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Kate Shiber wondered why there was so much hurry-up-and-wait in investment banking. “I would really appreciate if we could strategise how we/I can be more efficient earlier in the day,” she wrote in an August 2020 email to a more senior banker on the “Project Dragon” deal team to which she had just been assigned.
A few weeks earlier, Shiber had joined Centerview Partners, the elite boutique M&A investment bank, as a 21-year-old, first-year analyst. The Dartmouth graduate said she had worked past midnight on the previous day but had signed off before confirming with her colleagues that her assignments were complete. She was contrite the next morning but also concerned that staying up perhaps all night would exacerbate her mood and anxiety disorders.
That day she told the firm’s human resources department about her medical condition and a therapeutic need to get eight to nine hours of sleep a night, later confirmed by a nurse’s note. Centerview immediately expressed compassion for her and implemented what it referred to as “guardrails”, a daily nine-hour window starting at midnight where she was excused from her work duties.
Less than three weeks later in September 2020, Shiber was summoned to a video meeting where two Centerview administrators fired her, tersely informing her the firm could no longer accommodate her sleep requirement. She has subsequently sued Centerview, accusing the firm of violating federal and state anti-discrimination laws that she believes apply to her based on her mental illness diagnoses. She is requesting $5mn in damages.
Centerview said it was within its rights to terminate Shiber, claiming that she simply could not meet a basic requirement of a demanding job while the firm also said it worried about the health consequences if she stayed. Wall Street workplaces have been pushed into becoming more humane environments in ways that would be unrecognisable to previous generations. But the commercial imperatives of the industry remain as fierce as ever. This continuing tension collided at Centerview in the summer three years ago and is now for the justice system to reconcile.
Centerview has a reputation as a relatively pleasant place for junior investment bankers as the Financial Times has previously reported. Many of its tenured bankers had been junior analysts themselves at the firm, helping mitigate unnecessary bottlenecks in producing pitch books and board presentations.
Centerview also has a reputation for finding itself in the middle of blockbuster deals. Shiber’s Project Dragon involved a client with a $100bn valuation facing an activist investor and an unsolicited bid. After Shiber asked about compressing the workload, a senior analyst explained in an email reply that the “worst” part of investment banking was that “you can’t ‘get ahead’ of things . . . late nights are part of the job, especially on a live deal like this.” Another Project Dragon analyst in an email to a senior colleague observed that Shiber’s broader development was at risk from her unavailability. “Since she has to jump in and out of workstreams, and this will keep moving so fast, I think it will get increasingly confusing for her as [others] keep building things out without her.”
Shiber told Centerview she could work 105 hours a week, 15 hours a day, seven days a week and that she clocked such hours during her short stint at Centerview. In a deposition, she explained what compromise arrangement Centerview might offer her. “I . . . could have been assigned live deals which didn’t require or have this expectation of staying up all night”, adding that the firm separately could also have “guaranteed” a subsequent full night of sleep when she did work into the small hours.
Centerview has asked a federal judge to render a summary judgment ruling that the termination was within its rights. If Shiber can get to the trial phase, her key argument will be that Centerview never put her on notice that her job was in jeopardy after freely providing an accommodation that acknowledged her condition. Shiber testified that she now is a financial analyst at Google in California where her day wraps up between 5pm and 8pm.
Centerview admitted that its recruiting outreach never explicitly advertised that junior analysts at times work through the night but that Shiber should have been aware of what the firm believes is a widely understood industry norm of a gruelling schedule.
Shiber’s lawyer asked a Centerview executive in a deposition if Centerview could still expect thousands of applications if it decided to explicitly warn students about the long hours and got an answer he perhaps was not expecting.
“Yes, I do . . . Because there are a lot of very ambitious, good, smart people who want to work in investment banking . . . Yes, you work very hard, and, yes, it is a challenging environment . . . and a lot of deadlines, and a lot of clients, and it’s unpredictable, but, yes, they want to learn . . . it’s a very strong learning environment.”