“I hesitated before joining HSBC in Hong Kong. It’s just too nice and too soft”

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On the face of it, I’ve had a textbook start to my investment banking career: finance degree from major US university completed; internships in the bag; job offer from global bank accepted; traineeship kicked off a few months ago.

But my path to my current job, as a first-year analyst in the global banking and markets team at HSBC in Hong Kong, hasn’t been entirely straightforward.

I loved (no exaggeration) my internship at HSBC – the work, the people, the firm – but I still hesitated (a lot) before accepting the bank’s offer of full-time work. And it was precisely because I enjoyed the internship so much that I wasn’t sure I wanted a job at HSBC. Let me explain...

Even as an intern, it soon became clear to me that the culture at HSBC is nicer, softer and less pushy than at most other investment banks in Hong Kong, especially the US ones.

Most HSBC summer interns in my 2016 cohort finished before midnight, even on busy days. I was part of a WeChat group for interns across banks in Hong Kong that year, so I know for a fact that my counterparts at J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley, for example, weren’t clocking off until 2am or 3am. The working hours are generally better at HSBC across all levels, not just for interns.

Here’s an example of what I mean by HSBC being ‘nice’. Unusually, one of my fellow interns once worked until 6am and sent an email to the team shortly before he logged off. When he came back to the office a few hours later, concerned colleagues (who’d seen the time on his email) asked why he’d worked so late, a senior manager bought him a coffee, and the team head called him aside and said that he must tell him if he ever felt overwhelmed by work again.

I don’t think you’d get such a sympathetic response at a lot of other banks, especially for a guy who was only an intern. As an intern myself, I found the senior managers were very approachable; it was clear that HSBC’s investment bank had a comparatively non-hierarchical culture.

But all the niceness I experienced as an intern was a double-edged sword for me when I had to decide whether to accept a permanent job offer from the firm.

I was very worried that it could be too much of a culture shock if I ever wanted to join another large investment bank. Could I cut it in the harsher environment of a Goldman Sachs after three or four years at HSBC? Equally, if I were competing with juniors from J.P. Morgan for a private equity job in the future, would I be disadvantaged coming from HSBC? Would I have the same hard-nosed attitude?

I wasn’t alone in having these concerns. Most of my fellow interns really enjoyed their summers at HSBC, but were worried that the bank was too much of a soft touch.

So why did I join as an analyst? It was partly because I already had a return offer from HSBC and if I rejected it, I’d have to apply from scratch to other banks – I might have ended up without a job.

I also concluded that while HSBC still doesn’t have the global brand name of a Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or J.P. Morgan, it is still a reasonable career option here in Asia, where it makes almost all its money. HSBC is not just a big commercial bank in Asia – it’s also one of the dominant players in Asia Pacific DCM, and it’s been building in M&A, having recently worked on the ChemChina takeover of Syngenta, its largest deal in a decade.

Before making up my mind, I spent a lot of time looking at market league tables in Asia for the past five years, and I saw that HSBC had done a lot of meaningful deals. HSBC’s reasonable reputation in IBD and the risk of turning down the offer ultimately outweighed my worries about its softer culture.

I’m now hoping I can get the best of both worlds in my career. I’m certainly working at a bank I admire, and I’m hoping I can compete in the job market when I want to move on.

Abi Gwok (not her real name) is a first-year analyst at HSBC in Hong Kong.

Image credit: kctony01, Getty

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