. Here, according to Boussard’s research, are the strict codes of conduct.
“You can laugh in the morning in the kitchen, but not at 11am at your desk,” says Boussard. Generally, the rule is to reserve most of the humour for when the managers are not present – evening and night-time, when managers have dumped work on juniors and gone home, are when it’s most appropriate to roll out the jokes.
Rather obviously, if a junior banker decides to make a joke about their superior, it’s best not to do so in their presence, or near anyone who supports that individual within the bank. However, even self-mockery – at least when it comes to the quality or load of work – is a moot point in front of superiors as junior bankers risk being seen as rebellious. It’s acceptable for managers to mock their inferiors, but it must not be done in anger or with revenge attached to it, suggests the research. Those juniors on the receiving end of the joke, must respond with deference to the appropriate hierarchy.
M&A is painted as a glamour vocation, but the reality of the job – Excel spreadsheets and extreme hours – mean a lot of the jokes are often centred around the workload. Banter on email or telephone between a close knit group of analysts and cliquey humour about keyboard shortcuts are appreciated, suggests the research.
Despite the reliance on clients and being seen to have exemplary customer service, investment bankers are prone to casual mockery of those paying the bills. One example was a chief financial officer of a target company who held a phone meeting while on a train: “Hello confidentiality,” mocked the bankers. It’s also common to make jokes at those who work for more prestigious companies – in France, Goldman Sachs and Rothschild were the butt of a lot of jokes – as well as those in trading roles, who are often making more money than M&A bankers. Similarly, the buy-side is mocked for its lack of humour and tendency to be conservative.
Mocking the quality and accuracy of the data in colleagues’ reports is a practiced art among junior M&A bankers who speak of “magic numbers” and flawed modelling techniques. Similarly, financial advice, particularly those where a potential conflict of interest could occur, is often the subject of in-house gags. Advisors often mocked the concept of an in-house ‘Chinese Wall’ by drawing an invisible wall with their hands.
In other sectors, Boussard noted, authoritarian leaders who crack the whip on their employees and junior staff who demonstrate an overly-conscientious attitude are generally mocked as being overly-zealous. In investment banking, however, the opposite is true. Any who leave early or pretend to work merely to give face time in the office are generally ridiculed. In one example, a meeting was due to take place at 6pm and was sparsely attended. The partner hosting the meeting noted this and someone said that everyone was working. “So, the only ones here are the people who have nothing to do?,” asked the partner to general hilarity.
If you’re a woman working in investment banking, Boussard’s research suggests you need a thick skin. In one example, a team leader produced a thong and asked the one female member of the team, in front of her largely male colleagues, whether it was hers. The best tactic for women, suggests the research, was either to suffer in silence or simply laugh along with the jokes of their male colleagues. Similarly exclusive jokes were aimed at those who came from less prestigious schools. Rather than simply accepting the abuse, those who were the butt of the jokes learned the “humorous attack”, noted Boussard, becoming increasingly scathing and creative with their rebukes.