IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Intern's death fuels controversy over working conditions

Every year, a new crop of ambitious business students fights to land coveted spots in the world’s top investment banks, hoping to launch their careers by

Every year, a new crop of ambitious business students fights to land coveted spots in the world’s top investment banks, hoping to launch their careers by earning big bucks, making high profile connections, and adding impressive work experience to their résumés. What they often find are painfully long work days, filled with menial labor and unforgiving superiors.

It’s the nature of the business. But is the grueling culture of investment banking downright dangerous?

The case of Moritz Erhardt has some critics saying yes.

21-year-old Erhardt was an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, working in the investment banking division, when he was found dead in the shower two weeks ago. Erhardt was a University of Michigan exchange student from Germany, who colleagues say had worked all night for three nights in a row before he died.

The cause of death is still unclear, but reports indicated that he may have had a seizure resulting from epilepsy. Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced it would be launching a review of the work culture, “with a particular focus on the junior population,” said a spokesman to The Guardian.

"We are deeply shocked and saddened by the news of Moritz Erhardt's death," the company said in a statement Friday. "Moritz Erhardt was popular amongst his peers and was a highly diligent intern at our company with a bright future."

While some say Erhardt’s death illustrates the need for change in the banking environment, industry insiders say it’s not a reflection of how interns are treated throughout the financial sector.

“Although a lot of investment banks in Britain and America do expect their interns and entry-level hires to work long, torturous hours, it’s not the case throughout the industry,” said Felix Mitchell, co-founder and director of the intern recruitment agency Instant Impact, on NewsNation Tuesday. “Most financial services--companies in the UK and British business more broadly--treat their interns very well.”

However, he said, some investment banks are “ignoring a moral, and probably legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of their young workers, just as they would any employee of the company.”

Mitchell said that while the immediate urge may be to paint the entire financial industry as exceptionally cruel, there are a number of others that treat their interns worse.

“It’s the hardest and most difficult job market that we’ve seen for decades,” he said. “If you look in creative industries, for example, you get widespread, unpaid internships, where young people are expected to work for months, if not years, unpaid.”

The legality of such internships is currently under fire, with a growing number of young people demanding pay for their work. (Erhardt was a paid intern.) Earlier this summer, a judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal and New York state minimum wage laws by not paying production interns. Now the advocacy group, Fair Pay Campaign, is pushing the White House to pay its interns.

In order to address the issues plaguing investment banking interns in particular, said Mitchell, companies need to start enforcing their health policies and regulations already on the books, not dramatically alter them.