When one bank's senior associate is another's VP: the confusion of investment banking job titles

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Investment banking job titles

Investment banking job titles are a mess

BNP Paribas is following in the footsteps of SocGen and introducing corporate titles to its investment bank in Europe. Good luck with that. Investment banks' job titles are a nightmare and headhunters who navigate them daily say they've become even more hideous as banks have introduced new tiers into their hierarchies. BNP's attempts to tag its investment bankers with corporate titles could be fraught with disputes as a result.

This is what you need to know if you work in HR at BNP and are tasked with categorizing people. Or if you're a senior associate at one bank and are wondering what you'll become if you move to another one.

The old regime: Analyst, associate, vice president (VP), executive director (ED) and managing director (MD)

This is how things used to be when life was simple and most banks used the same job titles. As we describe here, people would start out as an analyst and progress (with luck), all the way up the hierarchy to managing director - a process that usually takes around 18 years.  You'd typically be an analyst for three years, an associate for three years, a VP for around three years, an executive director for four years or more, and then an MD - if you were lucky.

Not any more.

The new regime: Senior associates 

Things have changed. These days, banks like Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Citi and UBS run shorter analyst programmes which last a mere two years. Sounds good? Typically, there's a catch. As analyst programmes have been shortened, headhunters say associate programmes have been lengthened. Nowadays, it's reportedly not uncommon to come across people who've been associates for four or even five years.

These super-experienced associates - who might have been VPs under the old arrangement, are given special job titles to keep them happy. At J.P. Morgan, there are senior associates in technology roles who've worked for the bank for nearly eight years, and senior associates in front office IBD jobs who've been in their roles for four years. At Barclays, there are "assistant vice presidents", which sound fancy but are the equivalent to associates anywhere else.

But executive directors and VPs are synonymous at Goldman Sachs

The exception to this US banks rule is Goldman Sachs. At Goldman Sachs, executive directors and VPs are pretty much indistinguishable. Greg Smith, the Goldman banker who left and wrote a book, was an executive director.  Smith spent 12 years at Goldman and seemingly got stuck at executive director, having been promised a promotion to MD which didn't materialize. Headhunters say "executive director" is often the same as "senior VP" at Goldman Sachs, and that some mid-ranking Goldman bankers are actually VPs when you see their official job titles.

And there are weird job titles at UBS

The most confusing job titles are to be found at UBS, whose refusal to adhere to industry naming standards is a source of many misunderstandings. At UBS, there are no associates: there are associate directors. And there are no VPs in any form.

UBS's hierarchy goes like this: analyst, associate director, director, executive director (ED) and MD.

An associate director at UBS is an associate at any other bank. And a director at UBS is a VP at any other bank. An ED at UBS could be either a director or an ED at any other bank, depending upon seniority...

Confused yet?

A rule of thumb, or not

The head of one fixed income headhunting boutique said he classifies staff by years of experience: "The easiest way to look at it is that a VP today is going to have anything from six to 12 years' experience, a director will have anything from 10 to 20 years' experience and that an ED will be a senior sort of director with anything from around 13 years' experience or more. There are overlaps at each level."

Jack Spraggs, a corporate finance recruiter at Circle Square Talent in London, said people are getting stuck at every level from associate upwards, however: "There are now top heavy teams with fifth year associates, VPs with seven years' experience and people who've been directors for eight years or more."

Meanwhile at BNP...

It is into this mire that BNP Paribas must wade. Until now, recruiters say the French bank has resisted giving formal job titles to people in its corporate and investment bank in London (although it's applied them to Wall Street). "It's all been a happy world of socialist equality at BNP," says one headhunter.

Another headhunter who works with the French bank says things have been more complicated behind the scenes at BNP: "They don’t have corporate titles, but BNP's HR people assign people complicated internal grades based on their authority and pay. They'd have been better sticking to that than putting themselves through this nightmare."

BNP Paribas was not immediately available for comment.

Photo credit: Coddled/istock

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